Isaiah 55:1-5, Galatians 3:23-28
October 7, 2007
This is World Communion Sunday. And what a great day to take a look at these words from Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Written during his third missionary journey, this was the definitive letter on a subject we’ve dealt with before in the early Church. That subject had to do with the big question, “Does a person who is a Gentile have to become a Jew when they become a Christian?” Or, as it was it was also stated, “Once a person becomes a Christian, are they subject to keeping the Laws of Moses?” You may remember that the council of Church leaders in Jerusalem dealt with this question way back in Acts 15. We talked about it on August 26th in a sermon entitled, “What Really Matters.” But the problem was apparently not over.
This was a very important letter in that respect. Because in answering that question beyond a doubt, Paul helped set the course of Church history, a course in which Christianity would become a world religion, rather than just a sect of Judaism. Do you see how that’s the case? If the “Judaizers,” as they were called had prevailed, then keeping the Law of Moses would have taken predominance, and Christianity would have remained a part of the Jewish religion. Instead it became a new faith in Christ. That alone makes this letter a watershed in the whole history of Christianity.
There’s another reason this was such an important letter. And that has to do with this celebration of World Communion Sunday. In the course of this letter, Paul sets out this wonderful principle of Christianity that the human divisions people tend to make between themselves and others have no business in the Church. Paul breaks down the walls that divide us saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
He even adds this in conclusion, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” That which was most important to the people of his time and his world – being children of Abraham, was conferred on all who follow Christ! Not only that, but it was through the Grace of God that their relationship with God was restored, not adherence to any previous formulas. He told them that they were free from the confines of the Mosaic law – a notion that would not have ingratiated him with his fellow Jews! Not only that, he said that a person in Christ has the same status of being an heir of the kingdom, as those who followed that law!
In this letter, and in the words of his other writings, the walls between God’s people have crumbled. In the early Church, government officials worshipped right alongside slaves, masters worshipped right alongside servants. That’s they way God ordered his new Church. Paul recognized that those distinctions are unimportant to the God who looks on the heart. There are no walls between people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For all are one.
And notice, those were the biggest class distinctions in Paul’s time! To be a Gentile in a Jewish world was to have a huge wall between you and “them!” To be a slave in the Roman society was to be way below others. To be a woman in that world was to have a totally different class distinction. In that society, women had very little social status, and in many cultures they were simply thought of as “property.” Those walls between people were broken down boldly by Paul!
Unfortunately though, people have been in the business of “repairing” those walls and even rebuilding them ever since! Neither the world nor the Church became “class-less,” as Paul was advocating. And in some times and places the building of walls became much worse. And I got to thinking, if Paul were writing to us today, what distinctions would he use? He would say, “There is neither…” What? Black nor White? Rich nor Poor? Protestant nor Catholic? PC(USA) nor PCA? Blue collar nor white collar? Conservative nor liberal? Legal nor illegal? Traditional nor contemporary? Bristol nor Croydon? What kinds of distinctions would he use as his examples of our being one in Christ Jesus?
Today, we celebrate communion with people all over the world. And I would like you to do as I have often asked people to do on this day, to picture the communion celebrations in other Churches all around the world. As you take the elements of communion, think of taking them with all those other people. Well, I suppose that when I’ve done that, the tendency has been for the mental pictures to look a lot like our own experience. Those mental images have probably tended to look like these images in this place.
Well today, as we celebrate this sacrament together, I would also like you to picture in your minds the communion celebrations of other more diverse peoples in the world. As you partake of these elements, think also of the Pentecostals celebrating this sacrament. Just imagine what that would be like. Think of the Roman Catholic celebration. Think of the Latino Churches celebrating in Spanish. Think of the poor churches in South America, or the native cultural Churches in Africa, perhaps with dirt floors and more “tribal” sounding music. Think of the Coptic Church in Egypt celebrating right along with us, using sounds and images that might seem to us more Arabic than Christian. Think of the words we use today being spoken in countless other languages, unintelligible to us, yet full of meaning and emotion to those hearing them.
That is World Communion Sunday! It means the walls have come down! It means God’s people recognizing that those walls are meaningless to God. When we look down from an airplane or from space, which we often picture as God’s perspective, there are no boarders, and people who think they are great and mighty are very small. We are truly one world. And God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
My friends, this is whole thing has two important effects. First of all the way we love one another, the way we break down those walls rather than build them, helps to upbuild not only our own Christian community but also the body of Christ and the Church universal. That is so important! And I would remind you that the New Testament is full of exhortations to upbuild, to edify, and to encourage. That’s what Paul said time and time again. And that’s all of our responsibility! We are important in each others’ faith development. We all are to build up the Church.
The second important effect this has is that the way we love one another and break down walls is a big part of our witness to those outside of Christianity. And frankly, that’s not a very good witness at times! Over the years, one of my own expressions that I’ve too often found myself using has been this. “As much as I love the Church, as much as it has been a wonderful influence in my life, there are times when I’m glad I’m a part of the Church of Jesus Christ already, because looking in from the outside I wouldn’t want to join!”
The world is watching us! Yes, the pressure is on! And too often, that wonderful, positive song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” has been made negative in other people’s minds. And it has become instead, “They’ll know we are the Christians they don’t like anyway because of the way we don’t love.”
On this World Communion Sunday, let us set a goal to be truly “one in the spirit.” Let us choose to be a positive witness to the world. Let us set ourselves a standard of love that is beyond our experience or even our own strength. Let us, with the strength of God, strive anew to be uplifting and encouraging to our Sisters and Brothers in the faith, and let us strive to be to the world around us, what Jesus told us we are, “the light of the world.”
Eternal God, we know your love for us is eternal and universal for all your people. Forgive us when we put up walls, or when we give in to the fear and discomfort that rises in us when we experience people who are different from us. Help us to see with your perspective the peoples of this world, people who need to know your love through us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.