All in the family
Passage: Presbyterian Heritage Sunday; Galatians 6:1-18
Date: July 08, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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It is nearly impossible for us to conceive of what those early congregations in Galatia must have been like. I was helped by this idea. Think of a traditional village in central India. That world is divided into Hindu, Moslem, Sikh, and Christian; and into castes, from high to untouchable. These distinctions dictate everything: where one lives, where one is educated, what occupations one may have, whom one may marry, what clothes one wears, even with whom one may associate. These powerful separations are learned from birth. Now, imagine people from these groups and stations coming together, struggling to form a new community in which they are told that all of those old ways no longer matter. Former requirements and patterns are irrelevant. Add to that that they are the first ones to do this, and therefore there are no precedents, no examples, no veterans of the process to assist them. How easy it would be to get side-tracked, to want to hang on to some of the old safe boundaries and expectations, even to demand that other new people adopt some of them. Sometimes, we think of Westminster as being diverse. In comparison, hardly.
In a way, this was the complex reality and the critical struggle in those tiny congregations, all of which the apostle Paul sought to address. Unlike the gracious, affectionate tone of his later letter to the church at Philippi, these lines were harsh. He opened almost with a curse. Sentences nearly smoke with his concerned anger. He perceived them being led by others away from the gospel as he had taught it. He told them how stupid they were. Other evangelists had come, preaching that gentile converts needed to obey part of the old Jewish law in order to become faithful Christians. Paul shouted his understanding: We become Christ's followers only by God's free grace. We do not have to meet any conditions in order for God to love us.
Then, near the end of the letter, he moved to practical concerns: how they were to live together as the community of Christ. When he spoke of living "according to the flesh," it was not about sex, but about living apart from God. When he referred to living "in the Spirit," he meant living in relationship with God. Today's reading is the concluding chapter: more instructions and then, in his own handwriting rather than his secretary's, a summary of the major points of the letter all over again. Unlike his other letters, this does not close with greetings or personal remarks. For Paul, this was very serious. Listen. Listen for what the Spirit is saying to God's people. (Gal 6:1-18) This is the gospel of our Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, that is what we have named this second Sunday of July. 115 years ago next October, this congregation was chartered by Christians with a Presbyterian flavor, committed to that form of Christian witness in this growing community. How times have changed. Today, we live in a era where denominations matter less and less, not only to members, but to clergy as well. Most people who affiliate with a congregation do so because it meets their personal spiritual needs in some way, and the denomination is not much of a factor in that decision. Today, marketing experts advise congregations to drop their denominational label if they want to attract new members-become a "Community Church." And here we are, celebrating our Presbyterian/Reformed heritage? Well, yes. Yes, because our roots give a particular depth and perspective to our faith understanding. Yes, because our rich history shapes how we go about being community together in the world. And yes, because I believe that even in the unchurched northwest, there are many who seek lively contemporary faith that is more than a response to our culture's latest spiritual fad or quest. As Christians with a Presbyterian flavor, we are so gifted, so enriched by those who have come before us in faith. For that I am truly thankful. So, this day I want to reflect with you on a few of the many hallmarks which make us who we are as Presbyterian Christians. None is exclusive to us. Yet together, they help define how we go about being followers of Christ Jesus.
Presbyterian/Reform Christians are Protestants who trace our history, our theological heritage primarily to the Swiss Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries, to people like Zwingli, Calvin and Bullinger, among others. Part of our identity comes from our emphasis on both thinking and feeling faith. That is, for us, from John Calvin, Christian faith is a combination of reason and emotion. From time to time, the pendulum has swung toward one more than the other. Early in our nation's history, believe it or not, Presbyterian preachers out-revivaled Billy Graham. Yet, it is also no accident that our history is peopled with monumental theologians and biblical scholars. John Calvin started it all, when he wrote his systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin believed that Christians themselves were responsible before God for how they lived their faith. No priest in between. In order to do that, they needed to be able to read the Bible. Simultaneous with the Reformation was the invention of the movable type printing press. So, our ancestors in faith started schools and universities so that ordinary church members could read scripture for themselves-for the first time ever. Imagine how revolutionary that was. We are people of the book, the Bible. We often differ about how we understand parts of it, but that drives us back into it, seeking God's guidance for how to live together.
How to live together. That was the issue in Galatia. Only, they did not have scripture to wrestle with. Instead, they had visiting preachers, and occasional letters from people like Paul. Remember their immense diversity. So, Paul instructed them-what do they do when someone transgresses, essentially, starts living according to the flesh. Notice, community discipline was always for redemption: "You who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness." As we understand our faith in Christ, we are responsible before God to and for each other. As Presbyterian/Reformed Christians, we believe that Christian faith is both individual and corporate. At our best, we do not come here just for our own edification, to fill our own buckets to get through another week. Worship is not only about God and me; nor is communion. Look at the early hymns and prayers we use today. Calvin's prayer begins "Our God," not "my God." After a time for personal confession, John Bunyan's prayer uses "we." Singing Ps. 121 and 23 from the Scottish Psalter are in the singular. And the concluding hymn returns to the plural, "Our God, our help in ages past." These are purely intentional, and can be traced through our history. In the best sense, yes, we each have our own relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and yes, an individual Christian is a contradiction in terms. God knows, we need each other, even though at times that becomes very difficult. This understanding was basic for Paul.
Another mark: from a biblical/theological perspective, Christians of Presbyterian persuasion are realistic, if not a bit pessimistic, about the human condition. We acknowledge the value of education, but also know that even highly educated and well-meaning people and groups do dastardly deeds. Our best efforts are not pure. So, from Calvin to contemporary feminists, confession has been present. In the presence of God Almighty, we reflect on our own situations, and we sense our own individual and corporate ambiguity. We are driven to our knees, confessing the puzzlement of the human condition and our part in it. And it is there that we are reminded of the wondrous good news: We are given new life in Christ as a gift, and not because of anything we do or deserve. It is by grace alone that we can live in right relationship with God. Surely, that was what Paul sought to hammer home, again and again in this letter. No adherence to any part of the Jewish law, including the central identification through circumcision, nothing was required by God in Christ Jesus. We are free in Christ, no longer slaves. Paul says, "The new creation is everything." All that we are and are becoming is God's work in us, thank God.
Now, having said that, Paul also seems to turn the tables: "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow...if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right...let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the household of faith."
Just when we thought we were free, from Paul to our Reformation ancestors to contemporary Reformed theologians, we are reminded that we are free, yes, but only free to live into God's love. We are freed from the laws in order to embody Christ's law, "Love one another as I have loved you." It has been said that people in our tradition pray as if everything depends on God, and live as if everything depends on us. Perhaps an apt observation. At the end, we will be asked about the integrity of our lives in Christ, how our faith has expressed itself. That's what Paul says. Far more than warm feelings inside or an occasional spiritual lift, we must keep on being obedient in love and being faithful in the service of all, within the church and without, and so verify our high calling in Christ.
Faith that is both thinking and deeply feeling, individual and corporate, realistic about the human condition and our part in it, freed in God's amazing grace, empowered to live redemptively-Friends, I believe we live at a critical point when Christians of the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition are desperately needed by God in our world. I do not know if there has ever been a more important or exciting time for us to claim and to live out who we are, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Let us do so,"and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen."