The End of the Cosmos!
Week of Sunday June 23 – Pentecost 5
Epistle: Galatians 3:21
Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There 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. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Based on the vocabulary, scholars think the words "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…" are an early Christian liturgy which Paul is reminding Galatia about, and reinterpreting. (Galatians Martyn pp374) They are probably part of a baptismal liturgy.
The implications of these words, combined with Paul's interpretation of them, are simply stunning. Paul is undercutting the foundation of the whole world.
He beings with neither Jew nor Greek. The fundamental social delineator in Paul's previous life is wiped out by this statement. His whole identity was founded in being a Jew, but here he is saying that in Christ, the whole notion of Jewishness no longer applies. Our identity is not about being Jewish or Australian or "American." Instead, the only question is whether we are "in Christ," part of the new community of love that God has established.
In our time the media is convulsed over what it means to be Australian, aided and abetted by the spin doctors of the political parties. We are treated to a diet of slurs about the Prime Minister's relationship to her partner, the foul "humour" of Liberal Party fundraisers, and the dehumanising of refugees and the ethnic groups at the bottom of our social pecking order.
This exposes a naked and desire for power in which, oddly, it is the amount of the Prime Minister's cleavage that is visible that makes the headlines. On both sides of politics there is a shameless lack of shame. The often quoted "race to the bottom," has been about creating points of difference; opposites. Essentially, each side has tried to prove it is more 'Ostrayian' than the other. There is sometimes barely even a pretence that we are, or should be, a just and democratic country.
The hijacking of civilised and relevant political debate by the Tea Party in the USA witnesses to a similar malaise and withering of civility.
Paul effectively says this whole struggle to differentiate is based on an ungodly misconception. There is no ethnic or national identity in the future that God wishes for us, and which God has begun.
We affirm the statement no longer Jew or Greek in church almost casually. How then, if we said neither American nor Iranian, or neither Jew nor Palestinian? How many Israelis would eat at table with Palestinians? How many God fearing Americans have Iranians among their friends? Or do they demonise the refugees among them—even the good Iranians, if you like, in the same way that we Australians spew out poison against African refugees, Muslim refugees, and against the original inhabitants of the land? Who among us have aboriginal people at table, or even Muslim friends?
Then Paul says there is no longer slave or free. This is a fundamental blow against the economic system of his time. The entire economic system of the empire, and of all its vassal states, rested upon the exploitation of slaves. It took a long time for the church to come to terms with this. He gives a broad hint in Philemon that it is inappropriate for Philemon to continue to have Onesimus as a slave, but we do not see him actively campaigning in this area.
The statement is there, nonetheless. In Christ there is no longer slave or free.
If we want to glimpse the import of this statement for us, consider the following claim: In Christ there is no longer employer or employee. Try telling your boss that in Christ he or she has no more rights to money or privilege than you do. He or she, and you, have a right to a living, but then a responsibility to others and to Earth. Clearly, no one will disagree with you!
Finally we come to the last pair of opposites. There is no longer male and female. The language is different. It is not male or female, but male and female. It is clearly a reference to Genesis 1:27.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
It matters not that the creation of woman implies that she is complementary rather than derivative. It matters not that she is Mother of Life (Eve) without whom the dirt (Adam) is incomplete. The story of Genesis 3 is witness to our painful experience that we are fundamentally and constantly enslaved to creating binary opposites and oppositions rather than fruitful complements. Right down to Labor vs. Liberal. The entire political system is based around opposition.
In the vision of Genesis 3 the great complementarity of God's good creation, Male and Female, is subverted into an opposite. But now, says Paul, it no longer exists. The most basic example of the enslavement and subversion of the good of creation is being overthrown.
Consider the rampant appalling hatred and misogyny which is abroad in Australia at the moment. The reason Tony Abbot has attacked the Prime Minster so viciously, the reason Mal Brough sponsors menus that say Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail - Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box, is that her presence as Prime Minister threatens a pair of opposites which our nation uses as a foundation.
In Australia, women are worth less. We reluctantly tolerate them in the workplace because we need them. We tell ourselves we can allow this because, after all, the men are still in charge… until Julia arrives. I cannot recall such an outpouring of vitriol and personal hatred in Australian public life.
A major part of the Liberal Party race to the bottom—Labor has its own shameful strategy to get there first—has been around the constant attacks on Gillard's person and especially on her gender and feminity.
It is a strategy which has worked. Insecure male voters hate Julia Gillard with a passion and are lining up to vote Liberal. It is ostensibly all about her 'wrecking the joint' despite the fact that our economic record during Labor and Gillard's term is the envy of the world.
