"The Challenge of Inclusion"

A Sermon by William Hennessy, Pastor

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Bay City, Michigan

June 24, 2001

Scripture: Galatians 3:23-29


Purity was a concern for the Church from the very beginning. This letter from Paul to the Christians in the province of Galatia in Asia Minor provides a window into one of the most divisive issues faced by the early Christians. There were those who believed that because Christ was a Jew, and Christianity itself was a Jewish sect originally, that those who wanted to become Christian who were not Jews, the Gentiles, must first become Jewish. The Christians based in Jerusalem, led by Peter and James the brother of Jesus, in the early years held strictly to Jewish law. But according to Acts we are told that Peter once had a revelation in a dream which told him that God is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. So Peter began eating with Gentiles.

Paul, on the other hand, doesn't seem ever to have had any doubts about the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. Even though he was a rigorous persecutor of the Church on behalf of the Jewish establishment, once Christ was revealed to him Paul took the message of freedom to the Gentiles. According to his letter, for the first fourteen years of his ministry he was unknown to the churches in Judea, but was solely among the Gentiles. Even so, there were those who did not recognize Paul's authority as an apostle. Very often other missionaries would visit the churches he founded and try to convince folks to make their way to Christ through Judaism, which meant strict adherence to the Law including circumcision.

In this letter Paul is infuriated at those who would lead the Galatian Christians down this path. At one point he exclaims: "I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!" (Gal. 5:12) And he is furious with those in the community who are listening to such things and taking them to heart. He says to them, "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (Gal. 3:1) Again, this letter is only a window into a widespread controversy among the Christians. The game of "Who's In and Who's Out?" commences among them almost as soon as Jesus ascends back to heaven and is no longer there to tell them.

Well, I know you didn't come here to hear a history lesson on the early Christians. But I appreciate your indulgence. We modern Christians have a tendency to take our scripture for granted. Since an issue like this has long been settled, we allow ourselves to gloss over the circumstances and focus only on the pithy aphorisms that the debate has generated: "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." or "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Familiar passages of scripture, but lifted from their context they tend to lose their transforming power in the life of the Church.

These are serious issues for Paul. This is not an academic, theological debate. If the Galatian Christians, and other Christian communities, allow themselves to be defined by the boundaries they erect between themselves and others, if they spend all their energy pointing fingers at one another, they will destroy themselves. As Paul says, they will "bite and devour one another," and in the end they will have no share in Christ. And that is the central tragedy Paul is trying so desperately to avert.

For Paul the options are clear. Either the body of Christ is inclusive of all people regardless of lineage or past or current circumstances, inclusive of everyone who proclaims "Jesus is Lord," or it is just another guild, another club whose main purpose is keeping others out. And strangely enough, that is the easier option. It is much easier to put up walls of separation and keep others out than it is to tear down those walls and risk including anyone who wants to come in.

Paul understood this because in his former life he was blameless. He lived a life of unparalleled success because he was so certain of who was in and who was out. When he speaks in his letters of regarding his old life as garbage (Phil. 3:8), he doesn't mean to say that he was miserable; he was thoroughly happy and self-satisfied. His transformation was from living a life of ease and contentment to one of hardship and degradation in the eyes of the world. But as far as he was concerned he had been set free from living a life of suspicion and guilt to one of acceptance and joy no matter how harshly he was treated by a world that could not understand it. When Paul put on Christ he discovered a breadth of love and grace he was powerless to contain or deny.

It is into such a relationship of love and grace that we are called by Christ. As I said before we tend to gloss over the circumstances, the context, which gave rise to the writings in scripture. We look at what's written and fail to see how their experience might inform ours. As many of you are no doubt aware, our denomination is right now in the midst of a raging controversy over the status of people who are homosexual within our churches. I'm not going to comment specifically on that issue here because I'm convinced that homosexuality is really just a flash point, a symptom of a broader concern within the life of the Church. I suppose it's sort of a happy, although challenging, coincidence that this particular passage from Galatians and this particular story from Luke are part of the lectionary right now. Both of them speak to the challenge of inclusion.

In the story in Luke, a man - a Gentile - has been cast out of his community because of his violent behavior. He is out of control, possessed by demons. The community has given up on him. They've washed their hands of him, allowing him to wander naked among the headstones. Jesus approaches this man and heals him, embraces him with the love and grace of God. Shouldn't the community be thrilled? The one who was lost has been redeemed! But instead they are afraid. They are overcome by fear. And they tell Jesus to go away. They want no part of this love and grace. How many more have they cast out, I can't help but wonder. How many more might be brought back into community if they only had the courage to dare, to risk God's love - God's grace? But they don't. To me it's sort of a sad story. Here Jesus is offering something that could change their lives forever, but they toss it away. They won't dare to take up the challenge of inclusion.

And it is a challenge because whenever we begin to include others we can't avoid the question, "But where do we draw the line?" Where do we draw it? Do we draw the line at homosexuality? At divorce? At drinking? At single motherhood? Perhaps at poverty, clear evidence to many that someone is not blessed? Where will it be? Who are we going to keep out? "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." All the lines we would draw have been erased. It is scary, isn't it?

Over the next year our denomination will be asking some very hard questions of itself. Our fear might well cause us to say harmful things to one another. But there is in this discussion the possibility of discovering the same transforming love and grace which Paul discovered, which Jesus offered. So the hardest question we must answer is do we have the courage to take hold of that love and grace and let it lead us down whatever path God has in store? Do we have the courage? Do we?


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