There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The author of Psalm 119 says, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” There may have been a time in his life when the Apostle Paul recited those words while standing in a synagogue, hugging a Torah scroll to his chest, his eyes squinted shut, ready to burst with joy. But after he met Jesus that changed. It wasn’t that he no longer loved the law; it was just that he loved Jesus more. In Philippians 3 he reminds his readers that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” But then he writes, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish,[i] in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but one that comes through faith in Christ.”[ii] So today I’m wondering what happened: how did a law-loving Pharisee like Paul come to the place where he was willing to give it all up for the sake of Jesus?
This is the third sermon in a series called “Building It as We Fly,” where we are trying to learn some lessons from Peter and Paul about how to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of. In the first sermon we talked about the birthday of the church on the Day of Pentecost, and concluded that maybe, in the same way the Wright Brothers had to find a place where the wind was blowing, we might have to look for those places where the Spirit is moving (and several of you have volunteered to spend some time at Kitty Hawk, just to check it out). In the second sermon we talked about Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus and his question, “Who are you, Sir?” I believe that each of us will need to find the answer to that question before we can build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.
Paul found it, and I think he found it in his baptism. Do you remember how he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, and had to be led by the hand into the city? Do you remember how Ananias was sent to lay hands on him and pray for him so that he could see again? Luke says that “something like scales” fell from Saul’s eyes, and after that he got up and was baptized. I don’t know where he was baptized, but in 2 Kings 5 Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan River, and Naaman says, “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”[iii] So, maybe that’s where Ananias took Saul: to one of the rivers of Damascus. And when they were standing waist-deep in the water Ananias may have said to him, “Um, Brother Saul, I’m getting ready to dip you down under the water. Is that OK?” And Saul would have said, “Yes, whatever it takes.” And then Ananias would have said, “And um, usually, before we baptize people, we ask them to say, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Is that OK?” And Saul would have had to think about that. He had been persecuting people for saying that Jesus was Lord. He had been entering the homes of believers, both men and women, and dragging them off to prison and now here he was, about to become one of them.[iv] But there could be no denying what had happened to him on the Road to Damascus. As he would testify later, he “saw” the risen Lord. How could he deny what he now knew to be true? So he said it: “Jesus is Lord.” And when he did Ananias dipped him down into the water like a dry sponge and let him soak for a while, and it was like being immersed in the liquid essence of Christ himself. Ananias held him under until he was completely saturated and then pulled him up again. Saul came up sputtering, gasping for breath, the first breath of his new life in Christ, and it may have been Ananias who gave him his new name. He may have said, “What if we call you Paul from now on?” thinking that his fellow believers would have a hard time accepting Saul, the former persecutor of the church.
I don’t know that it happened in exactly that way, but it happened; at some point Saul became Paul, and started living a whole new life. Here’s the way he describes it in Galatians 1: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when the one who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the gentiles, I did not confer with any human, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus.”
When I look at a map of the ancient world, it looks as if Arabia was east of Damascus, and that it was mostly desert. I think about Paul going off into the desert after his baptism just as Jesus went into the wilderness after his. And maybe it was while he was there that he had this “revelation of Jesus Christ” he talks about. He may have woken up on his first day in the desert and recited the Shema, just as he always did, saying: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and in that moment remembered what he had said at his baptism: “Jesus is Lord.” But what if, instead of troubling him (as if he had just committed blasphemy), it gave him peace. What if he said it again—“Jesus is Lord”—and felt himself sink down into that all-encompassing peace as he had sunk down into the waters of baptism. Because, whether or not Paul knew it, peace was what he was looking for.
It was what he had always been looking for.