I do not seek to defend Gillard's politics; indeed, Labor has betrayed any claim to be a party for the workers, or for justice. What I want to point out here is the utter hatred directed at her because she is an incarnation of Paul's most fundamental statement of the implications of the work of Christ: there is no longer male and female. He is destroying the basis of our world. The world, not surprisingly, hates this.
The fury of the interlopers in Galatia is increasingly understandable. To begin with, Paul has told people in Galatia that God simply loves them; circumcision and other such observation of the Law is not necessary. Now, when he is being pushed to defend himself, he says that God never demanded that Abraham abide by the Law! He recalls Genesis 15:
5[God] brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 cf. Galatians 3:6-7)
And he says that now
those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ 9For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. (Gal 2:8-9)
The true children of Abraham are not the interlopers who say you should keep the Law you foolish Galatians! The true children of Abraham are those who believe when they hear the good news of the relationship-with-God-restoring faith of Christ!
From the point of view of the Jerusalem believers he has turned the scripture on its head.
But now, in the verses this week, he goes even further to alienate the Jerusalem believers.
25But now that faith has come… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
My colleague Bill Loader sums up Paul's argument like this: "God treats us the way he treated Abraham and expects from us only what he expected from Abraham." But now, says Martyn, "Paul lays the foundation for putting descent from Abraham into second place, indeed for eventually eclipsing it in favour of descent from God." (Galatians pp375)
He reminds us Paul is quoting liturgy; probably a baptismal formula. In baptism, the old opposites on which the foundations of our self understanding are laid, and the very foundations of our society are laid, are undermined.
Not only is Paul disagreeing with the Jerusalem believers, he is handing out the ultimate insult. You are not only wrong. Your whole conception of the foundations of life with God is irrelevant. You trying to stand on a foundation which does not even exist!
We who live in secular and pluralist society are apt to miss something here. In Paul's culture there is no clear distinction between religion and politics. An issue might be more directly religious—or political—but the two spheres were interlaced like warp and woof, not stitched along a seam. This is probably still truer than we realise today, but in any event, Paul's words are not some 'spiritual' declaration. They refer to the whole of reality. We cannot exclude the political sphere from Paul's words.
Martyn notes a common philosophical understanding in the time of Paul (which, of course, is inherently religious).
Both at their baptism and now in hearing the liturgy again, the Galatians will have noted that in form the text presents what numerous thinkers of their day termed a table in which certain pairs of opposites were named and identified as the elements that the gave the cosmos its dependable structure. To pronounce the non existence of these opposites is to announce nothing less than the end of the cosmos. (pp376)
Where am I going with all this?
In Galatians Paul says
My point is this: …. we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the cosmos=world. 8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. (Galatians 4:1-3, 8-10)
Following Walter Wink's understanding of the principalities and powers (eg Eph 6:12) being embedded and manifested in our institutions and systems, I think it is fair to say that our observable enslavement to polar opposites and dualities, and our reluctance—even inability—to work and relate in complementary fashion is an example of enslavement to elemental spirits.
We are right to despair about our current political process, for it is an enslavement. There is no way forward here. According to Paul, it is part of a cosmos that God is invading and destroying.
In person Tony Abbot is apparently a humane man for whom it is a pleasure to work. He has a vision for people. In public he takes on the persona of a junk yard dog. He has bought into the myth of the opposite at a time when Australia yearns for a leader who will bring us together. It will not let him go. He has sold out to an elemental spirit, as many on each side of the House seem to have done. It is divisiveness that will elect him and divisiveness will demand its payment.
The Spirit of God, by contrast, is about uniting, and about nurturing relationship with God. Our discipleship as we gather together in Christ is to build up, to nurture and to unite. We cannot do that by appealing to division, or by inciting division, as our politicians are doing. That is enslavement to a world which is being overthrown, not discipleship to the Christ.
In the end, we—especially we Christians of the Uniting Church, may be called to consider what no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female means for other pairs of opposites, like Christian or Muslim.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
A couple of great quotations from J. Louis Martyn's Galatians.
Given the widespread and comforting view that true religion provides the dependable map to the world and to one's place in the world, it can be no surprise that the nonreligious, unified life in Christ involves a real death, and specifically the baptizands participation in Christ's death (Gal 2:19-20, 5:24, Ro 6:3-4) pp382
For the old pairs of opposites are not discrete sins to be washed away or simply renounced. They are the basic building blocks of a cosmos from which one is now painfully separated by death. In this way, baptism is a participation both in Christ's death and in Christ's life; for genuine eschatological life commences when one is taken into the community of the new creation in which unity in God's Christ has replaced religious-ethnic differentiation. In a word, religious and ethnic differentiations and that which underlies them—the Law—are identified in effect as "the old things" that have now "passed away," giving place to the new creation. (2 Cor 5:17) pp 382