I’m a rule lover. I like rules. When done right rules make sense and they keep order. If a person holding the ball tags the base before the runner gets there, the runner is out. See, simple and it makes sense. You cannot touch the ball with your hands during play unless you are doing a throw in or you are the goalie. Once again, makes sense and brings order to the game of soccer. The World Cup would fall apart without this rule. If something is dropped it will fall to the ground. We call this law gravity. It is what holds us here on earth. There are these black and white signs that tell us what to do too and if we don’t follow those rules or laws we get in trouble. The one on I85 says 70 on it. The one right in front of the church says 35 on it. Some of these signs are followed others think they are merely suggestions.
Rules are set up to keep order. Without them things would slip into chaos. Yet something in our human nature speaks to us and we desire to break these rules too. I mean who really goes 70 on 85. We would rather go 85 on 85. You can tell people don’t follow this rule because at the sight of a patrol car everyone taps their breaks. Even if you are going the speed limit everyone taps their breaks. That is because for a split second you remember this is a rule you usually don’t follow and to be rather safe than sorry you tap your brakes. Law enforcement knows this and that is why we see those random highway patrol cars out there with no one in it. Just the idea of getting caught not following the rules makes us slow down.
We as humans also make up rules to protect ourselves. God told Adam "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." Then God created Eve and when Eve was asked by the serpent about this rule she tells it, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” Did you hear the difference? At some point between Adam telling Eve the rule and Eve telling the serpent the rule, something was added. The first humans added the part about not even touching the fruit. God didn’t say they couldn’t touch it, just that you couldn’t eat it. But to make things safer Adam and Eve decided that not touching it would be the best way live with this rule. We don’t do that in the modern world do we?
Today we are reading someone else’s mail. Paul had sent a letter to the Galatians to help with some issues that were arising in that part of the world. The Galatian churches were probably located in Asia Minor, or what we call the country of Turkey today. Paul had preached there and things went well. Then after Paul left some other missionaries came up there and start to stir the pot. The Galatians use to worship pagan gods. The missionaries were telling them that to make the transition from pagan gods to Jesus Christ they had to become Jewish first. They were telling them that they had to be circumcised and it looks like follow the entire Jewish law. Now if you want to know what the entire Jewish law is, simply read the first five books of the Bible and that will fill you in.
There were lots of laws and laws about the laws. Some of them sound very weird to us, but you have to remember these were laws for an ancient nation of people. Many of them were simple survival techniques. Not eating certain types of animals or shellfish gave them the ability to survive as a people. But there are some crazy ones out there like in Leviticus 19:19 which says, “nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” Does this mean that God is against a nice cotton/poly blend? But we humans are known for some funny laws as well. Did you know in North Carolina it is against the law to use an elephant to plow a cotton field. Tobacco fields are okay but not for cotton.
During these debates in the Galatian Churches Paul writes to them to ease their minds and correct their theology. Galatians 3:28 is the high point of the letter. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul is informing the Galatians that because of Christ, we are no longer held under the law. Now before you get carried away and dart down Liberty drive at 70 miles an hour yelling, Jesus said I can speed, let’s get some things strait.
The Law, God’s Law, the Law found in the Torah or the first five books of the Bible, was there to justify people to God. It was there to teach a nation how to be God’s nation for the world, a beacon of light we could look at as an example and follow. The law told people how to treat one another and how to order our lives. We should worship God, and only God. We should listen to our parents and not lie, murder, steal, cheat or wish we had our neighbor’s stuff. These are great things a nation should do. But Jesus Christ has come and set us free from that. Now we are justified in faith instead of the law.
Let me unpack that a little. To be justified means to be made right. In this case we are talking about being made right before God. When we seek justice we are hoping to get something in return for someone doing something bad for us. Right now small business are seeking justice from BP while they attempt to start this massive leak in the Gulf. God is seeking justice for what we do against him. We call this sin. Because we are sinful creatures we cannot be close to a sinless God without being made right, or justified. The law was set up to help people not sin and the sacrifices they made each year at the temple enabled them to be justified in God’s eyes. But Paul I saying here that it no longer applies to us because of Jesus Christ. Christ came, died our death, and rose again. Because of this our sins are erased and it is only because of Jesus that we can be in the presence of God once again. We are justified now through our faith in Jesus, not a law that we follow. Jesus was the sacrifice that makes up for everything that we do which goes against God’s nature, all of our sins.
What these other missionaries were trying to do in the Galatian Churches were make the people Jewish before they could become Christian and Paul tells them this is not the case. Instead what they were doing was forcing the law upon them and pushing them away. That what too many laws and rules do, they handcuff people down and restrict instead of free. The Law was initially set up to train Israel to be ready for the Messiah but when the Messiah showed up eh found the law was being used to restrict people’s access to God’s grace. So he yelled at the religious leaders, healed people on the Sabbath and shuck the foundation of the what it meant to believe in God.
Today we do the same thing as those who imposed the law during Jesus’ time. We tell people what they are to do and what they cannot do. We limit people’s interaction with God because we think we have some sort of say. Only a generation ago we, as United Methodists, limited who could be behind the pulpit. It took us hundreds of years to remember Paul says in Christ there is neither male nor female. A generation or two before that, we wrestled, and at some level still do today, with the fact that Paul reminds us there is neither slave nor free.
Jesus makes it impossible to follow the law and points this out constantly. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us that if “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” As I am looking around I can tell we all have our eyes, so Jesus must have been kidding right? A rich young ruler comes up and confesses to Jesus that he follows the law but asks what else he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. The man simply walks away from Jesus with his head down. Jesus knows that deep down it is impossible for us to follow the law to the tee. We are humans and we are going to fail. This is the reason he came, so that we won’t be pushed away but welcomed into the fold.
We forget this as churches though. We forget that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When we look around our world we don’t see everyone clothed in Christ. We don’t see God’s children. What we see are the differences instead. He is black. She doesn’t speak English. He is gay. She is liar. He is too rich. She is a Yankee. He is a Democrat. She is a Republican. We place labels on people which keeps them at arm’s reach and at a safe distance away from us.
What I love about the United Methodist Church is the fact that we are moderate in our theology. We hold down the middle of the road. If you go down the street to another United Methodist Church that minister may have more conservative theology and down the road some more that congregation may be more liberal. To be United Methodist doesn’t mean that you have to believe something specific. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything we as a denomination believe. Holding down the middle of the road means it is hard to fall into the fringe and the extremes. It means we have to have conversations on what things mean and hear both sides of the argument. We have to move forward in our love for one another by listening and learning. I think the United Methodist Church is one of the best places to remember to see that we are all one in Christ Jesus.
The word belonging has a couple of meanings. We have belongings, which mean that this word means someone’s possessions. Belonging also means acceptance. Belonging means you are welcomed for who you are. As Christians through faith we belong to Christ. We are excepted for who we are, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white, brown or yellow, English speaking or Spanish speaking, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, American, Asian, European, African, or Middle Eastern. We all belong to God. We need to live in a way that makes this known to the world. We have to live this out by seeing people as clothed in Christ. When we do this race, class, sexual orientation, and gender all dissolve and all you have left is a Child of God.
And all God’s children said…Amen.