There is a Wisdom Story that tells of three people who were searching for the “Water of Life”, hoping to drink from its life-giving stream.
The first was a warrior who thought the water of life would be very mighty – a torrent or a rapid – so he dressed in full armour, with all his weapons, believing that he could force the water to yield to him.
The second was an enchantress who thought the water of life would be very magical – perhaps a whirlpool or a geyser – something she would need to manipulate with spells so she dressed in her long spangled robe, hoping to outwit the water.
The third was a trader who thought the water of life would be very costly – a fountain of pearl-drops or diamonds – so he loaded his clothes with gold coins hoping to buy the water.
When the three seekers reached their destination, they found they had all been mistaken about the water of life.
It was not a torrent to be intimidated by force.
It was not a whirlpool to be charmed by spells.
And, it wasn’t a fountain of pearl-drops or diamonds to be purchased with gold coins.
The water of life was a tiny sparkling spring whose benefits were absolutely free to everyone. The three seekers also realized very quickly that in order to reach the life-giving water they had to kneel down and drink.
This caused the seekers great consternation.
The warrior was in full armour and couldn’t bend.
The enchantress had on her long magic robe that if soiled would lose its magic power.
The trader was so loaded with gold coins that if he did more than incline his head, coins would start rolling out of the many places they were tucked away.
All dressed up, none of them could lower themselves to drink from the spring that held the water of life.
There was only one solution.
The warrior laid aside his armour.
The enchantress laid aside her magic robe.
The trader laid aside the clothes which stored the vast supply of gold coins.
Together, stripped of all their outward encumbrances, they knelt down with humility and drank from the sweet, refreshing, life-giving water.
(Wisdom Stories, edited by Margaret Silf, The Pilgrim Press, 2003, pgs.93-94, adapted)
This story, that speaks of the importance of humility and the stripping away of outward power and status in order to drink from the water of life that is available for all, came to mind this week as I was reflecting on the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Early Christian Churches in Galatia.
As a point of reference let me begin by saying that the ancient province of Galatia was one of the Roman occupied territories in the area of the Mediterranean that is now part of modern day Turkey. To understand the radical nature of this excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Galatians it is important to understand the context in which it was written. It was the middle of the 1st Century (C.E.) and Christianity was spreading outward from primarily Jewish followers of Jesus to primarily non-Jewish areas of the Mediterranean world. One commentary that I read this week is helpful in explaining the challenges this created for Early Christian Communities:
“The church in Galatia provided a major part of the context for the church’s first great crisis. At first, Jesus’ disciples (who were all Jewish) took the gospel to Jews in Jerusalem. Then they spread out over Judea and Samaria. Even in Galilee, the gospel was first taken to the synagogues and the divisions were between Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and those who saw Christians as a threat to the faith of Israel. … It was the intersection of the Jewish people who heard about Jesus as their Messiah and gentiles who heard the good news of Jesus Christ for the first time that the trouble came. Was this news about Christ an extension of Judaism? Was it a new faith? Did Jews who had kept the laws of Moses now give that law up while gentile believers were free from the Jewish law? The solution to the problem was as brilliant as it was simple. A relationship with God had always been based primarily on faith. …Gentiles do not need to become Jews to be right with God and Jews do not need to give up their observance of religious law to be right with God.” (One in Christ Jesus, http://www.lectionarysermons.com/june_24_01.htm)
It is in this context that Paul says to the Galatians,
“…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.” (Galatians 3:26-29)
It is in these words that we truly see the radical nature of the meaning of being a member of Christ’s community of followers. All outward signs of status and privilege are washed away, with the waters of baptism, and all are created equal as members of the body of Christ. Like the wisdom story that I told at the beginning of this Reflection, all who wish to drink from the “water of life” are stripped of their outward wealth and status and humble themselves as equals drinking from the same Source. Members of Christian communities were expected to exemplify the values of humility, equality, and justice not only while worshipping together but also in their lives outside the confines of the worshipping community.
