Sermon: Sunday 23 June 2013
The Revd Pete Hobson, Acting Canon Missioner
Galatians 3:27-28 – ‘As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ… All of you are one in Christ Jesus.’
Reading this passage alongside latest proposals for making women bishops makes for an interesting counterpoint. If the gospel tells us we are all equal before God – as it most clearly does, not only here but in many other places – then how do we act that out in our lives? Bearing in mind not only that however equal we may believe we all are, we are manifestly not the same, but also that one of the most basic human urges is to band together in groups which accentuate commonality – and so difference from others, not of our group. And in verse 28 Paul instances three basic human differentiations which he says the gospel transcends – in today’s terms those of race, of class and of gender.
So does equality before God mean that these differences no longer exist? But to say that is to defy all common sense. Or that they no longer matter? But again, it seems contrary to every human instinct. So what does he mean? The clue is in the reasons he gives why there is no difference, and in the consequence he says flows from it. I’ll return to that. But first to try and earth this rather abstract thinking a little.
In this Cathedral, under this Dean, we are setting ourselves out to be ‘inclusive’. What do we mean by that? There are groups that often feel themselves excluded by the church, at least by part of it. The poor, if the church is seen as for the materially comfortable. The damaged, if church is seen as for the successful. And yes, race, culture and sexuality have all been used to exclude people from church in the past – and the present. I take it we, under David Monteith’s leadership as Dean, are setting our stall out to aim to not be that sort of place. And I wouldn’t underestimate the difficulties that will give any congregation that is serious about all of that.
But there are other sorts of inclusion and exclusion. I started with reference to the latest version of the proposals for women bishops. This is an issue that famously divides the church – even if there’s a clear majority for change, there’s a significant minority who believe it’s wrong. There are other such issues around: equal marriage is an obvious one. Or just plain and simple what we used to call ‘churchmanship’ – a strange combination of theology, liturgy, habit and personal preference that can lead us to say, ‘this is how things are done around here’, with the possible implication ‘and if you don’t like it – there’s the door!’ So is it possible to be equal but different in these sorts of areas? Different views on women priests and bishops? Different takes on homosexuality? Different convictions on what makes for good worship or right Christian living?
It may possibly comfort you to know that the church has struggled with this since it began, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians arose from just such a situation. Where some early Christians felt that as their faith grew organically out of a Jewish context so there were certain things you had to order, in order to be properly Christian. And others felt otherwise. And it’s not that Paul necessarily took a firm view on such matters such as the need to be circumcised, for example. He is actually on record as taking a different practical position on that in different contexts! But his argument here – of which this is just a highpoint as it were – is that whatever view you take of differences, before God they are always less important than our togetherness. Why does he say this? Well, I said I’d return to that, so here goes: the reason why he says we’re the same before God – and the consequences of it.
Firstly, he says that it’s through our baptism: we are all ‘baptised into Christ’. We have, to turn it into metaphor, ‘clothed ourselves with Christ’. So whoever you are, whatever your actions, beliefs or origins, you are now at root Christ’s. It’s not at root who we are that counts – it’s who we belong to.
And secondly, he says that makes us all ‘Abraham’s offspring’. Remember, the underlying argument of the day was whether you had to become a Jew first to be a Christian. The Jews were very proud to be ‘Abraham’s offspring’. Paul says that if we are Christ’s then that’s all it takes – we are then Abraham’s offspring too. His argument is rather fuller than that – but that’s what it amounts to. So actually, if it is in any sense who we are that counts, then who we are is the same!
What does that mean in practice? Well, it doesn’t means that we can or should all believe the same things. Or that any differences that matter in the society of our time – age, sex, sexuality, nationality – are to be ignored. It does mean that as we differ – in belief or in nature – it’s not as important as the fact that we belong together. In Christ.
We can disagree all we like over who can be a bishop, or who can marry or sleep with who, or what happens on that communion table. It may not surprise you to know that the clergy of this Cathedral, for example, do differ on these and perhaps other matters. But what does happen is that we stand before and around that table as children of the one God, forgiven the same, redeemed the same, called to live it out the same.
The man healed of a legion of demons in today’s gospel reading found that out – and rejoiced. The people of the villages he lived in saw it – and were terrified. It tends to have that effect. Which does it mean to you that we’re all the same before God? All equally forgiven sinners, all equally called to live in that forgiving love ourselves?
Does it terrify you? Or does it cause you to rejoice? Probably a bit of both. But whatever we may feel about it, the last word always belongs with God. And that word is, those words are, ‘we are one’.
© The Revd Pete Hobson