A Whole New Life


Galatians 3: 23-29

There are a few moments in every season when the broad, deep expanse of life opens up to us and we wonder about the meaning, the purpose of things.

A woman stops for the red light. She has finished her day job, working 9-5. She will swing quickly now into a parking lot to gather up her two children from daycare. On the way toward home she will stop to pick up a pizza, ordered a few minutes earlier by car phone. Her husband is traveling so she will not be going this month to the evening church meeting. As she looks out at the long line of snarled traffic, she wonders: “What am I doing here? Who am I?”

Who are you?

A man leaves home in the gray early morning light. He came in at 10:00 and leaves again at 6:30. His teenage children have grown accustomed to his wandering, finding his presence odder than his absence. His job, like all, never ends. For every inch he gives, it takes a mile. He recalls the story of Hercules and the hydra. The gas gauge is on empty—he forgot yesterday to fill it. He backs out of the driveway, and then has this strange moment when he wonders: “What am I doing here? Who am I?

Who are you?

A couple in retirement spend Wednesday morning visiting the physician and the specialist and the therapist. They stop to fill prescriptions and to go to market and to finish the banking. They have lost good friends to death this year. The radio plays a mix of new music and old news. It is raining again. She looks at the street and he looks at her and then past her. Silently they wonder, without speaking, “What am I doing here? Who am I?”

Who are you?

Love without truth is sentimentality. Truth without love is brutality. Today we are swept up again into the great rainbow goodness of Almighty God, who calls us both to honesty and to kindness.

We find our primal identity in Jesus Christ, baptized as we are into him. In Him, we are all children of God. Our identity is not found in our religious tribe. Our identity is not found in our financial insecurity. Our identity is not found, either, in our sex. None of these distinctions, so fundamental to everyday life, gives us our identity. We are children of God, by the promise of God which overpowers every religious, economic, and gender distinction.

We are promised, in the Christ who is Lord of the New Creation, a whole new life.

One day, a friend and I had breakfast, and talked about Reynolds Price’s book, A Whole New Life. In it, Price traces the grace of healing which comes to him in the midst of critical illness. Price, a gifted southern author, succumbed without warning to a malady that nearly took his life. He records the terror, the pain, and the disease that nearly killed him. He remembers the kindness, the friendship, the prayer, and the skill that finally saved him.

At breakfast, we mentioned the book a couple of times, A Whole New Life. Our waitress overheard and, bringing the coffee said, “… that’s what I want—a whole new life!”

As she returned with juice, I asked, “And what kind of life would you like?”

“Let me think about it”, she replied. How would you have answered?

Carrying over grapefruit and oatmeal, she pronounced: “I’ve decided on my new life…I want to become a baby again…To be held, to be loved, to be rocked, to be protected, to be fed, to be cradled, to be cared for…I’d like to become a child again…and THAT WHOLE NAP THING—WAY UNDERRATED…THAT NAP THING IS TOTALLY UNDERRATED.”

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is one of the great high peaks of the New Testament. It is about a whole new life, a new creation. In fact, it may be the highest peak in the whole range, the Mount Everest of the Bible. It is written to address this question: “Must a Gentile become a Jew before he can become a Christian?” Is there a religious condition to be met, prior to the reception of God’s apocalypse in Christ?

After Paul had been converted to Christ, he spent 17 years in unremarkable, quiet ministry. We know nothing of these two decades spent in Arabia. All the letters we have of Paul come from a later decade. Paul was converted to Christ, as he says earlier in this letter, “by apocalypse”. Christ revealed himself to Paul. Thus, for Paul, the authority in Christ is not finally in the Scripture, nor in traditions, nor in reason, nor in experience. Christ captured Paul through none of these, but rather through revelation, the apocalypse of God. In short, Paul was not a Methodist.

There is a singular, awesome freedom in the way Paul understands Christ. We have yet, I believe, in the church that bears His name, to acknowledge in full that freedom.

After these 17 years, Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the church. Can you picture the moment? All in one room: Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Titus, Barnabas. And in that room there was argument, difference. Paul preached the cross of Christ to unreligious people, and they heard. What would the Jerusalem elders say? Jesus was a Jew, and had been circumcised. So also were all the first Christians, including Paul himself. But God had done something astounding. It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who fervently believed the Good News. Should these unreligious children of God be brought back into the Covenant of Circumcision? No, they all agreed, no. God had done something new. So, Peter went to the circumcised, and Paul went to the uncircumcised. Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles. They agreed to disagree, agreeably. And the meeting ended and it was settled.

But you know how sometimes it’s not the meeting but the meeting after the meeting that counts? What was settled in Jerusalem was unsettled later. Peter couldn’t be counted on to hold the line, and Paul told him so, to his face. Peter was inconsistent about freedom—sometimes he ate with the unclean Gentiles—that’s all of you by the way. Sometimes, when somebody was watching, he backed away. And Paul caught him at it and as he ways, “opposed him to his face”. I wish all opposition in church was so clean, direct, personal, and honest. “One of us is wrong and I think it’s you!” Paul doesn’t talk about Peter, he talks to Peter. There’s a life lesson.

