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The Church of the Living Dead

June 13, 2016

“The Church of the Living Dead” Galatians 2:1-21 © 6.12.16 Ordinary 11C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Sunday nights at First Presbyterian in Albany, GA in the late ‘60s were a flurry of activity for me and others my age, Baby Boomers who swelled the ranks of youth groups even in staid old places like the church on the corner of Flint and North Jackson. We began with a gourmet feast in the fellowship hall, usually a baloney sandwich on white bread with processed cheese product, accompanied by seriously salty chips and Pepsi. That’s right, as in the skit, “no Coke, Pepsi,” because our pastor decreed that the church needed to think young, and the slogan for Pepsi at the time said that soft drink was for people of such a mind. Occasionally, our hosts would bring Jimmy’s hot dogs. We knew what supper was even before the bags made it into the kitchen, because the food from the stand next to the bus station down the street had a distinctive smell, namely that of the chili sauce Jimmy had been simmering for a week before he smothered his concoction with it, yellow mustard, and copious amounts of hot onion.

After the feast came youth group proper, with Bible studies typically telling us how bad evolution and Catholics were and by contrast, how godly we were. Next was evening worship, usually featuring what I now know is called “lectio continua,” a study through an entire Bible book. I remember how tired my mom got of the preaching on Acts. For her, the readings were lectio intermina. Finally, the evening ended with all of us piling in cars and heading to some kindly soul’s home for an event called “Singspiration.” We sat on the floor, alternately singing Bible choruses and munching on snacks. I hid behind my guitar, which I was just learning to play at 16, and did my best to accompany the singing.

One of our favorites was the King James Version translation of Galatians 2:20 put to music. It started out with a sing-song melody (singing): “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me.” Then the tempo changed to a march, which we were too cool to do any motions with (again singing): “And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God.” Then came the gentle ending (singing): “Who loved me and gave himself for me.”

If you look up that song today on the Internet, you’ll find it on a children’s music site. But believe me, while the tune may be for kids, it takes a mature believer to fathom what Paul is talking about and live it out. I had no idea what the text meant at 16, and I am barely able to articulate it now. What I think it has to do with, given its context, is the way we live our lives every day in specific, concrete situations, especially those having to do with relationships with people who are different from us. It’s about transformed perspectives, putting aside old privilege and prejudices. And it gives us clues about how we may be empowered to change the world, even if only our little corner of it.

Part of the difficulty in getting at what the apostle is saying is the density of his writing. I wish he had had an editor who could have urged him to clarify his terms and speak more fully about a subject for which he uses essentially abbreviations. The conversation with Cephas, that is, Peter, that Paul relates is particularly hard to understand. The apostle is incensed and agitated, speaking in shorthand which both he and Peter would have known. You and I probably talk the same way when we’re having an argument with somebody. If we transcribed the conversation, it would be full of stops and starts, half-finished sentences, and so on. So, I guess we can cut Paul a little slack.

The dispute with the Jerusalem apostle arose out of a situation in Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire and a diverse place where Jews and Gentiles freely mingled. Peter came there for a goodwill visit for nobody knows how long, and enjoyed table fellowship with Jewish and Gentile Christians alike, who were glad to welcome such an important figure. The typical kosher rules were not observed at the common feasts. So on the menu there some evening could be surf and turf, with the steak cooked rare. Or another night, roast pork loin was served. The typical hand washing rituals might have been omitted. Not only Peter, but Paul and Barnabas and other unnamed people enjoyed the meals. So there was one, big, happy family of Christians. Not Jewish Christians with their rules in one room, and Gentile Christians in another, with their customs. Simply believers sharing a common bond, symbolized by one table, unhampered by out-of-date, ineffective regulations and artificial barriers that had arisen from fear and misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, our Lord’s brother James was going about his duties as head of the Jerusalem church. During a break one day, he checked his Facebook newsfeed, and there was a photo of Peter, grinning with a couple of Greeks over a huge lobster at a feast in Antioch. James flew into a rage. How dare Peter betray his heritage and the church like that! It wasn’t just the food, though that was bad enough. His actions endangered everyone in the Jewish Christian community, since Zealots, an ultra-nationalist terrorist organization, were targeting with violence any Jews who had contact with Gentiles, like eating at the same table. Peter was a representative of the Jerusalem church, and all the protestations of the other leaders wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans to the terrorists. Hence James put messengers on a plane to Antioch right away to rein Peter in and get him to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles before somebody got killed by the Zealots.

Paul doesn’t care about why Peter or Barnabas or anybody else did what they did. To him, shunning Gentile brothers and sisters is a forsaking of the gospel for the sake of preserving one’s own prestige and status, hypocrisy of the worst sort, giving in to intimidation and fear. He gets in Peter’s face publicly and gives him what for. Wow! What a shouting match that must have been. Two hotheads coming to theological blows in front of God and everybody!

