Grace that Clothes Us

Galatians 3:23-29

In the series “Galatians: Gospel of Grace”

Many people today are unhappy with themselves.  One sign of this is how marketers shape the advertising about products. They promise that wrinkle-removing creams, hair-removal products, hair-growth products, diet programs, exercise regimens and clothing will make a “new you” if you just buy and use their products.

Some articles I saw this week talked about the stresses that mothers in our society feel.[1]  They are told that they have to be absolutely devoted to their families while at the same time being totally committed to their careers.  To do one or the other is to be less than what she should be.  So advertisers appeal to this stress, too, offering handy meal kits, stylish vehicles, the right jobs, books about efficiency and organization. All these strategies, for moms and for all of us, create conflict within us, and sometimes conflict among us.

It’s often about how we define ourselves.  How do you define yourself in your life right now?  Who are you?  Are you defined by your career, your ethnic heritage, the size of your house or investment portfolio, your genetic makeup, the part of town you live in, your educational level, age, gender or marital status?  Does it matter how we define ourselves?  It appears that it does to God.

I invite us to pray together our prayer that seeks God’s breakthrough in our lives and church as we study the book of Galatians.  Let us pray:

God of resurrection power and possibility, as we study Galatians, open us to experience your grace in a more profound way that we might be continually transformed by the good news of the gospel: “for freedom Christ has set us free.” By your Spirit of grace, clothe us, form us, and sustain us, so that we may bear the fruit of Your perfect love to the glory of the resurrected Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

As we continue in our series on the book of Galatians, the “Gospel of Grace,” we have heard the Apostle Paul warning the Galatian Christians not to abandon his message of God’s grace and go back to observing the Jewish law.  He shared from his own life how the grace of God transformed him from a zealous oppressor of Christians into a passionate messenger for Christ.  In part of his story, the leaders of the Jerusalem church, Peter, James and John, recognized the Spirit working through Paul and embraced him with God’s grace.

Next, he moved to a theological argument about how Gentiles are to be included in God’s grace. 

The Jewish Christian missionaries who came through Galatia after Paul argued that identity was very important to God.  They relied on their Jewish identity to define who they were, and they taught that, in order to be a Christian, one needed to first be defined as a “Jew.”  To do that, all believers would need to observe the Jewish Laws, including dietary laws, holiness codes, and circumcision.  These helped differentiate them from the rest of the world. 

Now Paul had ministered among both Jews and Gentiles, teaching them that God’s grace redefined who they were. 

As we come to faith in Christ, Paul wrote we are clothed in the grace of Christ through baptism.  This image of clothing probably relates to the way early Christians practiced baptism.  The person being baptized would remove their clothes before going into the baptismal waters and then don a new white robe afterwards.  This symbolized being cleansed from sin and entering a new life of taking on the characteristics of Christ.  It was a transformation of the identity of the baptized from who they were into a new creation in Christ.  All other identifiers and boundary markers fall away.  So Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

To understand the power of such categories, consider a prayer from the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, which may not date all the way back to Paul’s time, but still gives insight into the place these distinctions played in life and thought.  The prayer said, “Blessed are you, O God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” 

Paul’s words radically tore down these ways people identified and differentiated themselves from others.  For Paul, when we are clothed in grace, differences that once defined us and separated us from one another no longer matter.  Those differences give way to a new unity – we are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28) – and a new identity – we are children of God through faith (Gal 3:26).  In Christ, race and ethnicity do not divide us; social class does not divide us; gender does not divide us.  In Christ, we are one body, one family, sisters and brothers together, heirs to God’s promises.

Paul proclaimed this as a current reality, and he urged the Galatians not to go back to the old ways that divided them from one another.  And yet, they continued and we continue to live in a world that has not realized this new reality.  In United Methodist history, we have allowed these categories to divide us.  Though John Wesley appointed women as class leaders and also as preachers as early as 1787, by 1880 women are denied ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church; full clergy rights were granted to women in 1956.  Women had been ordained as preachers in the United Brethren Church, but in 1946, the newly-formed Evangelical United Brethren Church denied ordination to women.

Race has also divided the church.  Despite the Methodist Episcopal Church’s early anti-slavery stand, by the 1790s, racial discrimination was on the rise. Though he was licensed as a Methodist preacher, an African-American man named Richard Allen was not allowed to preach to whites. In 1794, when he was not allowed to pray at the altar of St. George’s ME Church in Philadelphia (blacks were supposed to stay in the balcony), Allen and others left that church to found their own church, which eventually became the African-Methodist Episcopal Church.  At John Street ME Church in New York, which included African-Americans among its founding members, blacks were forced to sit in the back and not allowed to receive Communion until after all whites did. Eventually, they were forced out of the main service and into their own service. In 1796, James Varick, an African-American deacon in the congregation, and others walked out of John Street and later founded the Zion Church, later the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion.  Similar actions were happening in other communities.  By 1845, the church split over the issue of slavery.  Racism was institutionalized in the church until the merger that created the United Methodist Church 1968.

From 2009 to 2012, I served as Assistant to the District Superintendent in this District, covering 11 counties of northwest Ohio. One of my duties included sitting down with Staff-Parish Relations Committees to discuss the qualities they would like in a new pastor.  I cannot tell you how many times, in the course of those conversations, wonderful Christian people representing their congregations said to me, “We will accept any pastor, just not a woman or a person with a different skin color or who doesn’t speak English well.”  These challenges still exist today.

Local churches and denominations remain divided along the categories of Paul’s day and more.  The lines today are drawn along ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and other factors.  Paul reminds us that these categories do not define us. As he wrote, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  All our human categories, though they do not disappear, become secondary and ultimately irrelevant to our main identity as members of the body of Christ.

Professor Elisabeth Johnson tells about a woman in her congregation who was questioned by a fellow member around whether she was a conservative or a liberal. Refusing to be labeled, she replied by saying, “I am a child of God. That is what matters.”[2]

I wonder what would happen if, rather than categorizing one another in ways that divide, we learned to see ourselves and one another as children of God, sisters and brothers in Christ.

The world may define you by various categories.  But God has redefined your identity.  When you put your trust in Jesus Christ, you become a child of God, beloved by God, an heir to the promise. 

[1] Alison Escalante, “Mothers Are Drowning in Stress,” Psychology Today, 03/06/2019, Accessed 05/11/2019.

[2] “Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29,” Working Preacher, 06/20/2010. Accessed 05/08/2019.

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