He writes, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He writes, “When it came to the law, I was a Pharisee; when it came to zeal, I was a persecutor of the church; when it came to righteousness under the law, I was blameless.” But why? Why was he so zealous? Why did he work so hard to remain blameless? Because he was afraid of God’s wrath. He didn’t want to do anything to upset him. He wanted to stay on God’s good side. But somewhere out there in the desert he realized that things had changed, that for some reason he was no longer obsessed with following the Law of Moses, and that he wasn’t always watching himself to make sure that he kept all 613 commandments. It wasn’t that they didn’t matter anymore—they did!—it was only that he realized that keeping the commandments did not, would not, and could not save him. That somehow, by the grace of God and the love of the Lord Jesus, he was already saved. Maybe this was his “revelation of Jesus Christ”—not some mystical vision like John on the Isle of Patmos, but a sense of peace, a quiet assurance, that if Jesus was his Lord then he was, already, right with God. There was nothing more he needed to do.
In last week’s reading from Romans 5 he said it like this: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But it must have taken a while to come to that conclusion. Paul says that after he was baptized he went into Arabia, but at some point returned to Damascus and was there for three years before going up to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James. If what Luke says about him can be trusted (and I think it can), he spent those years in Damascus arguing with the Jews in the synagogues, telling them that Jesus was the Son of God and proving that he was the Messiah. He must have shared that message with Peter and James and they must have approved. Afterward, he says, he “went away into Syria and Cilicia.” But after fourteen years, he returned to Jerusalem, to share with the mother church the gospel message he had refined among the gentiles, and this was it: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
That’s Galatians 2:16, and it comes a full chapter before today’s reading from chapter 3. In those intervening verses Paul tries to explain how he came to the conclusion that we are no longer justified by the works of the law, but through our faith in Jesus Christ. And then he illustrates it like this: he says, “Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed,” and he’s talking about the Jews. Notice how he uses the personal pronoun “we.” But it sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? “We were imprisoned,” he says, “we were guarded under the law.” He says, “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (using a word that referred to the servant whose job it was to take the children back and forth to school; that’s what the law was) until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.”
And then the pronoun changes. Instead of saying “we” Paul begins to say “you,” meaning “you gentiles.” Listen: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” And we might need to pause there for a moment and realize just how remarkable this is. Paul is saying that if you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, then you have become a member of God’s family, and there is no longer any distinction between those who were born into it and those who were baptized into it.
Do you know how, when we do baptisms here, the candidates step out into the baptistery wearing white robes? It goes back to an ancient practice in the early church, where people would leave their old clothes on the riverbank and then enter the waters of baptism, but when they came out they would be given a new white robe to wear, and they would wear it for as long as a week afterward. But what if they kept on wearing it, and what if we continued that practice? What if people who had been baptized always wore white robes, wherever they went, so that you could spot them at the shopping mall, on the street corner, and even in church? What if you knew, right away, that those were your brothers and sisters in Christ?
I think Paul has that kind of thing in mind, not wearing white robes but knowing that those who have been baptized are your brothers and sisters, that you and they are members of the same family. In this passage Paul starts by using the pronoun “we,” meaning the Jews, but then shifts to the pronoun “you,” meaning the gentiles. By the end of the passage he has created a whole new category, one we might call “His,” meaning those who belong to Christ. “For there is no longer Jew or Greek,” he writes, “no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I can’t think of a more important word for the church to hear in times like these, when our nation is being torn apart by political divisions. I think Paul would say, “Look, it isn’t about being Republican or Democrat. It’s about being baptized. If you’ve been baptized you have sunk down into the waters of forgiveness, and acceptance, and love. You don’t have anything to prove, or anything to fear. You have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and if anyone is in Christ that one is a new creation. You come up out of the water dripping with grace, ready to embrace your brothers and sisters even if they don’t vote the way you do.” In this age of identity politics, Paul appeals to us to identify not as “us,” not as “them,” but as “his”—as people who belong to Christ. And if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we will have to do precisely that.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] The Greek word is skubula, which is much stronger (and probably smellier) than “rubbish.”
[ii] Philippians 3:5-9.
[iii] 2 Kings 5:12
[iv] Acts 8:3