Who is welcome in Church? For the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Rev. Geoff McKee looks at this recurring theme through Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia. We must not only believe that, in Christ, the old has fallen away and the new creation is emerging but demonstrate that too. We live in a remarkably diverse community and God is calling us from insular preoccupation to generous fellowship.
Galatians 6:1-16 (New International Version)
Doing Good to All
6 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Not Circumcision but the New Creation
11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
12 Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
During our holiday in Seville in March, Annie and I visited the Maestranza bull ring.
It is said that it is the most beautiful bull ring in Spain, second in importance only to Madrid.
It houses a museum in tribute to the history of bull fighting in Spain. It has pictures and photographs of legendary bull fighters and specimens of their extravagant capes in display cases. It is full of colour and glamour but it cannot hide the unsavoury fact that much cruelty and some tragedy has occurred within its walls over the years. Many bulls have been needlessly sacrificed in a cruel way and some of the lauded matadors have lost their lives too.
José Cubero, one of Spain’s most brilliant matadors, only 21 years old, had been enjoying a spectacular career. However, in a 1958 bullfight, José made a tragic mistake. He thrust his sword a final time into a bleeding, delirious bull, which then collapsed. Considering the struggle finished, José turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing his back and puncturing his heart. He died instantly.
Just when we think we’ve finished off pride…
Just when we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back.
We should never consider pride dead before we are.
The theologian, A.J. Conyers wrote:
“All religion and every practice of religion and, in fact, all of human life, is in danger of being marshalled into the service of the human ego.”
That’s the danger that Paul witnessed in Galatia.
With horror, he witnessed a dominant group of Christians imposing their way or no way on the others.
Paul in his letter, used every device he could draw on from logic, through emotional appeal and even sarcasm to challenge the circumcision party in the church to think again: to stop thinking about themselves and to consider the others.
How sad it is that a particular preference among a group of people can become the be-all-and-end-all, and so the core of meaning is lost.
That’s what happened in Galatia, as some of the Jews of Christian faith lifted their cultural bias for circumcision above the love of Jesus for Jew and Gentile alike. What is it in human nature that leads us to focus on tangible secondary issues at the expense of what really matters?
Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche community, has recently died.
Vanier served in the Royal Navy during the War.
He wrote about that experience:
“When I was in the navy, I was taught to give orders to others. That came quite naturally to me! All my life I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek promotions, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. That is what society teaches us. In doing so, we lose community and communion.”
Later, after the war, he experienced a Christian conversion.
Moved by the plight of disadvantaged people with disabilities, he moved into “L’Arche” – a house so simple that there was no toilet (only a bucket) and no electricity.
He brought three men with disabilities home from an institution to live with him.
The community grew and got noticed.
In 1966, the L’Arche community travelled together to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul VI, who declared, “Seeing you all together makes me realise that you are a small group united by love and an active will to help one another. You are a community in whose midst Jesus is happy to live.”
Isn’t that a wonderful affirmation? – “a community in whose midst Jesus is happy to live”!
What a contrast to the mess in Galatia.
In essence, the contrast between Galatia and L’Arche is simple to analyse.
If the focus is on the other, in loving care, then there is no issue with secondary matters.
The fact that people were not physically or mentally able to perform certain tasks was completely irrelevant for Jean Vanier.
He wrote: “I was touched by these men with mental handicaps, by their sadness and by their cry to be respected, valued and loved.” When that cry was heard and responded to, something wonderful was born – a community of the risen Christ.
What millstones do we tie around people’s necks?
It will not do to confine the Galatian problem to the history books – some irrelevancy about ancient circumcision practices.
It is absolutely about who we are.
Do we believe that, in Christ, the old has fallen away and the new creation is emerging?
We have no business cultivating the old!
It is very important that Christians have a forward-looking perspective.
We know where the story of this world is going and that knowledge should be drawn upon to influence the present.
God is calling us from insular preoccupation to generous fellowship, in the remarkable diversity of community.
When Jesus announced that the mission of God was moving from Jerusalem to all nations, he declared God’s embrace and welcome of human diversity. The people of God were going to look very different from now on. That proved to be a very difficult thing to accept for many.
I still cringe when I remember the group of young people – with glue stiffened, coloured hair, tattoos, nose and lip piercings – being turned away from the door of the church because the welcoming committee didn’t like the look of them.
Their difference led to their exclusion from the acceptable gathering of God’s people.
No one questioned the decision to ask them to leave. It was obvious that they should not be admitted to a respectable church gathering. I still cringe because I know that my impulse to exclude is still there. I want to keep the markers of exclusion still in place even though I know that is abhorrent to God.
Then I remember Conyer’s note: “All religion … is in danger of being marshalled into the service of the human ego.” The problem does not lie with others and how they look or are, the problem lies with me, with us.
“Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions. All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.”
May that be our mantra today.