Biblical scholar, Marcus Borg, says that the perfect test case for accountability amongst Christians in upholding the ethic of equality is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. In this short letter, Paul appeals to Philemon, a fellow Christian, “on the basis of love” to grant Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who is also Christian, freedom. Onesimus has been a comfort to Paul while he has been in prison and it is time for Onesimus to return to his home with Philemon. Paul states very plainly to Philemon that he should welcome Onesimus who “was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” (Philemon vs.15-16) To reinforce his request Paul says, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (Phil. 21-22)
In the 1st Century (C.E.) this practice of equality among people of different classes and economic situations was radical in its inclusivity. It is, of course, in keeping with the way that Jesus lived and how he treated others. Jesus treated everyone with love and respect and defied the social, cultural and religious constructs that divided people hierarchically. Jesus did not insist that anyone bow down to him or give him special status. Jesus served others and even kneeled down to wash his disciples’ feet during their last supper together.
Remembering the example that Jesus offered, through his life and ministry, and thinking about the reading from Galatians this week has given me pause to notice a niggling feeling that has been bothering me all week. I chose to reflect on the passage from Galatians early this week when I prepared the worship service for today. I gloried in having an opportunity to think about Christians belonging to Christ, being clothed with Christ, and being children of God through faith. And, I especially like that Paul says that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) So it has taken me all week to figure out what is bothering me about this passage from Galatians. After all, Paul’s letter to the Galatians reflects a valuing and inclusion in Christian community of all those who commit to following Jesus and to being baptized and officially becoming part of the body of Christ. There is a marvelous egalitarianism that was, and is, an important part of Christian community and that is a wonderful thing. So, after much thought I realized that what bothers me about Paul’s zealous advocacy of Christian community is not how it was implemented in the 1st Century (C.E.). What bothers me is how this valuing of the bonds within Christian community has been used, by some, in exclusionary ways to proclaim that only those who are baptized in the Christian faith tradition will be right with God.
We live in a pluralistic world. There are many different cultures and religions, many different ways of understanding and worshipping God, many religious prophets and leaders, and a variety of ways of expressing faith in positive ways for the good of all Creation. In Christian communities of faith, Jesus is our teacher and guide, our way of understanding God’s love manifest in ordinary lives. In his life and ministry, Jesus consistently spoke about the Kingdom of God that was actualized whenever love and compassion, fairness and justice, was practiced. The Way of Jesus was, and is, the way of God’s love and justice not just for those who follow Jesus but, rather, for all who follow God.
Social justice advocate, Christian minister and wise leader, Martin Luther King Jr., introduced one of his civil rights speeches by saying:
“Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’ This is the great new problem of [humankind]. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Personally, I have always sought to live and proclaim my faith
in ways that respect and honour other faith traditions. And so I was very interested in what Christian theologian, Marcus Borg, had to say when he spoke in Victoria a few years ago about, “Being Christian in a Pluralistic Age”. Borg spoke about religious diversity, the roots of Christian exclusivism (the negating of any other religious traditions as valid) and about the importance of affirming religious diversity. He was clear that as Christians we should not water down our distinctive religious language or apologize for our beliefs but that Christian exclusivism has “put Christianity at the centre of the universe instead of putting God in the centre.” Borg says that we should be thoughtful about language but not abandon what identifies us as Christians. And, we also need to affirm the decisive centrality of Jesus and live more deeply into God, as mirrored in Christian tradition, without dismissing other religions. Borg quoted William Sloan Coffin, another eminent Christian theologian, as saying, “For Christians, God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.” (Epiphany Explorations Symposium, January 2005)
So where does this leave us with respect to the lesson from Paul’s letter to the Galatians today? For me, it is a reminder of the things we should celebrate about Christian community and the inclusive nature of Christ’s life and teachings. It is also a reminder that whatever a person’s religious beliefs are, they are a child of God and connected to us intrinsically through our common humanity and through the Holy Spirit.
And so, celebrating Christ’s call to us as followers of God’s way of love and justice, I’ll close with a quote from Seasons of the Spirit:
“We live ordinary lives. We go about our routines each day. And sometimes we gather, as Christian community, to celebrate our common faith. We sing. We tell stories. We pray. We remember Christ – how he calls us, feeds us, and sends us out to care for the world – and in all of this we see the face of Christ in each other, and in the strength of this community, and in the ministries we go forth the enact in his name.”
(Seasons of the Spirit, Lent/Easter 2004, pg.95)