Vicar Katelyn Rakotoarivelo
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
First, a little background and reminder of what’s going on: Paul the Apostle was a missionary, helping start and support churches all over. Sometimes he sent letters to them. But not everyone was able to read, so likely one person would read the letter to the whole church community.
Imagine if your church received an important letter from the bishop and you all gathered on Sunday to hear your council president share it. You might be expecting some words of encouragement or thanksgiving.
When the Galatians received this letter from Paul, they also knew what to expect: he always started with naming himself, addressing the letter, a greeting, and then a thanksgiving for the church.
Except Paul just skips over the whole thanksgiving part this time. That would’ve been kind of alarming. Instead he gets right to criticizing. Something must really be wrong!
And something was really wrong! The Galatians were listening to false messages even though they knew the true gospel. Paul had shared it with them.
But there were these “missionaries” who came to Galatia after Paul and persuaded the Gentile Christians that they must become Jewish in order to be true followers of Jesus. Their reasons were something like: Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, his first disciples were Jewish, and they used Jewish Scriptures, so therefore you must become Jewish. In other words, these “missionaries” were saying -- to follow Jesus, you must be just like us.(1)
It would be kind of like if I went to a Lutheran church in Africa and said, Well, Martin Luther was European, a lot of Lutherans lived in Norway and Sweden, and the rural Midwest has a lot of Lutherans. So you better figure out how to be white and only sing songs from this red hymnal, or you can’t possibly be Lutheran.
This sounds ridiculous because it is.
There’s a great diversity in the Lutheran church worldwide, and that’s wonderful, especially when we engage together.
But it’s easy to forget that diversity is wonderful. And vibrant. And nourishing. And all sorts of other things.
When we forget that we don’t all need to be the same as Christians, we do what Paul has called “perverting the gospel.” We change it. We distort it. We turn to other messages.
We know the gospel. And it’s for all people.The gospel is the good news of Jesus, the gospel is Jesus, or as Paul puts it, that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.”
We’re free from all of the false teachings and harmful ways of life that we get from the world. And we get a lot of them.
We listen to one-sided media and fear Muslims. Or black men.
We listen to society’s goals and put money first. Or our own egos.
We listen to peer pressure and disrespect women. Or LGBT people.
We forget that we’re free from all of these evils. We’re free to listen to and follow Jesus. But how quickly we get swept up in other messages … just like the Galatians.
Now of course engaging and embracing diversity is just one part of our life together as Christians, but in our world it’s increasingly important if we’re going to be church together.
And when we don’t engage and embrace diversity as Christians, and I mean specifically as Christians, the effects are damaging.
The effects can be damaging on a grand and historical scale, like colonists thinking they have a divinely appointed right to convert and subjugate indigenous peoples, causing generations of harm.
The effects can be more personal and local, like dismissing the confirmation student who has doubts and who questions the way the church does things. I bet there are some of you in this room who were that kid, and who experienced a rejection of your questions and ideas -- and instead the pastor or the congregation simply expected you to assimilate without question. Many kids who experience this eventually leave the church altogether.
The effects can be painful without anyone even realizing what’s wrong. A friend of mine, Sarah, grew up in a charismatic, Spirit-filled tradition, but later joined the ELCA for theological reasons. She was one of just a couple people of color in a good-sized congregation. She also talked a bit more about the Holy Spirit and was more emotive about her faith. Whenever she tried to take on leadership positions within the church or share her ideas in a group, people seemed uncomfortable and would quickly pass over her without thinking.This became a pattern again and again, and it was very painful for her. Was she doing something wrong? Were they passing over her because of her race? Her emotions? Her talk of the Spirit? This congregation was really missing out on a remarkable servant of Christ.
Now these are just a few different ways that thinking we all have to be the same or expecting others to assimilate is damaging. And not only is it damaging to those we exclude or reject, it’s damaging to the church and to our lives. We lose out on a bigger picture of who God is and what the church can be.
But what happens when we do embrace and engage diversity as Christians? I have a few stories to share about this as well.
I spent the week of the 15th in Atlanta, Georgia, working at a conference called the Festival of Homiletics. Homiletics means preaching. It’s five days of worship, preaching, and fellowship. It might not sound fun, but I promise you, it’s amazing. I’ve helped out with it the past couple years. Preachers from a variety of Christian denominations and personal backgrounds share God’s Word and inspire preachers. Likewise, the liturgists for worship offer many different musical styles, prayers, and liturgies. And the clergy who attend the conference are from many denominations.
Opening worship Monday was with Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church and their choir, and throughout the week we heard from Father Renniger from the Catholic Church, Cláudio Carvalhaes - a professor in the U.S. from Brazil and very passionate about justice work, Grace Imathiu - a United Methodist pastor who grew up in Kenya and brings Scripture to life in the most amazing ways, and Nora Gallagher, a writer who educates diligently about caring for the earth. These are so many voices brought together in the most incredible, rich week. I love it. You can hear God everywhere.
Or what about here, at Faith Lilac Way? Two weeks ago you and Greater St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church put together hygiene care kits and shared a potluck meal. You came together in a common mission, while also learning about each other and building relationships and, very importantly, letting one another be who you are. If either group had neglected this opportunity, you would’ve missed out on a great experience! You would’ve missed out on encountering God in new ways and on a certain energy and aliveness that can only happen together.
And finally, last year I attended a documentary and worship service at Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights. One of the worship leaders, a Native American man, shared how some of his older relatives were never allowed to bring their traditional drums into the church. Both were considered unacceptable. I could feel the deep pain of these stories in his eyes. Then, as he and a few others began to drum in the service, I witnessed how truly they worshipped God through their own sounds. And as he spoke about a Native spirituality and Christianity, I witnessed a profound, authentic faith. It’s an evening I’ll never forget.
I’ve shared several stories with you, stories about engaging or rejecting others as Christians. You have a role in shaping the stories that people associate with Christianity and the gospel. We are called to be teachers and examples of the gospel, not of false messages.
You might not think that as one person you make much difference, but you do. Your actions set examples for others, and together we tell and create stories about who God is and what our faith and the gospel mean.
We’re not called to all blend together and become the same. We’re set free to live our lives as authentically as possible as Christians, whether we’re Baptist or Lutheran, Latino or Asian, young or old. The Church needs all of us. When you come to the table with all kinds of Christians, come as yourself, with all of your commitments and an open heart.
We need the whole body of Christ at the table. We can’t just say a general, vague “All Are Welcome.” We have to really mean it.
Who makes you uncomfortable for no other reason than they’re different from you? Who are you quick to judge because their expression of faith isn’t like yours?
Consider this week who you can specifically welcome because of your Christian faith. Who you can specifically learn from that is different from you.
I trust you will find yourself with stereotypes shattered and your experience of God deepened.
If we all do this, we can truly be a church that never distorts or perverts the gospel, but embraces and engages all the ways and all the people through whom our God works. We can live our lives in response to the gospel, together. For this, Jesus has set you free. Amen.
(1) Adapted from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2882 by Audrey West.