12th Sunday of the Year–June 19, 1977–CNR
The passage from Galatians we have just heard is often quoted today, not least because it is believed to provide a certain basis for an argument for the ordination of women. Even apart from that context, Paul’s great statement that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female,” is used to ground the Christian Church’s commitment to equality and justice. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that commitment, and there is even some justification for using this text as its ground; but the text grounds the commitment as a Christian commitment only if we keep it in its context, something which is, perhaps, less often done.
Our passage comes as a conclusion to Paul’s central argument in this letter. The argument is a sustained statement that the only basis for our justification–our being set right before God–is the Gospel that announces the forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ and the faith that accepts God’s acceptance despite our unacceptability. No work of ours, no obedience to commandment and regulation, ritual and practice, creed and canon, justifies us before God. Because none of these grounds any claim before God, they do not justify the divisions among people which they imply or cause. Circumcision might distinguish Jew from Gentile, but because that and every other observance had no ultimate value, they could not hide the fact that was inescapable for Paul: that all, both Jew and Greek, had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that they were all one in their alienation from him.
Were that all that could be said, we would be set within a sad unity indeed. But that unity in our sinfulness was something which Paul himself came to know only because of the Gospel of grace. It was the freedom of God’s love in Christ that revealed the trivial nature of our best efforts to justify ourselves and to distinguish ourselves from one another. No one of us and no group of us had any more right than others to such love. It was all freely given, un-earned, and in the experience of such undeserved acceptance must be felt at once and immediately a new unity with all the others who have been welcomed home with us, Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, man and woman. All of them are there with us in Christ, brought from their several conditions and circumstances, lifted out of their alienating self-justifications, and quietly, wonderfully asked to bring nothing but a faith that can accept an acceptance they did not earn and a love they did not prompt.
That is our unity in Christ, that one new person which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is sensed whenever we are honest in our repentance and our faith. It is appreciated when we take the time to think and to be grateful. That it is less often the basis for our lives must surely be because we are so much at home in a world of self-asserting rivalry and ambition. That it become the principle of our living is not only the obvious need of our day in and out of our Church, it is also the only way in which the truth of the Cross can really be shown today, when we learn to love one another as we–each and all–have been loved in Christ.