Did Paul Really Mean It?

Galatians 3:23-29                                                       June 19, 2022

In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Did Paul really mean the church should be radically equal?

Imagine being in the Galatian church, around 50 AD, when Paul’s letter arrives. If it had been an email, the single-spaced document would be about eleven pages long, much longer than my three-page sermons. Did they take an hour in church to read out loud this lengthy message from their beloved founding pastor? It’s long enough to be the State of the Union Address. Parts of the letter are dense theological reasonings about the law and why Gentiles should be accepted equally into the church, and then there are a few big applause lines, like 5:27 on the fruits of the Spirit being love, joy, peace, etc.

The best line is Galatians 3:28. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.” That phrase would have brought considerable cheers to mostly Hellenized Celtic Gentiles in Galatia. It may have been a standard line in Paul’s preaching. Some scholars think Galatians 3:28 was part of an ancient Christian hymn or baptismal formula. Were they surprised that Paul also said, “Slave nor free, male and female?”

Paul’s view of what the church can be is astonishing, given the hierarchies of the Greco-Roman world. No institution promoted this kind of equality. Even the early church wondered if Paul really meant it. Did the early church believe that oneness in Christ meant equality outside of its worship services, in real life, in marriages, workplaces, and between people of different ethnicities?   Or did Paul mean that we are all equal spiritually within the Christian community, that God loves us all equally, but that doesn’t mean the Gospel is social or political? Love one another, but don’t get out of hand by freeing slaves and challenging gender roles. That would be chaotic and controversial, bringing us to the Colossians’ letter. Starting in Colossians 3:18, we read:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as is fitting to the Lord.  V. 22 “Slaves obey your masters in everything, not only while being watched and to please them but wholeheartedly, fearing in the Lord.”

Colossians seems to be saying we may be spiritual equals in church and love one another, but that doesn’t mean any change to the existing orders of society. Be content if you are in a subordinate position. And don’t forget that God loves you for who you are anyway. What do we do with this letter? Most scholars believe it was written in Paul’s name a generation later by a disciple. They point to differences in writing style, theology, and church issues that were of a later date. The recent consensus is the more chauvinistic-sounding writings were not really Paul, but he got a bad rap from his imitators.

Let’s think about why Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. The Jew and Greek challenges were enormous for the first generation of Jesus’s followers. It led to the first theological council in chapter 15 of the book of Acts of the Apostles. Paul completed two significant missionary journeys and gathered several small communities of mostly Greek Gentile believers stretching through Syria, Turkey, and Greece. At first, everyone was excited. Look how our message about Christ is spreading to all nations, from little old Palestine; Dogpatch USA as far as the Romans are concerned. But are they believing correctly?! Are they being taught to keep kosher? Are they using Welch’s grape juice at communion and carefully cutting the bread into perfect white squares, singing from the correct hymnal?

Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem to talk with the leaders and tell their stories of Gentile converts. When I read Acts 15 on Wednesday, I was surprised that a group of Pharisee believers was present. Paul wasn’t the only Pharisee persuaded by Jesus’s message. They make this case: “It is necessary for (gentiles) to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5). Everyone is welcome here if you have had the appropriate surgery! After some debate, James, the head of the Jerusalem church, makes a motion for compromise. Gentile Christians don’t’ have to follow all the laws of Moses, but three are essential. Stay away from things polluted by idols. No fornication. And don’t eat animals killed by strangling. Interesting choices.

James then cites a scripture reference from the prophet Amos, which says that all the Gentiles will seek the Lord. (Amos 9:11). He sees Paul and Silas as fulfilling prophecy by reaching Gentiles. Let’s get circumcision out of our strategic plan and move forward. So, Paul’s letter to the Galatians (which is to several churches, so it’s more like a bishop’s letter) is written near this moment of the Jerusalem Council.   Paul is bolstering that Gentiles are equal in the church, accepted by baptism, not circumcision. We are back at the applause line, “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek….” But what did they think about the addition of slave nor free, male and female? Does this oneness in Christ challenge all our human hierarchies and status?

There is a morning prayer in ancient Judaism known as The Three Blessings, which says, “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a Gentile, who has not made me a slave, who has not made me a woman.” Orthodox Jewish men still pray this every morning. It is not a prayer from scripture but likely adopted from the Greco-Roman society, as Socrates said, “thank God I am a human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian.” These are the hierarchies of antiquity, ethnicity, gender, and free status. Galatians 3:28 is not just one idea of many in Paul’s 11-page letter. It sounds like the core of Paul’s message is challenging Christian community to be different than the established norms and hierarchies of both Jew and Gentile society. He contradicts in one sentence, word for word, the morning prayer of devout Jews and Socrates.

Paul did not immediately jump to a plan to free the slaves, give women the vote, or do other social reforms. In part, his life work was bringing the Gentiles into the fold of Jesus’s believers. But if Christ brings true equality with God, then Paul recognizes it must have broader implications.

What do we do with Colossians, which urge obedience of wives and slaves? Do we just ignore it? The honest thing to do is to admit that some things are contradictory in the Bible. The early church didn’t agree on many issues, and these disagreements often made it into the Bible. That should not be shocking. We have two completely different accounts of creation written by two authors in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and 3. The Bible has different points of view preserved in the text, including the four Gospels. These differences can’t always be harmonized. You either believe all are one, slave or free, male or female, or you think wives and slaves should submit to cultural norms. It’s one or the other. The Bible’s character is no different than almost any church. We often disagree on important things.

So how do we interpret our sacred texts now, 21 centuries later? Here is what I do. I ask, where is the animating energy of the words of Jesus in the Gospels? In other words, “what would Jesus do?” Jesus said, “I have come to set the captives free and preach good news to the poor.” He says Samaritans can be good, teaches women, appears to women first in his resurrection, set free a woman caught in adultery, and so on. I think Paul got it right. He understood the work of Jesus as overturning the prayer thanking God for not being a gentile, a woman, or a slave.

I read Colossians as a warning to all of us. The letter shows the powerful undertow of the culture where we live. My favorite leadership saying is culture eats strategy for breakfast. It takes enormous energy to change the status quo. Even if we want to change, our habits hold the line of the way things were. We all have a little bit, sometimes a lot, of Colossians in us. We hear you, Jesus, we hear you, Paul, but we aren’t ready to fully embrace everyone as equals. That means a radical change in our social relations. You can’t expect that all at once. It’s only been 2100 years, but aren’t we making progress. We have had several excellent study groups, and every church sign now says, “all are welcome.”

This is what Dr. King said in his letter from the Birmingham jail. He understood the racism of Bull Conner and the Klan. What troubled him was the moderate white folks who kept saying slow down. Remember Colossians, Martin; these things take time. And Martin said, “Remember Moses, and step up.”

The idea that we are all one is clearly under attack today. This week we learned that of the 800 people indicted for the January 6 Insurrection, at least 250 belonged to white supremacists. In Idaho, 31 white supremacists were ready to attack a Gay Pride parade. These groups are a clear and present danger to the idea of equality in America. How do we want to respond to these challenges? I admit that part of me is tempted to be a Colossian and say we love God and we love each other, but we stay out of the political mess. Galatians was written 2000 years ago, but I am mindful that most of us are Gentiles, and Paul fought for us to be included in the church. If you are a woman over 50, you were born when women could not write a check without your husband’s permission. Someone stood up for you to be equal. Some of you could not be married before 2014 until marriage equality was enacted. Someone stood up for you. We won’t solve this all at once or by ourselves. But where do we need to stand up? Some sermons need to end with a question. If we believe Paul was right, all are one in Christ, what is our next step?

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