Wednesday, June 9, 2010

With you all the way on that one St. Paul.


For all sorts of reasons I've been thinking about equal opportunities a lot of late. Some things have happened in my world - but not to me - which I'm not at all happy about. To act or not to act, given that it isn't my problem, that is the question.

Then I received an invitation to preach at a friend's Anglican Church and in the lectionary I find that the Epistle is Galatians 3. 23-29. I think there is a message here I should ponder. Too many coincidences - if you believe in them, of course.

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus….There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The churches have rarely lived up to the radical insights given expression in St. Paul’s writings here and the meaning of today’s Epistle is not that there can be, or should be no distinctions among us, but that there can be no superiority of one over another or exclusion of one by the other. Paul’s words surely affronted first-century Jews steeped in a religion that fostered exclusion as a way of maintaining purity of faith and protection from outsiders: these are the people who prayed: “Thank you Lord, for not making me a foreigner, a slave, or a woman.” Paul rejected and reversed this view by declaring that these distinctions amounted to nothing in the eyes of God and those who would follow Jesus.

In my secular life I am an R.E. teacher and today’s Epistle is a passage that my students examine when we consider the topic of religion and prejudice. They are often perplexed about the limits that this passage appears to place on God’s grace: this age group has a strong sense of the importance of justice and they are cynical about how organised religion seems to find opt-out clauses for particular categories of people. “It’s a bit like that quote from Animal Farm” one girl concluded recently, “where the animals realise that some are more equal than others.”

“So what does the passage from Galatians teach about Christianity and wholeness through equality in the sight of God?” I ask them. Furrowed brows. “O.K. What does it teach about the Christianity of the first century?” We have the beginnings of understanding: “Well,” one answers, “there were divisions in that society between Jews and Greeks, slaves and non-slaves and between the genders.” “Right. So what’s the application for Christians in 2010?” More furrowed brows. “O.K.” I persevere, “Is it an exclusive list? Is it set in stone for all time?” There is a pause and then tentatively: “Sir? Are you saying that those old categories are just examples and that each generation has to apply the spirit of the teaching to its own time?” “So” I ask, “which from St. Paul’s list can we ditch then, because they don’t apply today?” There is a flurry of hands in the air. “Well, Jews and Greeks and slaves and free.” “We’re not left with much then are we?” someone notes “Just male and female.” So I ask them whether they agree that sexism is still an issue in today’s society, in the church even. They do. “So what would we need to add in now that we’ve taken the other two out?” Now they’ve all got it. Everyone has an idea and there is some animated conversation in the class. “O.K. Conclusions?” And now we have a new list. There is neither:

• Black nor white.
• Old nor young.
• Able bodied nor disabled.
• Middle class nor working class
• Straight nor Gay.
• Tall nor short, fat nor thin. And so on. Even ginger people get a passing mention.

“Are you happy that this list is in the spirit of St. Paul’s teaching?”

They are.

And then someone asks: “Are you allowed to do that with the Bible?”

And that’s my question to you here this morning. If these passages we hear week by week are to mean anything to us, and be more than just mildly interesting ancient religious documents, then they must have an application to how we live our lives and to how we relate to each other and how we do that can’t, surely, be bound by the social and religious mores of an earlier age. Can it?

That to me is the challenge of the gospel: am I living a life that reveals God to others? Am I living a life that is in obedience to how God has revealed his will? Does my understanding of Christianity and the way I live it out day to day, enhance or detract from the Gospel? When I articulate the current religious wisdom on a given topic, to what extent do I listen when the “still small voice” within says, “Hang on a minute. Are you entirely sure about that?” Am I wilfully holding on to human prejudices and exhibiting them in my life? Am I even selectively using scripture to prop up those prejudices? And let’s be honest, we all do that when it suits us, particularly when the church isn’t taking a principled stance and offering us the guidance it should.

That’s a challenge: a church that fails to offer that guidance. Just think for a moment. How many times has the church found itself on the wrong side of both history and morality?

Is the world flat? Does the sun orbit around the earth? The church once tried to assert so and violently suppressed evidence and people that argued against it. There is a historic tendency for the church to be controlling and it can sometimes be wrong. Factions within the church close ranks against new interpretations and understandings. Our two churches are products of the consequences of that.

It isn’t that long ago that Black Christians in the U.S. and South Africa were discriminated against and the Bible was used to support that discrimination: theology was hi-jacked in support of courses of action that were far from Godly in their oppression of individuals and groups. The wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality. This parish, your parish, has a woman priest. Other Anglican parishes won’t even consider the idea. In other provinces of the Anglican Church there are women bishops but not here. Yet. The battle is still on. The wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality? Only time will tell.

Both of these examples are clearly against the spirit of the teaching of St. Paul in today’s passage from Galatians, so let’s have a look at my pupils’ revised list. How is the church doing – how is your church doing - today on disableism? On classism? On sizeism or ageism? Actually, probably not too badly. How are you personally doing on those issues? Have you really felt challenged about your attitudes in the light of St. Paul’s teaching (which you won’t have heard here for the first time)? And where are we on issues of human sexuality?

If it is of any reassurance to you, these battles are not uniquely Anglican: in my denomination, as in others, these issues of gender and sexuality have pretty well been resolved. The battles have already been fought and won within the spirit of St. Paul’s teaching. In the search for wholeness other churches, which stress that they remain in obedience to scripture, have asked searching questions about the theological basis for our attitudes to gender and sexuality and drawn other theological conclusions and we pray for you as you face those same battles.

So, what is the challenge today? Another passage of St. Paul, which always causes me to stop and think: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2.12) If you consider that God’s revelation did not stop at the moment the canon of scripture was decided in 393 A.D. then what is the Spirit telling you here and now, about wholeness in the church? The wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality? The spirit of St. Paul in Galatians? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The power of God’s love, freely given, when used by us is sufficient to overcome the human tendency to separate as a result of our distinctions and differences and as a result of our fears. Through this love we can have a collective unity – a single identity as children of God. It is the power of God’s love that can give us courage to move beyond fear and separation into integration, cooperation, interdependence, and mutual respect. This truth is rooted in the fact that each individual has been restored to unity with God by the loving, self-giving action of Christ. In so being restored to God, we can be restored to unity with one another.

Can you do that with the Bible?