Friday, July 13, 2012

The North American Episcopal Church Goes into Meltdown

The North American Episcopal Church is in deep trouble, hemorrhaging congregants, deep in denial, and wandering far from the teachings of the Bible.  What will remain? 
"Bishop Peter H. Beckwith, leader of the Springfield, Illinois, diocese, wrote in a pastoral letter that the Episcopal church was “in meltdown.”
Beckwith has joined bishops in the dioceses of Central Florida, Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, California, and South Carolina in asking their church’s top official, the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, for permission to pull out [of the Episcopal Church].
Beckwith says the failure of the resolution introduced by conservatives to declare the church’s “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” was extremely disturbing."

Monday, July 9, 2012

All One in Christ

All One in Christ - a sermon on Galatians 3:19-29 delivered at St Catharine's South Caulfield on July 8, 2012.

I am a feminist, and have been almost as long as I can remember.   Late in my teens I came to this conclusion, and told my older sister.  I said “I am a feminist.”  She reminded me of this just recently.

I intensvely dislike the fact that the dominance of men over women has been and all to often continues to be one of the organising principles of human life. 

Thirty five years ago, in 1977, I attended a national Christian youth conference of the Uniting Church.   Thousands of young people were gathered in Canberra for the event.  In the afternoons we would split up into elective workshops.  I chose to attend a workshop on feminist theology.  There were a few dozen women - and two men.  The other man besides me was the conference plenary speaker, Dr Phillip Potter, a West Indian, who was general secretary of the World Council of Churches.  The  thing we had in common - apart from both choosing to attend a feminist theology workshop - was that we both wore size 15 shoes.

It was a fascinating and very helpful workshop.  The focus was on gender roles in the creation story of Genesis.  What I learned deeply impacted my thinking on the issue of men, women and Christian faith. 

One other thing I remember about that workshop was that when the speaker couldn’t get the cassette tape to work, she looked up and in a room full of people looked to me to fix it.  I was annoyed and made a rude remark.  In a room full of women, in a workshop on empowering and accepting women’s roles, she looked to a bloke to fix a gadget. It was one of those defining moments which stick in your memory.  I thought: how hard it is to free ourselves.

Today it is great to be preaching about Galatians, and specifically a very important passage in which Paul speaks about how distinctions of race, gender and social status are set aside in Christ.

Remember Paul’s argument, which we have been following for some weeks.  After Paul had planted a church in Galatia, new teachers had come, and they wanted the gentile Christians there to become Torah observant - to become in effect Jews.  They argued that if you follow Jesus, you had to be an observant Jew.  It is one of the  ironies of history that in the early church the big question for believers was whether it was obligatory for gentile Christians to become in effect practicing Jews.

But Paul countered: observing the Torah (the law) cannot make you right with God. Indeed no one can be justified by following the Torah.  Being part of God’s people,  he said, requires faith, not circumcision.  Faith in Christ.  And the Holy Spirit comes by faith in Christ, as the Galatians had personally experienced.  Life in Christ is not about following the Torah - it is about believing in Christ and experiencing his Spirit.

This argument of Paul’s raises the obvious question issue of why have the the law at all?  And this is where we come to in Paul’s argument at verse 19.

The answer Paul gives is that the law was a kind of ‘guardian’ or tutor.  People were held captive - not free, but under the oversight of the Torah - until they came of age.  Paul actually uses the language of imprisonment.  Then he refers to a cultural institution well-known to people of his day - the pedagogos, translated in the NRSV as ‘disciplinarian’.

The law, Paul says, was a pedagogos or disciplinarian, preparing the way for Christ.  The Greek term refers to a slave-tutor who takes over the supervision of a young person while they are being schooled.  The slave-tutor would take the child to school, wait for them to finish, bring them home, and check that they were learning their lessons and if necessary apply discipline.  This was a kind of a baby sitter until the child comes of age.  It was a role for a slave - a slave kid minder. 

Paul says that now that ‘faith has come’, we are no longer subject to the pedagogos of the Torah.  We are no longer to be baby-sat by the law.  This is what we call in English ‘coming of age’.  In Christ, Paul says, we have come into the full status of being children of God:  the expression he uses is ‘sons of God’.

Our identity is now ‘in Christ’, and Paul refers to baptism as the way into this new identity.  He compares this to putting on new clothes.  We are now clothed in the new identity Christ has given us.  We have been changed.

