Christian Identity Crisis

This is my sermon for the 15th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church.

“Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.  And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” – Galatians 6:15-16

Who are we?

            We live in an Age of Information. Thanks, at first, to the invention of the Printing Press, the proliferation of books over the past couple centuries, and now the advent of the Internet, there is almost nothing we cannot learn. If you want to know something, you just look it up on Google. If it’s too complicated to read about, you just look it up on YouTube for some visual instructions. There is so much information out there that we don’t know what to do with it all. After all, once you learn something new, there’s almost always a list of new questions that emerge from it, and so the more you know, the more you know you don’t know! It can honestly get really confusing sometimes.

Of course, when it comes to the deeper questions of life, the universe, and everything, Google and YouTube tend to fall short. Perhaps the deepest question is “Who are you?” The struggle to label, realize, and comprehend our own identity is one of the most fundamental questions of all. As Christians, we believe we’ve found the best set of answers to that question. We are God’s creation. We are God’s stewards. We are God’s servants. We are God’s children. We are beloved!

Taking that a step further, Christians are part of this group called the Church. What is the Church? It’s God’s family, the Body of Christ, a royal priesthood, and a chosen people. But how do we make that real? How do we protect that and define that? Getting this question wrong is probably the #1 source of all divisions in the Church throughout our entire 2,000-year history. It began even while the original Apostles were still alive.

 The Judaizers had an identity crisis.

            Perhaps the very first identity crisis in the Church took place when Gentiles started converting to the faith. The first few thousand believers were all Jewish, so they had a common cultural heritage to draw upon as they initially understood the Church, but once these non-Jewish people started to believe the Gospel and commit to Christ and join the Church, things started to get confusing. We can read in Acts 10 about how Saint Peter wrestled through this issue, and some time later in Acts 15 there was a council held in Jerusalem to work out how Jews and Gentiles would get along with each other in the Church. And for the most part it worked.

But not everyone was happy with that arrangement. There was a group called the Judaizers: they believed that everyone who would become Christian had to become Jewish also. They looked at what the Old Testament said and what the Apostles preached, and concluded that the Church’s identity was built upon the foundation of the Law of Moses. And so, just like Jesus, we all have to become circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses. After all, Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees if we are to merit the Kingdom of Heaven.

 They imposed Law & Circumcision upon Gentile Christians.

What the Judaizers did, therefore, was impose the Law and circumcision upon all the Gentiles who became Christians, even though St. Peter learned that this was not necessary in Acts 10, and the Jerusalem Council declared this was not necessary in Acts 15. And, for whatever reason, the Judaizers were particularly powerful in the region of Galatia. In response to this, St. Paul wrote a letter to them, which we have in the New Testament as the book of Galatians. While most of his epistles include a thanksgiving for the given church to which he’s writing, Paul offers none for the church in Galatia. Instead, he pulls no punches and cuts to the chase: he is astonished that they’re deserting the one who evangelized them (likely Paul himself) in favor of “no gospel at all,” or, in short, heresy. And heresy on this level deserves being declared “anathema,” often translated as “God’s curse” or “eternally condemned to hell!” In short, this identity crisis that the Judaizers had, and were imposing upon others, was not just an innocent mistake, but a fatal mistake! He had to nip this one in the bud quickly and decisively.

 Saint Paul corrects them, emphasizing his authority and the true gospel.

In order to set the Galatians straight, St. Paul had to go back to the basics. The whole letter to the Galatians revolves around two basic themes. First, he was reestablishing his authority as an Apostle, especially helping them respect their rightful leaders. Second, he was re-explaining the Gospel, especially helping them to untwist what the Judaizers had twisted.

To reestablish his authority, Paul recounted much of his personal testimony, pointing out both his unique calling from God on the Road to Damascus as well as his later approval from the other Apostles. Not only did he have a personal testimony of God, but it was also affirmed by the other leaders of the Church. The Judaizers had no right to ignore or contradict him.

To re-explain the Gospel, however, took a bit longer. In fact, more than half of the book of Galatians is on this subject. He breaks it down into a two-pronged argument: first dealing with God’s Law given through Moses, and second dealing with God’s covenant with Abraham and circumcision.

With regards to the Law, Paul essentially argues that the Law is powerless to save us. In the end, all it does is set limits and define sin. The better we know the Law, the more we realize that we are completely unable to keep it. And because the Law is just a written set of rules, there is no power there to help us out. It’s not all bad, though. In fact, the Law was – and remains – extremely useful. Paul compares it to a guardian or a tutor: the Law helps us to learn about God, and especially about God’s will. But in the end all that really does is convict us of our sins. We need the Gospel of Christ to save us from those sins. Thus the Law is not enough.

And then, with regards to Abraham, God’s promises to him, and the practice of circumcision, Paul points out that the underlying ingredient behind all of that is faith. It was by faith that Abraham received promises from God. His faith even preceded circumcision, and that’s important. For, a lot of Jews by that time had come to view circumcision almost as magical: once a boy was circumcised, he was part of God’s covenant-people no matter what. Paul pointed out that, in the beginning, it was faith that made someone part of God’s covenant-people. So even though circumcision was commanded to be administered to boys when they’re only eight days old, it was still a sign of the underlying faith that really brought people to God.

 The Church is Israel, not needing the Law and Circumcision.

