There have always been those in the church who demand litmus tests for Christians. They want control. They want it their way.
Paul is so deeply troubled with the Galatians, some of whom are falling into this camp. He states in today’s verses: “I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, but I am perplexed with you.” He certainly isn’t without words. But some of them cut like daggers.
He also makes it quite clear that the doors of the gospel are wide open. He is tired of these Judaizers who are demanding litmus tests – namely that the Gentiles come to them (and the House of Israel) rather than coming to Christ, first and foremost. In the context of this argument, he makes an interesting observation: “They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you so that you may make much of them.”
How true this is! I look at the current divides over polity, most prominent these days in the Methodist Church, and I talk to my fellow Methodist minister friends and I just grieve with them. So often in these debates (which for Americans always seem to center around sexuality….What is our obsession with sex, folks???), I see a lot of people spouting off at the mouth and only interested in hearing themselves speak. There seems to be a lot of building themselves up and not much building up the body of Christ.
Don’t get me wrong. These issues are deep and troubling. I am not dismissing them or making a joke. But I am siding with Paul on this in saying “They make much of you, but for no good purpose.” Those who disagree with me might say “There IS good purpose to our debates over sexuality, namely saving the sanctity and purity of the church.”
On a good day I respectfully disagree. On a bad day I say hogwash. That is exactly the same argument the Judaizers of Galatia were stating. They wanted litmus tests. They wanted the new Christians to conform to their standards before that of Christ’s. The way I see it, they argued this because under Paul’s understanding Christ wasn’t not under their control. The reality is that Christ broke out of that tomb on the third day, and God was out on the loose. That scared the hell out of people. And it still does.
People have been trying to put Christ back in that tomb for 2,000 years. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are doing it. They claim to be standing up for right. It turns out they are only standing for oppression, control, and their version of the truth. Christ has led some of us to different understandings of the Law. Look at the dietary laws, as a prime example.
Most recently it has led many of us to new understandings of marriage and covenant. In the midst of this, it is convenient to talk about sanctity and purity, and on the surface seems like a valid argument. But Paul knew, and the Presbyterian Church certainly knows, there is a fine line between purity and oppression of a whole class of people. There are behaviors we want to follow, namely the rule of love, and some leaders in the church simply have their noses out of joint because they can’t control others, can’t abide different interpretations of Scripture from theirs, and they can’t get their way with the required numbers of votes.
Folks, it has never been about one getting one’s way in the church. It has always been about Christ’s way! And he lays out the radical and inclusive love of God, and God paving the way to freedom, justice, and peace. It does not look like a church where everyone is sanctimonious, but a church where God welcomes all. It is the love that transforms, not the rules.
God has often not played by the rules. One doesn’t have to look far in the Old Testament to realize that God is not bound by rules; after all, and after all he is the one that set them up! He set them up for us, not himself! Examples: He is a jealous God. He wipes out armies. In the prophets, he forgives sin at the drop of a hat (quite a bit in Jeremiah and Zechariah, and dramatically in Jonah’s Ninevah), breaking the very rules he established. Hey, folks, God’s prerogative! Tough noogies. God can do whatever God wants.
It’s time for us – once and for all – to trust that this is God’s church, and he can do with it as he wishes. We don’t need to control it. We need to let go of control, and get out of God’s way as he shapes us into new people through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our job is to have patience as we remember that God is in charge, and isn’t done with us yet. I can rest in that.