Another sermon...I will get back to regular posts one day.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Recently, the young son of a friend of mine was diagnosed as being “on the autism spectrum.” She was aware of his developmental delays and even expected them, as her little boy was a very early preemie and spent the first four months of his life in a neonatal ICU. Over the few years of their son’s life, she and her husband have read and researched, asked questions and studied the answers, met with caseworkers and doctors and therapists and all manner of experts. It’s not too much to expect that at this point they would have some answers…that finally having a diagnosis would answer their questions and help them make a plan to help their bright, inquisitive and loving little boy grow into a strong, capable man.
But having a label… “on the autism spectrum”…doesn’t really answer the questions. It doesn’t automatically lead to a plan. In fact, it has left them with more questions than answers. And at least one of those questions is, “how could God let this happen to this child?”
We’ve all asked that kind of question: Why me? Why my loved one? Why now? Where is God when these things happen? How can I keep my faith in the midst of my struggles? Why hurricanes and tornadoes and mudslides? Why war and murder and all kinds of violence?
These are some of the really big questions of life and faith. Another is how could God love me? Can I really belong to God? What does it mean to be children of God?
The question of belonging is a major theme in all of Scripture. Why did Adam and Eve belong in the Garden of Eden before they ate the apple, but not after? The Hebrew slaves who escaped from Pharoah with Moses’ help spent their wandering years developing a sense of belonging, one that led to the development of the nation of Israel. Later, the Israelites asked for a king, someone they could see and identify as the one to whom they belonged. In exile, the conquered people of the broken Israelite nation wondered if they could still call themselves Israelites and followers of God when they lived in foreign countries, surrounded by foreign gods.
In the New Testament, belonging remains a major issue for people of faith. The Pharisees believed that you could be sure you belonged to God if you identified all the rules, and broke none of them. Some early Christians believed that you had to belong to the Jewish faith—Eric talked about that recently, the debate over the circumcision—in order to be considered a Christian. Paul is yet again addressing this concern in his letter to the church in Galatia, saying that it is through faith in Christ that one becomes a child of God, and not through ritual observances and arcane laws.
In our time, we are still asking the same question, the biggest question: how do we know we belong to God? How do we know that we are children of God, heirs with Christ? Where is the proof? And this question exposes one of the biggest dangers in how we think about God: the need to have tangible proof to show others that we belong. A sense of belonging is our deepest need as human people: to belong to a family, friends, groups like the Masons or the Garden Club…to be a part of something outside ourselves, and to have a sense that we are important to others, not just ourselves.
Over the years, we have come up with ways to help people feel like they belong: many of us have a “membership card” for one organization or another. I have my AAA card, so I know I belong to a group that will help me if I get locked out of my truck or have car trouble. I have my Blue Cross/Blue Shield card that tells me that I belong to a network of people who will help me if I get sick or hurt. I even have a card from Food Lion that promises me special “members only” discounts. I get emails, too, from some of the places and people I belong to: the alumni association from William and Mary is desperate for me to come to this year’s Homecoming and the service fraternity I belonged to wants to help keep me connected to brothers and sisters in the area.
I belong to lots of things, from my family to my friends, to this church (even though I can’t be an official “on the books” member), to the annual conference, to alumni associations from two universities and to a doctoral program at a third. I am a “Very Important Customer” to Harris Teeter, I have borrowing privileges at the local library, and this little red card tells me that CVS cares about me too. I’m a member of the Knit and Pray group, although I can’t be there very often, and of the staff here at Ann Street United Methodist Church. And there are broader memberships: to the United Methodist Church as a whole, not just the North Carolina Conference contingent. And beyond that to the Church Universal…I have certificates and cards and little things hanging on my keychain as “proof” for most of these memberships. They can be researched, looked up and verified. Generally, as human beings, we find that somewhat comforting: we know we belong, and we can prove it to others.
And there again is the tension Paul addressed so many times in his letters, and particularly for us today in Galatians. Once, people of faith had the law to follow: it told them how to behave, what the consequences were for bad behavior, and how to get back in good standing with the community. It was a set of rules for how to live together in relative harmony, and so there were important rules about reparations and consequences for both accidents and intentional harm to another. But there were other rules about living together: a person who had skin disease had it examined by a priest so that they could avoid spreading leprosy and other contagions. A moldy cloth or piece of leather had to be appropriately cleaned and examined by a priest so that toxic mold wouldn’t spread within the community. There was much to value in the law, but normal people looking for a sense that their belonging to the people of God could be verified made the law into something else.
It’s so much easier to sense that we belong to something when we can have something that verifies that we are a member in good standing. My library card is proof that I’m a member, but we’d have to go to the library to verify whether I am a member in good standing. I confess—I’m not; I owe some late fines. Monday, when they reopen, I’ll be out of excuses for not paying them. For some groups it’s that simple; for others, there are complex steps we take to advance in the organization, and our “promotion” in the ranks becomes proof of our good standing. Regardless, it helps us to have a rule book, a member handbook, a set of guidelines to tell us how to stay in good standing, and to avoid any chance of making any error, whether deliberate or accidental, that could take us out of the good graces of our clubs, organizations, and charitable groups.
This family of God we share together might be easier to live with if we had that kind of rule book or member handbook. As Methodists, we have our rule book called the Discipline—but we don’t insist that those who don’t follow the rules exactly have lost the favor of God. Our Discipline is like the disciplinarian in today’s reading: it keeps us inside the community of faith and reflects more than two hundred years of Methodist prayer, practice and experience, plus that of the other churches who have joined us. Like the law in Paul’s time, it sets some boundaries for us…but it is not a simple rule book, giving us the precise steps to a relationship with God. Neither is the Bible. The living Word of God comes to us through the written scriptures, but also through our experiences of the Holy Spirit guiding us. God’s word is not so much prescriptive—laying out our every thought, word, and deed—as it is descriptive of abundant life, gracious love, and a God who wants to belong to us as we belong to him.
The prescriptive way of looking at belonging in the Kingdom of God is called legalism, and it is both seductive and destructive. The appeal of legalism is that the expectations are made very clear, and there is very little tolerance for error or deviation from the straight and narrow. Legalism tells us that the path to knowing God is narrow, the pitfalls many, and that only with diligence and constant vigilance will a favored few attain the prize.
God’s alternative, restorative counter to the restrictions of legalism is to offer the grace of Jesus Christ. Grace breaks down boundaries and barriers, and tells us that on life’s journey, there are detours, do-overs, and boundless love to welcome into God’s arms. In answer to that critical question, “who belongs?” legalism wants to determine who cannot belong. Grace says that everyone belongs. In answer to the question, “how could God love me?” the law says, “there is nothing you can do to make God love you.” Grace answers, “there is nothing you could do to make God stop loving you.”
And here is the crux of the matter, Paul’s answer to the questions of who God loves and who belongs to God: Everyone.
God’s love does not depend on us—it is just our own awareness of God that depends on us. And so Paul can say, in honesty, in hope, in contradiction of the cultures around him, with grace, you are clothed with Christ. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male nor female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.” We all belong. The labels we use to divide us mean nothing to God.
Thanks be to God.