The Guiding Principle (11/7/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Listen once again to a phrase from the passage you heard read from the lectern this morning: 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. That sounds so nice, doesn’t it! That sounds like something we could have written on our tee shirts, across a background of Jesus meek and mild, sitting on a hillside and teaching the children.
But we should never forget that Paul got killed for talking like that. Paul was the first apologist for the Christian faith. That doesn’t mean he apologized—said he was sorry—for Christianity. That means he made arguments in an attempt to make people choose to be Christians. And remember, at the time Paul was wandering around the ancient world establishing churches, he was preaching to people who had not been born into the faith. You and me—most of us—we inherit the faith from our parents. For the most part, Paul was presenting this new offshoot of Judaism to people who had never heard of Jesus.
And Paul had a message for those who found it in their hearts to become followers of the crucified teacher from Nazareth. According to Paul, in Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. I wonder what Paul would say if he was suddenly thrown into our modern world? Oh, we still get the male/female thing, but Jews and Greeks, slaves and free? What does that have to do with 21st Century America?
What would Paul say to us today? I don’t think he would say that Christians make no distinction between Jew and Greek. In our religious culture we don’t divide the world into Jews and Greeks. We divide the world into Christians and non-Christians. What would we think if Paul said to us, “In Christ Jesus there is neither Christian nor non-Christian. Most of us wouldn’t like that a bit! Because just like the religious authorities of his day, we know who is in and who is out with regard to God’s grace. Just like religious people 2000 years ago, we know how to practice our religion in a way that pleases God. We have our holy scriptures. We have our tradition. And if some “Paul” came along and told us there was no difference, as far as God is concerned, between Christians and non-Christians, we would likely be just as angry as the pharisaic Jews of first century Israel. Because when Paul said there is neither Jew nor Greek, he was breaking down religious barriers. And we like our barriers.
And I don’t think a modern Paul would say Christians should make no distinction between slave and free, because slavery is not a big issue in our modern western culture. But we should remember something about slavery in Paul’s time. It was a terrible thing, but it was quite different from the atrocious institution it became in the hands of Americans 17 centuries later. In Paul’s day slavery was more of an economic institution, in which slaves had rights, and many people sold themselves into slavery to repay debts.
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When Paul looked at slavery and claimed that in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free, he was breaking down economic and social barriers. Today he would more likely say something like, “In Christ Jesus there is neither rich nor poor.” And it would be interesting to hear what Paul would have to say about our current economic system. Millions of people work 40 hours each week and don’t make enough money to pay for even the most basic necessities of life, while others live off of wealth generated not from their own labors but by the economic system itself. I suspect Paul might have a few words about our modern day equivalent of slaves and masters. But regardless of what he would say, I am confident he would attack the economic and social barriers of 21st Century America as aggressively as he attacked those barriers in the ancient world. And his words would be as unpopular today as they were two thousand years ago.
And then we have the words of Paul that cut across the religious, economic and social boundaries of his time and thoroughly infuriated just about everybody—or at least just about every male; in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.
This can cause lots of confusion, because Paul, elsewhere in the New Testament, says things that have led him to be labeled as a misogynist—a woman hater. All that talk about women graciously submitting to their husbands and women not speaking at church. And this is not the time to become an apologist for Paul’s words regarding women, but I should say just a couple of things. First, Paul clearly allowed women to take leadership roles in the churches he established. And second, Paul seemed convinced that the end of the world was about to arrive, and he was not nearly as concerned with justice in the social order as he was with encouraging people to “get right” with God. And that makes his words from today‘s Bible passage even more powerful. He could have saved himself a lot of grief if he had not said those things about Jews and Greeks, slaves and masters, males and females. He must have had a very strong conviction that a person must break down those barriers within his or her heart in order to be in a proper relationship with God.
Relationship with God. Most of you know by now that I believe relationship with God is the most important element of human life. And you also know that I believe there is a process we tend to go through as we grow in our relationship with God—wrestling, surrender, and congruence.
Wresting is the first step, because most of us do not find a relationship with God easy. We like doing things our own way, and having things the way that benefit us personally. Trying to see things from God’s perspective—trying to imagine the greater good in all situations instead of what is best for us personally—that doesn’t come naturally. We don’t give up our selfishness without a fight.
But after that wrestling with God comes the only logical next step—surrender. God will win this one eventually. I remember an old movie that begins with the shot of a bumper sticker on the back of a car. It reads, God is dead: Nietzsche. And the camera pans back to reveal a second bumper sticker beside the first. And the second bumper sticker reads, Nietzsche is dead: God. Well it makes the point. God has built mortality into the fabric of the universe, and that means God always gets the last word. And we can wrestle with God for the entire duration of our lives, but eventually we will surrender. So why not face the truth and do so early on?
Of course, this particular surrender—surrender to God—is unlike any other form of surrender, because we are actually empowered when we finally surrender to God. When we truly surrender our lives to God, that is when we have the strength to no longer surrender to all those false idols that demand our loyalty: money, sexism, patriarchy, nationalism—the list goes on and on. It is when we surrender to God—when we realize that serving God and the greater good of all creation is the only thing that makes sense—it is then that we overcome all fear and are empowered to live boldly.