The law’s function is thus completed - job well done.  We are now ‘in Christ’.  We no longer need a babysitter to walk us to class, walk us home and carry our books.

Remember that Paul is making his point against the agitators who are pressing Torah observance upon the Galatians, who were already ‘in Christ’.   So Paul states:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek”.  That’s because, Paul is saying, the function of the Torah is no longer needed, so the distinction it creates, between Jew and non-Jew (‘Greek’) has been set aside ‘in Christ’:   we don’t need the Torah to babysit us anymore now that Christ has come.  Once you are an adult, why start wearing your old school uniform again?

Then, remarkably, Paul extends his point to also include gender and social status: in Christ, he says, there is also no longer slave or free, and no longer male and female.  All dividing distinctions have been set aside.

Today we would speak of racial equality, social equality and gender equality.

All are ONE in Christ!

In the daily prayers of orthodox Jewish men there is a traditional prayer which praises God that he has ‘not made me a woman, a gentile or a slave’.  It is an old prayer, which seems to go back to the traditions of the Pharisees.  Paul had been a Pharisee.

There was also a similar ancient Greek pagan tradition for a men to thank the gods for being made a human and not a beast, a man and not a woman, free and not a slave.

So Paul was challenging the current understandings of BOTH Jews and Gentiles about identity.

There is no one tradition which has a monopoly on disliking being born a woman.  Indeed in this day and age there is raging epidemic of dislike for women being born at all.

In some provinces in China the male-female ratio show that at least 25% of the girls are missing - with 5 boys born for every 4 girls.  The same applies in many parts of India. A 2005 study suggested that there were already around 90 million missing females in eight Asian states.   It is estimated that in China and India, by 2020 there will be 60 million surplus young adult males.   This same trend has been observed among some ethnic communities in Western nations.

This is a development which Christians should be speaking up about and opposing.  It is part of our heritage to do so.  In the early centuries of the Christian era one of the things Christians inherited from Judaism was an abhorrence for the wide-spread and entirely legal practice of infanticide, a practice which specifically targeted girls, causing as disastrous a gender imbalance in ancient Rome  as abortion is doing across Asia today.  In our modern era medial science just does it all more efficiently.

Rejection of women is an institutional problem of vast proportions all over the world.  The issue is found everywhere, from the traditional Aussie farming family who would pass on their land to sons but not to daughters, to the oppressive legal discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia.

Indeed as I mention Saudi Arabia, I cannot help but recall the uncanny contrast between Paul’s three-fold dimensions of equality and unity in Christ and Bernard’ Lewis’ observation that, under Islamic law women, slaves and non-Muslims all had an inferior status.  He wrote:
“ According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious equality: unbelievers, slaves and women.”
  • In Islam women are second class under the law - e.g. their testimony is only worth half that of a man’s. 
  • Islamic law institutionalizes slavery - this was only abolished throughout the middle east under the compulsion of British guns in the 19th century - and in Saudi Arabia as late as the 1960’s -  but it is now returning with a vengeance in some Muslim societies. 
  • And under Islamic law, non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews, are second class citizens.

Bernard Lewis observed (in What Went Wrong) that when Muslims visited Europe in past centuries they were amazed at how respected women were in Christian societies.  A visitor to Vienna was shocked that the Emperor himself would stop and take off his hat to a woman, giving way to her in the street.  He called this an ‘extraordinary spectacle.’  I’m not saying that the Christian West has not been patriarchal and oppressive towards women: of course it has!  But the Islamic sharia is many degrees worse, without the tempering influence of the gospel, and in past centuries Muslim visitors were astounded at the difference.

I have dwelt on the status of women, but slavery also is also a major issue in the world today. 

By the way, St Catharine’s church has an interesting connection with the movement for the abolition of slavery.  Christians in the 19th century fought to eradicate slave trade and slavery itself.  A leader in this movement was Sir George Stephen, William Wilberforce’s nephew.   Sir George was the first person knighted by the young Queen Victoria, for leading the political campaign against slavery.  Later, Sir George emigrated to Caulfield with his family, and donated the first piece of land and the church building to St Mary’s.  His residence, over the road, was Helenslea, where Shelford Girl's Grammar School is now housed.  And out of St Mary’s, St Catharine’s was planted.