The lines that are drawn in the name of religion are so marked, so indelible. Look at the Middle East, Ireland, Bosnia, Botswana, India, Quebec. We listened again the other night to the music of West Side Story, and heard the poignant plea in Maria’s song, “There’s a place for us.” For some, caught between various Montagues and Capulets, there is never a place.

Paul envisions the end of religion, Christ “the end of the law”. In its place he pictures the community of faith working through love. Whatever does not come from faith is sin.

Your primal identity does not come from your religion. Christ brings a whole new life, the end of religion and the beginning of the church, understood as the community of faith working through love.

As potent as is the power of religion to determine identity, money is stronger still. This is why in the Gospels Jesus speaks so repeatedly about money, about its dangers…where moth and rust consume. If you are used to solving your problems by writing a check, you are doubly endangered by the real problems, for which no check is large enough.

I remember an old District Superintendent 25 years ago saying to me that Jesus spoke more about money than about anything else, and I was offended. “I thought it was love”, I smugly and arrogantly and full of my Union Seminary theological degree did respond.

But over time I have learned from experience, about how selfishness can hurt the spirit, and how mixed up our priorities can become. And I read the Bible weekly for 25 years, and I hear Jesus: with Zacchaeus in the Sycamore, and Matthew the tax collector, and the widow giving her mite, and the prodigal son squandering, and the man fearful of the talents, and the crafty steward, and rendering to Caesar, and—you see how the list grows?

Paul sees what we still hardly ever do see. Money can’t buy love. Finally, one’s place on the map of economic life is not one’s primal identity. It is interesting to remember at the end of his life that John Wesley worried about the growing wealth of his poor Methodists. They did what he told them. They earned all they could. They saved all they could. They gave all they could. They prospered. And in their prosperity, they were endangered. They forgot the poor, once they were not poor. Their diligence, frugality, and industry, all wondrously good things, also contained the potential to obscure their primal identity. We are not what spend, nor are we what we buy.

We are stewards, not owners. Finally we only truly own what we give away.

I remember an old friend of ours, who is now a City School Superintendent. I have watched him for 25 years, as he struggles to teach the poorest children in our region. I will not sentimentalize his work. The city schools in the northeast are in tough shape. Violence and disrespect are rampant in many places. He and I watched our own children hurt by these schools. No, we need not sentimentalize.

But I also remember another day. It was a bright June day like this one, and I had left the office for the hospital when I drove past the school which my friend led so well. There on the side lawn, moving in a circle, were 400 students, 50 teachers and administrators, and a dozen custodians and cooks. There they were—half black, half white; half rich half poor; half male half female; most straight and a few gay; Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew; some Republicans, and many others; some past puberty, and some a long way from it; some A students and some delinquents. But in that hour, they danced together, with a good leader. In that moment, they swayed back and forth to some new Polynesian beat and rhythm. I pulled to the curb to watch, and pray. It wasn’t quite heaven, but you could see it from there. Neither slave nor free. No, your primal identity does not come from your wallet, either.

What could mark more indelibly than religion and money? What could keep our attention better than religion and money? If you had to devise a televised soap opera to mesmerize 270 million people and much cattle for a whole year, what, other than religion and money, would you use? Any thoughts?

In the resurrection, there will be no gender. At least according to Paul in Galatians. In Christ, there is no ‘male and female’. Gender is swallowed up in victory. The Oneidas and the Shakers could sense this, odd and contrasted as were their ways of living it out.

We have yet, I doubt, to take seriously the Good News of liberation found in these passages. Your identity does not come from your sexuality, your gender, your orientation.

In this passage, in the Bible, Paul points to a clue, as well, to one of our great arguments today. Here, your identity is not to be inferred from creation….but from new creation! This apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure—who says there is nothing radical about Christ?—of the distinction we so heighten, that between male and female.

God is calling into existence a new community of faith working through love. There is your identity. Not what is natural but what is heavenly about us forms our primary identity. That is, the Bible itself, from the vantage point of this great mountain passage, opens the way for an understanding of identity that is not just nature or creation, but new creation. This is the community of faith working through love. Here, there is a place where God may be doing something new, revealing something new. And, most strangely, it may be those who are not so easily confined by the creational categories of male and female, those who are both or neither, who are on the edge of the new creation. I know what Paul writes in Romans, but you still must ask yourself, at this point, which is Mount Everest: Galatians 3 or Romans 1? I think it is Galatians 3. I have come to believe that gender and orientation do not provide our primal identity. No male and female means no gay and straight, no homosexual and heterosexual. God is doing something new, which includes all in the community of faith working through love.

The trajectory of Paul’s preaching in Galatians, and thus in total, makes ample space in our churches for gay people. If you love Jesus, and especially if you love the Bible, then you may just find courage not only to defend a moral life in a post-moral culture, but also to preserve freedom for those who have found a whole new life, like Reynolds Price–a gay man, and so are harbingers of the new creation.

Who are you?

If your identity does not come from religion or money or sex, then who are you?

Are you a part of the new creation?

Are you a child, daughter or son, of the living God?

Are you, baptized into Christ, now wrapped in Him?

Are you an heir of God’s promise that predates all else?

Are you identified by faith, the faith of Jesus Christ?

Are you then walking in newness of life?

Are you found in the community of faith that works in love?

Are you on the edge of heaven?

Are you one in Christ Jesus?

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