            One of the most ground-breaking things that St. Paul writes to the Galatians is in chapter 4. There, he draws up an analogy between Abraham’s first two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Even though Ishmael was born first, he did not receive the covenant of God’s promise. You see, Ishmael was born to Abraham through his wife’s personal slave. And so, because God had made promises to Abraham and his wife, the identity of being part of God’s covenant-people was passed on to their son, Isaac, instead.   Even though Ishmael was a child of Abraham, he was not part of God’s people. Paul takes this fact and applies it to the rest of history. Being a part of God’s people is not about who your parents are, but about faith in God’s promise. Therefore, just because someone’s born Jewish, that doesn’t guarantee that they are part of God’s people. Now, this should not have been ground-breaking news: the Old Testament prophets said the same thing. Even Jesus said the same thing. But the Judaizers missed the memo.

The other, and probably most ground-breaking thing that Paul wrote to the Galatians is in chapter 6, which we heard read to us this morning. In verse 15, he wrote, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” This is huge. First of all, he’s saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re circumcised or not. Instead, what counts toward being part of God’s people is the “new creation.” This is an allusion to Baptism, in which we are made new, in which we die to sin and are raised with Christ in new life. (He writes of this more extensively in Romans 6, and I encourage you to explore that on your own time as I can’t go after that rabbit-trail today.)

As if that wasn’t enough, he continues in verse 16: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” This may be a little awkward to read in English. In Greek there are a couple different words that can be translated as “and.” One version of ‘and’ means “and also” like you’re making a list. The other version of ‘and’ is one of equation or identity; that’s what’s used here. So what verse 16 is saying is that all who walk by this rule of a new creation is the Israel of God. Simply put, God’s chosen people, known as Israel, is made up of those who have received new life in Christ. If you want to be part of Israel, you just need to be a Christian. All you need is Jesus. If you’re in Christ, you’re in Israel. It no longer matters if you’re Jewish or Greek, or any other ethnicity or race. It no longer matters if you’re male or female: circumcision, which is obviously a male-only rite, has given way to Baptism, which is for everyone!

This is an important lesson that many Christians have forgotten in recent years, particularly since (back in the 40’s) a new country was created in the Middle East called Israel. We’ve reached a point where many Christians seem to have lost track of the ancient understanding of the Church as the New Israel, even though both Early Christian writings and the New Testament itself is full of that imagery. There are twelve Apostles, just like there were twelve tribes in Israel. Jesus promised the twelve Apostles that they’d sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes. In the Revelation of John we see twenty four elders sitting on thrones: depicting the twelve tribes of Old Israel and the twelve apostles of New Israel in perfect unity. It feels strange to be preaching this in a Jewish Synagogue, but then again, this is one of the reasons Christians were kicked out of the synagogues: the Gospel asserts that God’s people are not the Jewish race, but those who believe in Christ and are baptized into his Body.

 Look to the spiritual, not to the flesh.

            One of the basic principles of Christianity that results from this is the opposition of the spirit and the flesh. Last week, for example, we looked at Galatians 5 and the two opposing lists of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” It’s the same with our very identity: who we are as Christians has nothing to do with the flesh – our humanity, our gender, our race, our socio-economic status – and everything to do with our spirit – is the Holy Spirit living in you?

When it comes to our personal identity, this can be very challenging and difficult. I enjoy the fact that my dad is from England, and I celebrate that heritage in many ways. It’s a source of pride, in its own way, and it defines a significant portion of my life. Other people feel that way about different ethnicities, or about being a woman, or being a man, or being wealthy, or being frugal, or being the first college graduate in their family, or about their healthy lifestyle, or a million other things. These things are all fine, but there are two conditions: first of all, we should not be proud of sin. If I’m really good at lying and cheating, that’s not something I should ever be proud of or flaunt. And secondly, even these good things about us cannot be allowed to become more important than the spirit – than the faith of the Gospel which is ours in Christ Jesus. To do so would be idolatry, and that’s a dangerous sin.

 What other identity crises do people have today?

            Now try to imagine that on a large scale, in which a whole group of Christians share the same idolatrous confusion over who they are supposed to be as Christians. What starts off as an already-dangerous sin for the individual can become a very dangerous heresy on the large scale.

Imagine a congregation that brought into its worship service rituals from other religions.

Imagine a congregation that imports our culture’s values into the teachings of the Bible.

Imagine a congregation advocating an ideology based on the US Constitution instead of the Bible.

Imagine a congregation more concerned about physical needs than about spiritual needs. We heard about this one in the Gospel reading; we are not to be anxious about such things as food, drink, clothing and shelter. Yes we can be concerned about them, even interested in them and passionate about them! But Jesus tells us to seek after his Kingdom and his righteousness above any earthly concern.

So the final word for us is simple. As Joshua said to the ancient Israelites, so Paul said to the Galatians: choose for yourself this day whom you will serve. Will you stake your identity in the God of the Bible, with the Gospel St. Paul preached, or in something else? Will we, as a congregation, choose to follow the teachings, commands, and calling of Christ, or in some other agenda? Will our decisions and desires be ruled by the Spirit or by the flesh? These are decisions that we must make individually and corporately, not only once, but frequently. And as often as we turn back on that commitment, we must repent, which means returning to Christ and starting again with a clean slate.

Therefore, let us stand together and recommit ourselves to the faith, in reciting the Creed;
then recommit ourselves to prayer, in the Prayers of the People;
then recommit ourselves to Christ, in the prayer of confession;
then recommit ourselves to His Church in the Offertory;
then receive him in Holy Communion.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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