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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Outposts - 06/23/2019

Years ago, when I was in Lay School, I took a class led by Bishop Tom Skrenes. It was a class about church membership vs discipleship. I actually got quite a lot out of the class. It helped me to understand that we sometimes do see our involvement in a faith community too much like a club membership and not deeply enough as an assembly that supports our discipleship.

We aren’t here because it looks good on a resume or elevates us to a special social status. We are here because in one way or another God’s Spirit conspired to bring us here so that we are nurtured in Word and Sacrament and surrounded by others who also find themselves somewhere on this Jesus-Journey. We come here to be forgiven and refreshed and prepared for God to work through us disciples, especially when we go back out there.

So this class made an impression on me, obviously. It has stuck with me through these years since.

Part of that walk of the disciple is to be steeped in the Word. I have said before that one of the main things that drew me to an ELCA faith community was the open invitation for all with ears to hear to come around the scriptures … to read for ourselves the stories of our faith and our ancestors … to let the Gospel accounts fall into our own lives and teach us, bring us closer to God, uplift us in our Jesus Ways, and convict us when necessary. 

That had not always been my experience. In fact, there were times when I was even discouraged from reading the bible. I got chastised in my early catechism classes for raising my hand too often when we talked about Noah’s Ark, or Jesus bringing the children around him, or God’s Ten Commandments or the Virgin Mary – who seemed, in some ways, so much like me. “Ann Maria, stop asking so many questions,” an instructor once said.

I was urged instead to memorize prayers and read about the compliance of the saints, which I did and I loved. But it didn’t stop the questions, it only changed who I asked.

So by the time I got to this ELCA way of things, I was eating it up. At the end of this lay school class, Bishop Skrenes asked each of us to think about how we would answer this question: What is your favorite bible verse?

He planned to make videos of our responses and show them at Synod Assembly … I felt a little pressure … to be asked to do this by the bishop – to  testify like this publicly. But I already knew I wanted to be a pastor, so I figured I’d better step up and do it.

It seems like a simple question, it can be a lot like being asked what’s your favorite color … there are so many possibilities. So after some thought, I came to a verse from our epistle reading today: Galatians 3:28 – “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.”

I picked it because it spoke so plainly to the disciple inside of me that seeks justice for the ones who are left behind or forgotten or despised … including myself, in some respects.

I read this passage, and I envisioned this new world Jesus brought to us in which walls were crumbling and unity was building between those from different religious faiths and traditions. I heard liberation for those who were somehow oppressed … like people who are literally enslaved in human trafficking and also, people enslaved in abusive relationships or fighting the shackles of addition.  People like veterans and survivors of war living under the cruel thumb of PTSD, or the one among us who feels they must hide who they really are for fear of rejection or because they’ve somehow been convinced they don’t deserve to be loved.

In this verse from Galatians, I heard Paul breaking down outgrown doctrine that said I could not be ordained simply because I carried my reproductive organs on the inside of my body instead of the outside.

I read this passage and envisioned all of creation gathered up lovingly and protectively in Jesus Christ, all injustices corrected, people living in unity with each other, a world in which people knew stewardship of the planet like we know breathing. I guess it was like a New Eden …

So here’s the other thing about being disciples who are steeped in the Word, eventually you find out that what you understood so plainly in one way is really something quite different, and that is the case with this verse.

You see, it turns out when Paul wrote this letter to the struggling churches he had relationships with in Galatia, it’s not likely he was thinking about social justice at all. We can surmise this because one thing we do know about Paul is he was absolutely certain Jesus Christ would be returning immediately.

In the first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes: “For the people of (other) regions … how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for (God’s) son from heaven, (who was) raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” (1 Thess 1:9-10)

Paul expected to be a live witness of the tumultuous event of Jesus’ return. And when that happened, those who remained enslaved or oppressed by anyone or anything would be made free and whole in Jesus Christ.

So social issues like discrimination against the Gentiles by the Jesus-following Jews …

Or the freedom of those born into or plunged into the social class of slavery …

Or the equality of men and women in a culture in which women were considered property …

… none of these social issues were likely of top concern for Paul.

It’s a little like when you are getting ready to go on vacation and you have a million things on your checklists – stuff you must finish up at work before you go; arrangements for pets or children; vacation voice mail messages; chores around the house; packing; reservations and travel arrangements – the list can go on and on and on. And somehow, at first, you might even think, “Yes, I’m certain I can get these massive lists done before pulling out of the driveway next week.!”

But the closer you come to that driveway moment, the more quickly the really unnecessary stuff falls away from the lists and the truly necessary, truly critical tasks rise to the top. The rest will have to work itself out, by the Grace of God, you decided as you leave for vacation exhausted.

From where Paul stood, it is likely issues of circumcision and uncircumcision, freedom and gender had fallen away – that window of opportunity for humankind to seek justice had closed and now Jesus was coming back to address all of that himself – and at any moment.

So if this wasn’t about social justice for Paul, what was it about? One commentary I read offered up a fruitful piece of insight in answer to that I think.

Paul’s focus in this letter to the Galatians – and all of his letters, I think we could argue – was to help create communities that were Outposts of Life “In Christ.”  (x2) He was encouraging them and anyone who would beleive to the story of Jesus, to be an assembly of people relating to one another in accord with Jesus’ anticipated full and final entry into the world. (Jane Lancaster Patterson,

In other words, Paul expected disciples of Jesus would themselves live as though Jesus had come back and God’s intention for unity and love among all people and throughout creation was already ……. even though we also know there is so much more to come.

We come at this message from Paul from a different point in time. Obviously, the return of Jesus that Paul was fully expecting the moment he finished writing this letter didn’t happen.

We still wait, helping one another remain confident that Jesus will indeed return – only, unlike Paul, we grapple much more with the realization that we really do not know when that time will come. We cannot pretend to be as certain as Paul that we will be live witnesses to this event.

And ultimately, I don’t think it matters that my original take on this verse does not match Paul’s. I believe God though the Sprit is teaching us, calling us through both Paul’s intent and our contemporary perspectives.

Through generations and hosts of human experiences and contexts, creations and destructions, victories and failures, we still find relevance in what Paul meant then and the new ways God inspires us through the Word now.

And so, there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer ELCA Lutheran or Missouri Synod Lutheran, Protestant or Roman Catholic, God-fearer or atheist.

There is no long slave or free; there is no longer the one who uses or the one in recovery; the one who harms oneself or the one who one oneself; the one who wears a mask or the one who bares it all.

There is no longer male or female; there is no longer native or immigrant; student or teacher; youth or elder; right or wrong identity.

It is all – every last beautiful and broken bit of it – all one in Christ.

That, Paul says, is what is most important for these us in our Outposts of Life “In Christ” to remember and practice when we assemble. We live confidently in the promise of that fully revealed realm of God Jesus will usher in …. We go on our Jesus-following Way behaving as though it is already upon us while we wait.  Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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