Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
Finish this sentence for me: you are not a Christian if you…
How do you think that sentence ends? You are not a Christian if you… what? What is it about what you say or do or believe or are that someone says keeps you from living a life in Christ? There have been a few ways that others have finished that sentence for me.
A long time ago, when I first started to realize that God might be calling me into the work of pastoral ministry, I had to explain to my parents that I would not be going to law school as anticipated, but would rather explore this call to be ordained. This meant my parents would likewise have to explain to people that the answer to the question “What’s Megan doing these days?” would be “Well, probably studying to be a pastor.” The response my parents often got was: “She knows that women can’t be pastors, right?”
You are not a Christian if you believe that the Holy Spirit and the church call women into the work of ordained ministry.
In my very first breakout session of my very first class in my very first year at seminary, my professor, classmates, and I talked about the very first verses of the Bible. While discussing the book of Genesis and the stories of creation, I talked about my understanding that the days of creation did not need to be an exact seven days of twenty-four hours in length, but however it happened God created all things and God created them good indeed. My classmate interrupted. He told me that there is no way to be a person of faith without believing only in a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible, especially the creation story.
You are not a Christian if you don’t take every single word of the Bible at only one particular, exclusive reading. You are not a Christian if you are not a seven-day creationist.
When my grandfather died, an area church read through the obituary and found his. In spite of the references to his active faith, they sent my family a letter telling us that while it was too late for my grandfather, there was still time to assure our own place in heaven by joining their church. When I wrote them back, saying that I know my scripture, thank you, and I trust in God’s mercy, they responded to me that “if you really knew that, you would say ‘amen!’ to our words”.
You are not a Christian if you don’t go to our church and believe exactly the way we do.
I’m not telling you these stories to make you feel sorry for me. I’m telling you these stories to remind you of the myriad ways we tell someone that she lives outside Christian faith. When people have dictated to you what your faith must be, how have they ended the sentence? You are not a Christian if you: are pro-choice, are pro death penalty, are Republican, are gay, or ultimately, if you believe or are something I do not understand or do not like. Sound familiar?
It should sound familiar, because it’s exactly the lesson we just read. You’ll remember from last week that the early Christian church gathered at what is known as the Jerusalem Council to answer a thorny question for their time: does a Christian have to first become a Jew to follow Jesus? At the time, the early faith was primarily made of Jewish believers. However, more and more Gentiles – non-Jews, like the Ethiopian eunuch we heard about two weeks ago – were becoming Christians. Did they have to follow all the laws, including the law about circumcision, in order to be a Christian? The council decided: no, they do not.
In this reading, Paul reflects on that ongoing controversy. Paul was once a devout Jew, so serious about preserving the faith that he assisted in the persecution of Christians. However, Jesus appeared to him and the experience converted him not only into a Christian, but into a powerful preacher, evangelizer, and teacher of the faith. Paul wrote many of the books of the New Testament as letters to groups of Christians that he helped see the truth of the gospel. He knows the power of the law – it was his life. And more even than that, he knows the power of the gospel.
Paul knows, and so must we, that the only thing that makes a Christian a Christian is Christ. Nothing but Christ alone defines our faith. Anything that we do, or anything we say others must do, means nothing. The only thing that matters is Christ. “The life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” This life is shaped by Christ, and because of Christ, our lives are changed. Paul tells us that through Christ we die. Anything we are or must be or cannot achieve dies with it. What lives in us is Christ, and the life we now live takes on his shape.
We think of our actions in this life as prerequisites of faith instead of the products of faith. We’re so busy obsessing if we’re doing things right, or worse yet, trying to tell others they’re not doing it right that we forget to ground ourselves in Christ alone. We’re so busy judging the behavior that we take no time to wonder what Christ might be doing in our own lives. We’re so busy focusing on the action that we forget from whence the action arises. We want to make the rules neat and clean: you can’t be a Christian unless you X, Y, and Z. Instead, the rules much more difficult: you are whoever God made you to be, and the life you now live you live in Christ. The question isn’t what must you do to be a Christian. The question is, when you are a Christian, what will this life you now live look like?
This isn’t a question of what you must do to belong. This is a question of what you will do because you belong. Because Christ lives in you, how will you live? Will you live in a way that tries to keep others out? Will you live in a way that keeps it all to yourself? Will you live in a way that makes you appear greater? Or will the life you live testify to a God who welcomes all, who serves all, who brings life for all, who claimed even you and all the ways you don’t fit what a Christian should be, who knows there is no belonging or excluding, but only Christ?
You are not a Christian if you deny in your words and actions that Christ lives not only in you, but in people who don’t look like you or act like you or love like you. The life you live now you live only by faith in the Son of God, who loves you and the people you don’t like. Thanks be to God.