Paul’s miraculous claims are too often not our reality, but God in the Spirit is making it happen; pray that it happen for you, for us, and then go, tell others about it.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12 C
Texts: Galatians 3:23-29; 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Luke 8:26-39
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Here’s what’s not startling today: how people reacted to demonic or evil powers.
The king and queen of the northern kingdom, Israel, want Elijah dead. They’ve been systematically killing God’s prophets, and Elijah’s target number one. So he runs away. The Gerasenes have this strong man who is possessed and violently lashes out. So they chain him up, guard him. Running away from evil or locking it up, that makes sense to us.
What is startling is how people react to God’s evident power over demonic and evil forces. Ahab and Jezebel have just seen the God of Israel’s power on Mount Carmel. Fire from heaven consumed Elijah’s waterlogged sacrifice, even the wet wood and stones. All the people there acclaim the God of Israel is the true God, not Baal. But the king and queen would rather kill Elijah than acknowledge the true God. The Gerasenes witness their neighbor freed from his possession, fully clothed, in his right mind, and they beg Jesus to leave. How do these responses make sense?
But given the history of the Church, what the Church looks like today, we shouldn’t be startled by this. They’re not much different from us.
Paul’s proclamation today of God’s miraculous action makes this clear.
These words from Galatians are breath-taking words of inspiration to believers for two millennia. Paul claims that God in Christ has broken through all human barriers and divisions and created one Body from these diverse parts.
Paul’s communities include people of different cultures, people who are both enslaved and free, people of all genders. These communities thrive with the conviction that they have a deeper unity in Christ that transcends all divisions. There are still slaves and free people. But it’s not their core identity in Christ, Christ is. Men and women are still men and women. But their deeper truth is their oneness in Christ. Greeks don’t need to be circumcised or eat special foods, and Jews are free to practice their Jewish rituals and traditions, because the thing that joins them is not their cultures but the love of God in Christ.
And unlike Elijah’s miraculous heavenly fire, or the healing of the demoniac, Paul’s miracle is not only repeatable, it’s expected. This is God’s new reality. We’re supposed to expect this among us in the Body of Christ.
But look at our response to this marvel God has done: Two thousand years later these are still pretty words. But meaningless, too, judging from our reality.
Paul didn’t advocate the end of the institution of slavery. But his claim that within the community of Christ, the slave and the free person were equal and one together planted seeds that even bore fruit in Paul’s life. He called his friend Philemon to recognize his runaway slave Onesimus as a freed brother in Christ and welcome him as such. Yet it took over 1,800 years for the Church to take that insight and begin serious opposition to slavery.
Paul shared Jesus’ radical view of women as equals. He had female co-workers, leaders of communities, missionaries. But by the end of the first century the Church embraced the old standard of patriarchy, and pretty much eliminated women in leadership. It took 1,920 years for even a fraction of the Church to restore what Paul and Jesus did at the beginning. And we’re still a significant minority: maybe a couple hundred million among the world’s 2.2 billion Christians have women in leadership. It was easier for the Church to agree on ending slavery than equality among genders.
Paul’s cross-cultural unity is astonishing. Paul assumed multiple cultures could co-exist and thrive in congregations, find their oneness in Christ while still living with their diversity. But the vast majority of Christian history has been Christians siloing into their own cultural reality and claiming that’s the true Christianity. Ethnic and cultural groups promoting their way of being, speaking, dressing, doing worship as the only true way, that’s been the norm for most of the Church’s life.
In truth, Paul’s proclamation never became the norm and still barely exists 2,000 years later. We’ve rejected God’s healing oneness.
Paul says today that before we learned to trust God in Christ, we were imprisoned, locked up in fear of the law, in fear of the other, in fear of everything. The tragic thing is, Paul thought this was a past problem.
But we still live in the same fear. It took 1,900 years to agree that Christians were opposed to slavery because we were too afraid of the economic and social impact of freedom. We’re still rooted in patriarchy in the Church because we’re locked in our assumptions and thoughts and won’t envision a new way of being Christ together.
And the cultural divide, whether it’s black-white, rich-poor, north-south, Lutheran-Pentecostal, Christian-Muslim, will never be crossed if we’re the ones to cross it. It’s just too frightening to let go of the way we think things should be and admit others have equally legitimate ways of thinking, being, doing.
We may not be possessed by demons, but the chains that bind us, the prison we’re stuck in, can only be opened by God.
And good news: that’s what God offers.
God says today you need not be captive to your fear. God can break any chains that bind you or others, knock down any dividing walls, even the ones you secretly want to reinforce. The Triune God has come to the world in Christ Jesus, and shown the power of the Spirit to break through all these barriers and create a new reality. A body of Christ, a community of God, that transcends all our divisions.
Yes, it’s frightening to think of losing some of your security blankets. But with security in God’s love, and in the embrace of billions of siblings in Christ, who needs blankets? Yes, it’s frightening to feel the ground shaking as the wall protecting you from others starts to crumble. But if you let God break through that wall, you’ll find a loving family across this planet.
Paul’s words are the only reality worth living. A reality where there’s neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. A reality that reveals a path to the healing of all nations. God is already doing this. But as Luther reminds you, you want to ask that God do this in you.
Because then you find your true place in these stories.
Once you are freed from these chains of fear, you’re sent back out into the darkness, into the brokenness, into the pain, to witness to what God has done. God told Elijah he couldn’t stay hiding in his cave, he needed to go back, face the evil, keep telling what God was about. The healed man wanted to stay with Jesus, the one who gave him life. But Jesus sent him back to his frightened neighbors, who wanted to be rid of him, to tell them what God had done.
That’s where you come in. As Paul’s new reality becomes your truth above all others, you’re sent out. To go into the world of fear and chains and walls and declare in your body and life what God has done.
But first, like Elijah, have a bite to eat. Let God refresh you in this meal that is prepared for you. Be graced by God’s forgiveness in Christ, be fed by God’s meal of life. As the angel said to Elijah, it’s going to be a tough journey. Eat up, so it’s not too much for you.
Then go, and tell others what God has done. For you. For the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen