Heirs to God’s Promises
December 28, 2014
Text: Luke 2:22-40, Gal 4:4-7
I selected our texts this morning from the lectionary readings for this time in the church year. Both come from the New Testament. The Gospel reading from the book of Luke continues the narrative from the birth story commonly used on Christmas about the family going to Bethlehem, giving birth in a humble stable. This story picks up on the 8th day when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to be recognized in the faith. They do what is customary under the law, which is code for circumcision. Jesus is born into and raised in Jewish tradition and is designated to the Lord according to his family’s faith.
The second text is from Paul’s writings to the Galatians, place in time in about the mid 50s CE. Paul’s mission was primarily to Gentiles and he sought to reconcile law observant Jews and Gentiles in community with one another. Scholars seem to agree that Paul was writing “in a state of agitation” responding to rival missionaries who propose that Gentile converts to the early Christian community must observe Jewish law”. The most emotional debates were around the practices of circumcision and table fellowship. One commentary on Galatians describes this as the early Christian community adopting what was, in effect “separate but equal” policies toward newly converting Gentiles. Paul would say these rival missionaries were misinterpreting the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. In his understanding of Christ, the point was that salvation was available to all as a free gift of God.
The Luke and Pauline texts themselves seem to disagree on the importance of the law. In this formative time for Christianity, it is contentious and messy as the faithful work out continuity with Jewish tradition and a faith that will now be built upon “God’s promise and it’s fulfillment through the [life] and death of Jesus.”
So, here we are in Luke, shortly after Christ’s birth—mother and father must be weary travelers. They go faithfully to Jersualem to honor their God. Simeon, a devout old man working in the temple awaits God’s chosen messiah and when he finally sees this child, he takes him in his arms and praises God, giving thanks that God has been true to divine promises. What an effect this child has—One author I read highlights “The peculiar effect of an infant that can make a Muscular man with calloused hands become gentle as a pillow when handed a baby” He says “God became small for us in Christ; [God] showed us god’s heart so our hearts might be won. God came down not to thrash evildoers or crush the Romans, but as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness.”
In Galatians 4(:4b) Paul describes Jesus as “born of a woman.” It speaks of Jesus’ humanity – the relate-able-ness of God to God’s people...and some might say, his representative quality...that he came to stand in our place.” (for our sins)
After Christmas, “Our status has changed” God is doing new thing, revealing divine character through a vulnerable child, relating to our lives and expressing love through gentleness and family-like bonds of relationality.
In Galatians 4:4-7,– The intent of the language is that God has a family-type bond with ALL people and all are heirs to the promises of God. “This use of kinship language for God opens possibilities for transformed relationship. Jesus was not the first or only person to use the language of Abba for God, but “In memory of Jesus, early Christians felt empowered to use this title when calling to God.” Paul takes the relational language even further in a passage in Romans. (8:17) He says that ”If [we are] children[of God and], also heirs –indeed, [we are ]... co-heirs with Christ,” sharing in both his suffering and glory.
As God establishes the new relationship with people and humans receive it, they are liberated from condemnation of the law and supervision of the law. In these verses 5,6 – God’s sending needs humanity’s response by faith. And the people, in relationship with divinity in the spirit call out to God. The relationship is reciprocal.
In the Galatians text, Paul describes a faith through Christ that challenges the powers that enslave. People are no longer slave to the law or “powers that oppress humankind.” As verse 7 claims “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son/child [of God];” verses 1 & 3 refer to a period of minority, or being under-aged and relate that time to slavery. In the later verses, “Believers are now fully-grown, they have been given their freedom and the power to use it responsibly”
Both Luke and Paul seek to build up the faithful community in troubled times. Luke was thought to be written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Social Justice is a major theme and reversals offer words of hope. The author writes to a community of both Gentile Believers and Roman Officials” and there is “unrelieved tension between the hoped for ideal and accommodation to the social powers of the Roman Empire.” In Paul’s letters, particularly here in Galatians, the political atmosphere is strained and the future ambiguous. Like these writers before us, we live amid uncertainty. We need only look at events in Ferguson in the last months and the effects within our own communities for confirmation of that. The message Paul brings of our inheritance of God’s promises—is a relationship that sustains, accompanied by the freedom and power to respond in the midst of much ambiguity.
Like the slavery in the verses of Galatians “new forms of “slaveries” appear in different times and contexts. For this reason, we, the church are always challenged to live and proclaim our understanding & practice of the gospel of peace, freedom and justice in response to the devaluing of people and relationships.
Ferguson is an example of the ambiguity amidst which we exercise our freedom and power. Over the past several months since Mike Brown was killed, I have had several conversations with the pastor at Kirkwood church where I am working. Due to details around Mike Brown’s death and later Vonderrit Myers and the other events that have happened since, both Betsy and I found it difficult to be assured of truth or wrong-doing (by police?) . We both have struggled to locate truths and make sense of the events. I participated in a large civil action in October, as well as a clergy protest that left me conflicted over calling police officers to repent as part of a greater system of violence. I have done less praying with my feet since those events. Many colleagues have felt called to ongoing response through protest, prayer and organizing. Some have worked admirably and tirelessly to create and manage events that will lead to systemic change.
Since then, Grand Juries have convened and no indictment was made even in Eric Garner’s death. The errors made by those in authority exacerbate the tragic circumstances and echo into the experiences and memories of African Americans and our nation as a whole. Ongoing community demonstrations implicate our justice systems and our economic systems. Another author says that -“Through the filter of our conviction that our way of life that is good, just... and a gift from God, we hear the cries of the victims of oppressions as if they are calling us to help them to share in this, [our] way of life and its benefits.” How might we use our power and freedom to reimagine these systems that they could be more just for everyone?
A writer in an African America Commentary on Galatians says that “Many African Americans still struggle with mental slavery—the belief that they must become “white” in order to access the blessings of the culture or the church.” In light of current events, I wonder at the truth of that statement. How might we better embody Paul’s verses that, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, Slave nor free,” that all members of our community can claim this passage of Galatians as a “manifesto of freedom.”?
Christ first came in the form of a vulnerable child. Perhaps by encountering our own vulnerability we can refuse “complicity with the powers of this world.” The risk would not be in vain. The gospel promises transformation... a “manifestation of the power of God through which at least some of the victims of evil will be freed from their bondage.”
In our text, “God gives the promise of the spirit of faith working through love” not for its own sake, “but for the well-being and wholeness of God’s people. Later, Paul appeals to the Galatians to remember their mutual friendship...“In order to befriend the Galatians, Paul met them where they were and related to them as members of a family in Christ.
What would it be like if we, with our African American brothers and sisters “threw off the yoke of ... Eurocentrism, sexism, hatred, [these things that] impede our progress as people”? As “Tensions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female [and other differences we use to define one another] would disappear, because life in the grace of Christ anticipates what the future can be like.” That future might be world family that is beautiful and diverse. And the God born in a lowly manger, the God born small, nurturing tenderness, eliciting love and bringing peace... That small God... would smile.