Great battles against slavery were won in the past, at great cost of treasure and blood.  But despite the huge effort of 19th century Europeans to eradicate slavery - and later Americans through the agony of its civil war - the rattling din of slavery’s shackles is rising once again.

Millions of people are trafficked across the world and the numbers are growing all the time.  Right here in Melbourne people are trafficked for the sex industry.   This is OUR problem, right on OUR doorstep.

But back to Galatians.

What does it mean that these barriers have been removed, and we are all ONE in Christ?  How do we live as Christians as a result?

Paul’s statement meant first of all that in the church, in our spiritual identity, we are all one.  There is no hierarchy which makes some a better Christian than another by virtue of social position, gender, race or ethnicity.  In the early church a worshipping slave was not ‘below’ the free Christians.  They were all brothers and sisters.  The gospel was and should be a great leveler.  We are indeed all “One in Christ”.

But I think Paul means more than spiritual identity.  He meant there were implications for how we live in the world, just as the abolition of the difference between Jew and Gentile made a huge difference for how the earlier Christ-followers lived.

In this I agree with Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army when she said:
“If this passage [Galatians 3:28] does not teach that in the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of Christ’s Kingdom, all differences of nation, caste, and sex are abolished, we should like to know what it does teach, and wherefore it was written.”
Galatians 3:28 is a statement about what the Kingdom of God looks like - and should look like.  It is about what the new creation, the new order of life which Christ has brought about really means. 

Recall that in Genesis, God made male and female in his image.  But after the fall various curses come in to play, including that man would rule over woman (Genesis 3:16).  As this dominance is one of the curses of the fall, this means that the dominance of men over women is a bad and evil thing - like death itself, which is another curse of the fall.  But in Christ, the curses of the fall are meant to be removed.  What Adam - and Eve - lost is being restored in Christ. Our shared identity in Christ must mean that in God’s new creation one gender should no longer dominate another.

Although the world will go it’s own way, in Christ everything is different.  Or it should be.  In our lives together in the community of Jesus, we should aspire to the life in Christ.  Nothing else will do.  We should set our heart and vision on the equal identity which Paul speaks about - that we are all one in Christ. 

There was obviously a gap between this teaching, and the standards of the surrounding society in Paul’s day.  Slave trading was carried on for centuries. Patiarchy endured the Christianization of Europe, dominating women and treating them as second class.  Christian people even quoted the Bible to justify it - and they did the same for slavery too. But this was the social order in the world, which sometimes has had far too great an influence on the church.  The church should aspire to be different from the world:  salt and light as Jesus said.  

In some respects the Christian community did live out its mandate. There were examples of slaves who became bishops in the early Church, and eventually due to Christian influence, some changes were made in society.  It became illegal to expose unwanted female infants.  But the world is resistant to change, and too often the church has failed its mission to witness to the values of the Kingdom of God in the world.  Too often its theologies

We can read that St Paul did not call for believers of his time to overthrow the institution of slavery.  His brief was not politics, or societal transformation, but life in Christ.  Instead, Paul counseled slaves on how to act in a good way within their social status.  But it seem clear that Paul rejected the slave trade as an unmitigated evil: in 1 Timothy 1:10 he states that  slave traders have by definition rejected sound Christian teaching. 

When he wrote to specific church contexts, Paul did give differentiated instructions to men and women.  But I regard these as concessions to the social order in which the church was constituted, even when formulated in spiritual terms. These regulations should be read in the light of Galatians 3:28, which lays out the basic principle of equality.  We find that in other places in hi letters Paul affirms the ministry of women: women are among those who laboured ‘side by side’ with him; there are women he calls ‘apostles’; and he recognizes the right of women to prophesy and pray in church meetings.

All this was remarkable for Paul,  who was trained as a religious, pious Jew of the school of the Pharisees.  To this day, if you worship in an orthodox synagogue you will find that men occupy the central area, while the women will sit separated off away from the centre of the action.  Men are at the centre, women around the periphery.

There is here a more general principle than gender, race, or social status - as profound as these are - and this is the honouring and respecting of others.  No one person is more important, greater or more deserving of honour and dignity that any other in Christ.  The dignity of being a son or daughter of God in Christ transcends disability, gender, ethnicity, wealth or status.  The Kingdom of God is greater than all such differences.  This is NOT just about rights - as important as they are.  It is about fundamental identity.  It is about belonging to God.  It is about being a member of the new community of grace being formed in Christ.

And this is what makes all the difference.