And then, after wrestling and surrender, comes congruence. This is the life-long process of surrendering everything about ourselves to God, and having our hearts, our minds, and our hands—our spirits, our thoughts, and our words and deeds—all working together in the service of God.
It would be helpful if there was a guiding principle that helped us live congruent lives. There needs to be something—some simple idea—that allows us to recognize when we are becoming incongruent—when our heart is telling us one thing and our mind is telling us something else; or when our heart and mind have figured out what is right but our hands go on doing all sorts of things we are not especially proud of. Life is full of incongruence: fudging on the expense report; selling the car whose transmission may give out in a couple of months; making a snide comment about the fast food worker who had trouble counting out our change.
Could Paul have provided us with the guiding principle that allows us to live a congruent life of faith? Has Paul told us in plain and simple words exactly how to get our heads, hearts and hands all working together in harmony with the will of God?
I believe he has, when he tells us to knock down all of those barriers; when he says there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. That could be our guiding principle—the oneness of humanity through the love of Christ. We just have to see past all those barriers, all those distinctions we create. All of them. And the only way to see past those barriers is to see the holy child of God within each and every person we meet.
But that’s not easy, even for the pure of heart! I have a friend who works with AIDS patients, which is certainly a noble calling. It would be nice to think that these patients are filled with love and gratitude for somebody who dedicates her life to such a cause. And some of them are. But many of them are angry. Angry at the world, and angry at the next person they see—who in this case happens to be my well-intentioned and good-hearted friend. When an angry and resentful patient comes to her, she struggles heartily to see past the alcohol on his breath and the anger in his eyes and the curses that stream from his mouth. It can be quite difficult seeing the holy child of God hidden inside that angry man. But she tries. Every time.
And how often do we run into an angry checkout clerk? We offer a cheery “good morning” and get in return a muffled grunt. If eye contact is made, the message is clear, and if looks could kill we’d be goners. When they do speak, and ask whether we would like paper or plastic, we can tell that what they are really asking is whether we would prefer for them to stick a paper bag down our throats or stick a plastic bag in some other orifice—say an ear.
And we have to look hard to see the holy child of God in there. Sometimes it helps to realize this person may be working overtime and still not covering her bills, and perhaps her husband just told her he is leaving her for his secretary, because there has been too much stress in the house ever since their child was diagnosed with a serious disease. But is that any reason not to offer us a cheery “hello” and a pleasant smile?
This wrestling, surrender and congruence process—it’s just not a straight line, where in one part of our lives we wrestle with God, and in another part we surrender, and finally everything falls into place an we live faithful congruent lives. It’s more like a continuum than a straight line process. Hopefully we make a general movement over the course of our lives from wrestling to surrender to congruence, but for most people I know, and certainly for myself, we wrestle with God every day. And sometimes we surrender to the will of God, and sometimes we say and do things that simply aren’t congruent with a person whose head, heart and hands are surrendered to God. There are plenty of days we look at the grocery clerk, and instead of seeing the holy child of God within, see instead some nasty person who woke up that morning for the sole purpose of making our life miserable. And we decide to let her know about it. So much for congruence. In that case, we’re still wrestling with God, and at least for a couple of minutes, we’re not surrendering to anybody—not to God, and certainly not to some sourpuss sales clerk.
But those days—those moments—are the exception to the rule. People can sense when a person is congruent. People can sense when a person is surrendered to something bigger than his or her own self-interest. We just trust those people without really knowing why. I have one friend who is a dental assistant, but whose patients treat her like Dear Abby. They might even call her at home to run some problem by her. Why is that? Why do people instinctively know when a person can be trusted? I think it has something to do with congruence. You can just sense that this person’s head, heart and hands are all lined up and working together. There is something in the way that person looks at you—you can see it in their eyes—because they are looking past all the barriers and seeing the holy child of God in you.
Those barriers can’t be chiseled away with a hammer, or with reason, or with money, or with any other type of power this world has placed at our disposal. Love is the only tool we have capable of breaking down those barriers. But love is enough. More than enough. Because if we can see this world through the eyes of love, we get a glimpse of how this world looks to God. If we can take our eyes, so conditioned to see this world through the distortions of our culture and through the fog of self-interest, and if we can somehow let Jesus use our eyes for a moment, we get a glimpse—a glimpse of the way the world really is. And the barriers fall. And the spirit shines through.
And suddenly, all of those distinctions become meaningless, and in our eyes the people we meet become the holy children of God we were all born to be. We are not male and female; Jew and Greek; slave and free; Christian and non-Christian; black and white; American and foreigner; employer and employee; heterosexual and gay; rich and poor… We are one—one holy body, with every barrier gone, growing into that which we are called to be: sacred manifestations of God’s love, living with and for each other as the eternal Body of Christ.