In our Gospel today (Matthew 5:13-20), Jesus calls us to dedicate ourselves to be salt and light in the world, in order to witness to the kingdom of God in our midst. As we think of our own flavor and illumination that we bring to our Christian witness, it is of great importance to first actually celebrate the claim Christ has made on each of our lives. Because Christ’s claim has embraced us so deeply, we can’t help but be Christ’s salt and light in the world.
(Galatians 3:23-29) is the Bible passage that declares the life-changing power in which we’ve all been embraced by Jesus Christ. Christ has laid claim to each and every one of us. That claim is more important in uniting us than anything that would seek to divide us as Christians.
Unfortunately, the church in Galatia long ago was made up of a small group of early believers in Jesus who were so viciously infighting about divisions among themselves that their divisions bubbled over. Christian Jews in this new church were insisting that marks of Jewish identity, including circumcision, should be imposed on new Christians who were Gentile converts. These Gentiles were believing in Jesus and coming into the church without a Jewish background. So, an argument arose, where some in the church insisted the lifestyles of these gentile people joining the church needed to change before they could fully be a part of the congregation.
This became such a heated division in the Galatian church, that the Apostle Paul had to write this letter, a piece of which we read today, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, to get all these Christians to reset their minds on why and how they became a church in the first place. St. Paul admonished this entire congregation in Galatia for neglecting the great new life that Christianity had offered them all. Then St. Paul insisted that these Christians look at each other through the lens of the salvation and new identity which Jesus had brought to them. St. Paul writes: “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:26-29)
Unfortunately, we like the believers in the church in Galatia still to this day are so much better at picking apart one another by finding what divides us rather than finding what unites us, aren’t we? Yes, even in the Church, of all places.
Decades ago, in the early 1980’s, when I was in college, I went to a small school that offered several organizations in which to participate if you, as a student, wanted to grow in your Christian faith. Only a small percentage of students participated in these groups, but one group seemed quite ‘popular’. So of course, as a young college person I gravitated to that group and participated in it for quite some time. That is, until some in our group started pushing an understanding that started to be divisive. The concept was that some among us were true believers and others among us hadn’t quite fully arrived. I hung in there with this group as this theological debate quietly began, but my participation reached its breaking point when a prayer request was passed along in the group. A fellow student was ill. When I shared the verbal request for prayers with another student, instead of simply agreeing to hold this person in prayer, my classmate first asked me, “Well, is this person who is sick a Christian or not?”
I walked away from that classmate thinking – really? We only pray for people in need if they are officially Christian? I don’t think that’s the way I understand Jesus to have taught all of us to pray.
It’s a small example, but there it is. And that example is as alive and well in 2020 as it was in 1981. We draw lines of who is in and who is out so easily, don’t we? It happens in all aspects of our lives. And unfortunately, these lines get drawn in our faith life too.
Yet, these are lines WE draw, not Jesus.
Jesus Steps Over Lines
Here’s another old personal example, but its relevant. I was a middle-schooler in the mid-70’s. Already at that age, I enjoyed church and participating in confirmation. I sang in the youth choir. But those of you here in attendance this morning who are my age or older, you know that even in our predecessor body of the Lutheran church in the ‘70’s, if you were a young female, you couldn’t volunteer as a kid to be an acolyte. I couldn’t dress up in a church robe and light the candles on the altar for Sunday morning church like my male junior-high classmates.
Now, we ELCA Lutherans erased that line while I was still in high school, but it’s still a line not crossed by some of our other Christian branches. Who drew that line? As a female pastor who has now worn a robe on a lot of Sundays for over 30 years, can I tell you my heart smiles anytime I take the lighting stick and light the candles on this altar to this day. I know that of course I can light these symbols of our faith. Any of us can!
Because you see, we believe in a Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who in his own ministry stepped over lines all the time. Although people tried to tell him who he could talk to or touch or eat with, Jesus had no time for that. The kingdom of heaven was bursting in him and through him and Jesus had this kingdom to bring near any and every person he could. He had lepers to touch. Tax collectors and fishermen to call. Pious pharisees to have deep religious discussions with. Samaritans to encounter. Women to share meals and teachings with.
Jesus steps over the line all the time. Honestly, in Jesus, the lines just didn’t matter. He was always meeting people where they were. His first priority was to get himself and the kingdom of God right into the presence of every person he met. Jesus showed all sorts of surprised people up close and personal what – God’s love – and wonder – and challenge – really look like. In Jesus’ presence, people had a new encounter with God in person that changed everything! It was like Jesus lit a fire in them. And all of a sudden, they too could let Christ’s light shine through themselves.
Jesus still encounters people personally in the same way today through the Holy Spirit. We know that from our own experience, right? And Jesus is still stepping right over any lines we continue to draw, thank heavens!
Christ for All
But because we carry a history, a 2000 year old history of baggage as Christians — of still arguing about who is in and who is out of God’s love, we’re at a point where we need to be a bit more clear in stating that the love Jesus extended – and still extends – to ALL PEOPLE. So, while we try figure that out, as a congregation, we’ve tried to state things a bit more clearly by creating and approving our church’s Welcome Statement this past year. This welcome statement is our way of naming that we realize there are individuals who identify themselves in certain ways whom the church once drew lines around that couldn’t be crossed. But now we believe through the scriptures, through Jesus’ activity in the Holy Spirit and through our call to be salt and light as Christ’s witnesses in the world, that we can extend our welcome, to those who once have felt left out by the church. There are no boundaries that can keep Jesus Christ from coming to anyone. And there are no boundaries to keep anyone from coming into our community as beloved children of God.
Today, on this Reconciling in Christ celebration Sunday, we are especially lifting up the part of our welcome that extends to people who identify with a specific sexual identity or orientation. Today is a day to take pause together as Good Shepherd Church and cast a more intentional look inward and outward to extend Christ’s love to these siblings of ours in Christ who have been hurt or neglected previously by the church.
In a different, yet similar way, this past week we heard from Percy Brown, who taught about 130 of us in attendance here in our sanctuary on Tuesday about Racial Equity. As a black leader who is a deeply faithful Christian and our brother in Christ, Percy had us think about our past for generations in our country where we’ve created racial divides that still pervade so much of what we do and say in our culture and in our Christian faith. He then called for us to think of how Christ transforms all of our hearts and souls. Christ has laid his claim on us in order that we might ALL be the children of God who now, Christ’s salt and light in the world, chip away at any walls that would separate us by sexual identity, or race, or anything else.
Made New in Jesus
Which circles us back to St. Paul’s inspired words to all of us who believe in Jesus. St. Paul called the people of the Galatian church, as he still calls all of us, to get out of the way and let God’s grace in Jesus Christ spill over and pour down on any and every one in its path. For when we pause for a moment, we each can even remember all the surprising ways that grace has come – even to the likes of each and every one of us.
We’re different from one another. We’re each unique. And yet together, we are all new in Jesus. And that’s what matters!
“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.” Thanks be to God! AMEN.