Sunday, May 5, 2013

Belonging: A Sermon on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21

Scripture can be found here...

UCLA Professor Jared Diamond has written a book called The World Until Yesterday, in which he looks at traditional cultures and examines what they have to teach us. One of his most striking observations is the fact that, until almost 10,000 years ago, every human being on this planet lived in fairly small tribes, of anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of hundred people.  And because of that, it was almost unheard of, nearly impossible, to have an encounter with a stranger. Everybody in your tribe literally knew everybody else in your tribe.

So if you did, unthinkably, run into a stranger, here’s what would happen. You would sit down together, and begin reciting the names of everyone you were related to, everyone in your tribe, until, hopefully, you found someone in common. If you didn’t find that common person, that human thread to bind you together, your options were to run or to kill. Xenophobia, what modern psychologists would describe as “irrational fear of foreigners or strangers,” was the normal state of those for whom the glimpse of an unknown face was terrifyingly out of the ordinary.

From time beyond time, human beings have tried to distinguish for ourselves which tribes we live in. We have worked hard to figure out whether or not we “belong.” And we have fashioned rituals and marks and tattoos and all manner of things to place on ourselves to say, “Here. This is my tribe.”

From ancient times, three thousand years at least, one mark of being a Jew, a member of God’s covenant people, was a mark borne by men on their bodies, circumcision. There were other signs of belonging, of course. Eating according to the kosher laws, resting and worshiping God on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, learning Torah, the law. Many markers… tribal markers, if you will… of what it means to be a member of God’s covenant people. And because Jews and Christians are sprung from the same roots, because Jesus and his first followers were Jews, there was a time when it was assumed that those who would be Jesus-followers, must bear all those same markers of belonging.

A man whom we first met several weeks ago, when we heard the story of the first martyr, Stephen, was instrumental in changing all that. You might remember the man named “Saul,” a minor character in that episode, who was watching over the coats of those who were heaving rocks at Stephen until he was dead—(“run or kill”). Saul approved of all that, and he describes himself later as “zealous for the traditions of his ancestors.” Which, take note, is not necessarily a good thing. Saul is a case study in how ‘zeal for the traditions of our ancestors’ can place us in opposition to what God is doing. All this went on until, a little while later, when God pulled back the veil, and Saul had a face-to-face encounter with the Risen and Living Christ. Saul’s entire life was turned upside down. From that point on, that persecutor of Jesus-followers—the one who, by his own admission, was violently trying to destroy the church—became a Jesus-follower himself, became the author of much of what the church continues to find, well, authoritative. We know him as Paul.

And we know him as the author of the scripture passages we’ve read today; they are from a letter Paul wrote to a church in Galatia, an area of the region still called Anatolia, part of what is modern day Turkey. Once upon a time in Galatia, Paul tells us, a dispute was roiling about the issue of “belonging” within the tribe of the Jesus-followers What is the marker of belonging to the community that has sprung up around Jesus, what we call the Church? What do we have to do… do we have to keep kosher? Must the men and boys bear that particular sign of belonging to the tribes of Israel on their bodies? Worship on Saturdays, perhaps? How do we know we belong?

We belong to the family of God, as it turns out, not because of what we do, but because of what God does. “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” Paul says. Well, sort of. The new Common English Bible translates that phrase, “the faithfulness of Christ.” We belong to the family of God… we come to have our own faith in Jesus Christ as our redeemer… not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done.

This is one way of understanding how and why many churches, including ours, baptize babies and children too young to be able to profess their faith in Christ. This beautiful, smart-as-a-whip child was baptized today, not because she has come to an understanding that Jesus is her savior, although, maybe she already has inklings in that direction. She has been baptized today because of a Divine nudge in the hearts of her mom and stepdad. God decides these things, and then we cooperate; that is how it works in the world of Jesus-followers. And Beloved Child, by being baptized today, “belongs” to us, here at Union Presbyterian Church, the same place where her mama and stepdad were married not too long ago. But really, this is so much bigger than us. Beloved Child belongs to the whole church of Jesus Christ, and it belongs to her… wherever she goes, the church will be there for her. Not because of anything she did or did not do, but because of what God did, what God does, and what God will continue to do for her, throughout her life, and beyond her life in this world.

Baptism, we are told, puts a mark on us. Today it has put a mark on this Beloved Child, telling her and everyone who knows and loves her that just as she belongs to the family of her mama and daddy and and stepdad and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents, she also belongs to the family of God that takes its name from Jesus Christ. The faithfulness of Jesus has reached out to touch her, and claim her, and bless her, so that one day she will be able to say, for herself, in her own words and actions, “Christ lives in me.”

So welcome Beloved Child of God. Welcome to this family of God, and welcome to this communion table. The mark of our tribe is simple: Jesus invited you, and we welcome you. We cannot wait to see what Jesus does in your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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