We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul was upset and willing to upbraid his colleague about his behavior. The issue was of utmost importance. There is only one way of inclusion in the realm of God, and that’s by the grace of God made known and acted out in his faithful One, Jesus Christ. God doesn’t pay attention to what you had for dinner, and he certainly doesn’t want people branded clean and unclean, accepted or not in the church on such a basis. It’s not failing to follow kosher rules or some other regulation that’s the sin, Paul insists. The affront to God is building walls that keep people from fellowship with each other, that thwart community and promote suspicion and brokenness. The sin is perpetuating a way of life that demotes some to second-class status when actually everybody is in need of being set right with God, everybody is gifted by grace. It’s giving into fear of consequences for your actions, even though they are just and right.

How many times is the situation in Antioch replayed in the modern world, whether in the church and the family; between friends; in relationships among people of different races, ethnicities, genders, backgrounds; and in international affairs? The basic elements of this story in Galatians are those of so many other tales. Power. Self-preservation. Short-sightedness. Hypocrisy. Haven’t we all at one time or another behaved as Peter did? We expect from others what we refuse to do. We act out of fear. We place on our friends and families burdens we ourselves are unwilling to bear. A father is intolerant of his daughter’s mistakes, but laughs off the same foibles in himself. A boss severely criticizes employees for the same irresponsible and foolish behavior she models every day. The church member loudly condemns the suspect group du jour, yet can’t see that his or her distrust, name-calling, and suspicion are sinful. A person makes it his or her life mission to drive a wedge between people by innuendo and gossip. A public official backs away from a position that’s moral and fair because it’s not popular with the pundits and the bloggers and standing fast would exact a political toll. How many people see themselves as the center of the universe, the star around which all others must orbit? They can’t see beyond their own backyard, their own needs, their own perspectives, their own stuck-up noses. They divorce themselves from the larger human community. Actions are taken and judged not by what will benefit one’s neighbor or the next generation, but by what will provide immediate personal return. What will bring the most power and prestige or preserve what one already has?

In sharp contrast, Paul recommends a life consistent with the example of Christ and sustained by his faithful care. We die to self-preserving power grabs. As someone once said, we resign as general manager of the universe (source unknown). When Jesus was crucified, he didn’t die as a Jew for other Jews, a male for other men, an oppressed person for others put down by imperial power. He was on the cross as a human for all humanity. So when we are crucified with Christ, when we bond with his death in baptism, we begin a journey toward being like him. The “I” that once was, that which separates us from others, drives us to be hostile, suspicious, interested only in preserving most of all that which divides us from others rather than what unites us, that self begins to wither and die, while we are formed more and more in the image of Christ, becoming like him in his death so we may follow him more fully in our lives. We are dead, yet we live, as transformed, empowered vessels of Christ, who for love of all humanity gave himself up and who calls us to do the same.

When we are crucified with Christ, we unite with and care for our neighbors, whether other Christians, any person of faith and good will or simply those in need, no matter the cost. In 1994, during the Rwandan civil war, members of the Hutus were wiping out the rival Tutsi tribe. In Ruhanga, 13,500 Christians had gathered for refuge. They were of all sorts and of both tribes. Anglicans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Baptists, and others. When the Hutus came and demanded that the Tutsis separate themselves, the response was “We are all one in Christ.” The cost of that confession was the lives of all, Hutu and Tutsi alike. They were gunned down, and their bodies dumped in mass graves (from Richard B. Hays, “Galatians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI: 248).

Around the same time, in the early nineties, Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, AL was being formed and growing. From the beginning, it was an interracial church committed to social justice. So it was fitting that Virginia Foster Durr, at 92, should be a charter member. She had been an ardent supporter of civil rights, opposing the poll tax, befriending Rosa Parks, housing the Freedom Riders, along with her husband Clifford, a prominent attorney. They were both investigated during the McCarthy era because of their ties to social justice organizations. Their commitment to civil rights in Alabama in the ‘50s and ‘60s led to fear and rejection by their friends and associates in Southern society circles. Clifford’s practice dwindled. Their daughters were bullied at school. They belonged to fashionable, prestigious First Presbyterian in Montgomery, one of the leaders in the PCA pull-out later in the 1970s. But Clifford’s name was summarily removed from the roll of deacons. Nobody came to his Sunday school class. He and his wife were shut out. In her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle, the late Mrs. Durr said: “There were three ways for a well brought-up young Southern white woman to go. She could be the actress, playing out the stereotype of the Southern belle. Gracious to ‘the colored help,’ flirtatious to her powerful father-in-law, and offering a sweet, winning smile to the world. In short, going with the wind. If she had a spark of independence or worse, creativity, she could go crazy—on the dark, shadowy street traveled by more than one Southern belle. Or she could be the rebel. She could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruises of all sorts, and defamation would be her lot. Her reward would be a truly examined life. And a world she would otherwise never have known” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/363033.Outside_the_Magic_Circle).

Why suffer as those Rwandan Christians did? Or Virginia and Clifford? Why endure ostracism, economic hardship, even death in the case of the Africans? Because ultimately there is only one thing that matters: the gospel. More than to a church limited to one tribe or one race or one economic class, these people were linked to a congregation that has no limits, that knows no barriers of race or gender or status or tribe or nation. It’s the church that Jesus loved and loves and gave himself to bring into being. The church in which the cross shapes, transforms, and empowers the life of the community and individuals alike. The church of the living dead.

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