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Summary: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcisio

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Cicero's first rule of public speaking was, "render your audience benevolent". We preachers tend to follow that rule by opening our sermons with a joke. But what do you do when the passage you're preaching on includes a statement from St Paul such as the one we find in Galatians 5:12:

"I wish that the people who are upsetting you [with their talk of circumcision] would go all the way and castrate themselves!"

Where do you go from there? No opening joke seems necessary! Paul's risque barb is best left to stand on its own, I think, for the only jokes that come to mind are hardly appropriate on a Sunday morning! So instead of sharing a joke with you I'm going to share an email that I received yesterday. It comes from a member of our online community who lives in the USA:

The state of Arizona here in the United States has passed a strict anti-immigration law which will give local law enforcement in that state to act as immigration officials and arrest, detain and deport any one deemed "undesirable".That has created tensions in this country between ethnic groups and prejudice in particular towards Muslims and Hispanics

Even though I'm not Muslim and I'm now Anglican, even so, I'm ethnically still Hispanic and even though people can change their religion, no one can ever change their ethnicity. In spite of the fact that I was born and raised in America it hurts to see when even people who I thought were my friends change towards me and not for the better either. The prejudice seems to be perpetrated by the white and believe it or not black American community.

My family and I are considering leaving the country in order to get away from the prejudice and perhaps the possibility of the persecution to come. Before I was standing up for Muslims but right now I've been too busy lately standing up for myself, my family and my ethnicity. A couple of days ago, My dad, my brothers, a friend and I were eating at a restaurant. My father was speaking to a waitress friend of ours who is also Hispanic and they were talking in Spanish. Well, this elderly white couple said, "Speak English!" and I said, "This is a free country and we can speak whatever language we choose!",the lady retorted, "This is America!" and I said, "That's right!" and she said, "Go back were you came from!" and I told her, "You too!".

Now that's a brief and rather depressing insight into the life of one of our online friends who paints a grim picture of the way things are developing in his part of the world. And I'm sure that you (like me) find this story most concerning. What might have you puzzled though is what possible connection this story could have with Paul's letter to the church in Galatia, but there is a connection and the connecting point is this. They both concern prejudice.

In the case of the email this is obvious enough. In the case of Paul's issue with the church in Galatia it might not be so obvious, for he seems to be arguing over a specifically religious issue - ie. circumcision.

Of course in this country most people would regard circumcision as a medical issue (and as an unnecessary and unwanted one at that) but for Jews in the first century, as for Jews in every century, circumcision was and is a fundamentally religious issue, as it was and is the basic way in which you identify yourself as a member (at least a male member) of the people of God!

"This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." (Genesis 17:10-11)

This is God speaking to Abraham, and so you can appreciate that the children of Abraham took this practice seriously! This was their God-given sign through which they demonstrated that they were inheritors of the promise of God made to Abraham. This was how they showed that they were the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Yet in Paul's understanding a distinction had to be made between the ethnic children of Abraham, who traced their ancestry back to Abraham, and the children of the faith of Abraham, who shared their spiritual father's faith but who may or may not have been Abraham's literal physical descendants.

Paul came to see that the Spirit of the God of Abraham was at work within people of all races - both Abraham's physical descendants and the rest of us - and he came to the conclusion that the sign of circumcision was relevant only to Abraham's physical descendants - ie. to the Jews. Circumcision was fundamentally a sign of their ethnicity then and not of their faith, and so it was not relevant to members of the community of faith who were not Jewish.

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