Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
June 23, 2019—Proper 7C
Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
“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” (Gal 3:26-29).
This is REALLY important to Paul. He’s talking about what the community looks like, what the body of Christ looks like, as it lives together and waits for the return of Jesus. Which he believed would be soon. Which he believed would arrive before many of them had lived out their expected lifetime. Which he believed was imminent, is what I’m saying.
Still, no matter how soon Paul believed that the second coming would arrive, he clearly thought it MATTERED how the community lived in anticipation of that joyous and climatic event. It matters. It’s important to live into as much of the identity of beloved community that we can manage. And one of the clear themes that emerges as you read all of Paul’s letters to those early Christian communities, to those groups of believers struggling to be exemplars of beloved community, is this: to be the Body of Christ on earth is to do away with the kinds of hierarchies that we humans tend to thrive upon.
Elsewhere, Paul warns against false meritocracies based on spiritual gifts, insisting (in both Corinth and Ephesus) that those with the flashy gifts are no more beloved or holy than those with quieter expressions of faith. In Corinth, he also deals with factions of the community wishing to claim greater authority and wisdom, depending on which teacher they follow. Paul reminds them that God chooses to make God’s power known through weakness and foolishness, and those members of the body who are still trying to claim strength and superiority have missed the point.
We’ve missed the point. We still want hierarchies to exist, because they give us the chance to claim or choose the RIGHT hierarchy, and thus to gain status and position. Paul, however, over and over insists that life in Christ looks different. Life in Christ, life in the beloved community, blows all our ways of ranking and gaining ground and knowing where we stand (hopefully higher than at least a few folks) out of significance. In Christ, he says, NONE of that matters. None of it.
In Christ, it does not matter whether you are Jew or Greek (aka, a chosen person or a pagan), it does not matter whether you are a slave or a free man; in Christ, there is no longer a meaningful distinction between male and female. Not, I think, that Paul was suggesting those categories no longer exist; just that the beloved community did away with any preference that society would have given to men, or free people, or Jews (to the Jewish community, that is).
I want to emphasize this part again: Paul did not think this community would last a single lifetime before Christ returned. And yet, he clearly thought this was crucial in the meantime: Don’t set yourselves above and below each other. In Christ, you are all equal, no matter your gift, no matter your respective wealth, no matter your gender or nationality or any of the other things that give you status (or not) in the wider society. Clothed in Christ, none of those things matters any more.
It does not appear that he was a social crusader. There isn’t really any evidence that he wanted to apply these principles beyond the community and fight against societal injustices. I’ll even admit that as time lengthened, you can see later letters of Paul (and those who write in Paul’s name and tradition, like the author of Timothy) make concessions to the structures and hierarchies of the world around them. So you see a re-emergence of more worldly views about the role of women, for instance. After all, they needed to live in that world somehow.
But here at the beginning, when things felt the most fresh and urgent, casting those divisions and rankings aside was clearly crucial to living a Christ-like life. Which makes that our heritage. And makes the question of how to live that out on a longer time scheme than Paul originally imagined OUR task, just as it was the task of those early Christians who followed Paul. We too have to figure out what it means to live this way, to figure out how this embodies beloved community, serving each other in a holy, humbling, breath-taking equality. And we have to grapple with how this calls us to live in the world, and what our reaction should be to a world that insists on living in a different way: a way that often gives extra status to those of a certain religion, class, or gender; a society that values some forms of work vastly higher than others; a culture that demands adherence to a strict understanding of male and female, as though that division is somehow crucial to God.
Paul insists that it isn’t; that none of these distinctions are, at least in the context of the beloved community. We are that community, and we are constantly seeking to live that out in a more loving and complete way. It’s what makes this place a healing place. A holy place. A place where people can walk in and recognize Jesus in our midst. May it ever be so, Amen.
 Jane Lancaster Patterson, “Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29,” posted http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4099