A rather well-known story is told of Margaret Thatcher. The story recalls a time during her tenure as Prime Minister of Britain. It seems Mrs. Thatcher was visiting an old people’s home, going from room to room and meeting citizens who had lived there a long time. One old lady showed no sign of realizing that she was shaking hands with a world-famous politician. “Do you know who I am?” asked Mrs. Thatcher.
“No, dear,” replied the old lady, “but I would ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.”
It seems a rather strange idea for most of us, but for some a very necessary one; that is, this idea that you might start from scratch to learn who you are. Yet, that is precisely what people who have suffered severe memory loss need to do. It is what people who have suffered other kinds of loss also need to do, too: the refugee without home, country, or family is just one example. And, as it turns out, it is precisely this sort of exercise, of losing one identity and reconstructing another, that Paul is explaining in this dense and complex passage.
As we continue in our journey through Galatians this morning, we come to the point at which Paul really starts to address the underlying issues between himself and the “troublemakers” who stand in opposition to his work. Except now Paul’s argument has gotten much broader. For the last two weeks, we studied Paul’s opening of this letter to the Galatians and listened as he defended himself against attacks from the Jewish Christians in Galatia. Where we pick up today, Paul has begun to defend the whole church against what he perceives as attacks by Peter and those who follow Peter. Just prior to this passage we heard this morning, Paul has described a specific situation that occurred in Antioch, where Paul confronted Peter. It seems that Peter was living like a Gentile even as he was preaching that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be Christians. Needless to say, Paul was pretty angry.
So what we heard this morning, essentially, is Paul’s rant against Peter’s rather deplorable hypocrisy. And for Paul, this isn’t a matter of a few twists and turns in the interpretation of the gospel, or even the Jewish law. This isn’t even simply about one style of missionary policy against another. This is a matter of who you are in the Messiah. It’s as basic as that. Paul’s head-on clash with Peter in Antioch was about Christian identity. His passionate appeal to the Galatians is about their Christian identity. And what we need to be thinking about ourselves as we wade through Paul’s words is our Christian identity.
At the heart of Paul’s argument is that single great, climatic statement that may be familiar to many of us, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.” For Paul, this is it; this is the core of the gospel message. We must lose everything, including even the memory of who we were before; and we must accept, and learn to live by, a new identity with a new foundation. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
This is a matter of opening ourselves up to God so much that we are no longer our “old” selves. What Paul is describing is the great mystery of being caught up in God’s transformation of the world in such a way that our very core is claimed and changed by the power of the living God! And here’s the thing: Paul isn’t speaking of some sort of momentary, mystical “high.” He’s talking about the ongoing experience of living and embodying “the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” For Paul, living this way completely changed his life. Suddenly, he was living a very “high-risk” lifestyle. He gave up the comfort of his upbringing and ethnic identity, he left behind the securities of the Jewish law, and he travelled thousands of miles proclaiming a message that most people didn’t like. He did things that he never would have dreamed of doing before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus—things like establishing Christian churches and sharing meals with people considered “unclean” by Jewish standards.
And here’s the thing; we have to expect that our lives will be changed, too, when we truly live in faithfulness to Christ. We are the Messiah’s people with his life now at work in us. And, since the central thing about Jesus is his loving faithfulness, then the central thing about us, the only thing in fact that defines us, should be our own loving faithfulness. Through his death and resurrection, Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions, but on love alone. Otherwise, Paul says, Christ died for nothing. But Christ died for us, and we should respond gladly and joyfully in faith to the God who graciously sent his son for us.
We are talking about the very heart of the Christian identity here. In our baptism, we say that we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ, in the same way that Christ died and was raised to new life. The waters of baptism represent the washing away of the old and the beginning of the new. And with Christ living in us, our lives should start to look VERY different; so much so, that we maybe don’t even recognize ourselves. We will have to make choices that we never even thought about making. We will step out of our comfort zone and sometimes even defy cultural expectations. We will speak out against policies and practices that inhibit the boundless and unconditional grace of God. We may find ourselves in contact with the poor in Third World countries or serving the homeless in our own cities. We will take risks that will put us at opposition with cultural norms and expectations. Our lives will change, perhaps so much so that we will not even recognize ourselves. And we will find ourselves echoing Paul’s very words, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s great inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family. And ultimately, that’s what our transformation should be about. Christ living in us is not just for our well being, it’s for the sake of God’s kingdom in the world! Peter and his followers had created a system in which Gentile Christians would always be considered as outsiders, if they were even accepted as “Christian” at all. But Christ was not exclusive in any way. Christ came to share God’s extravagant love and generous grace with the whole human race. And we as individuals and together as the Christian community, with Christ living in us, have to live in such a way that that love and grace extends beyond us and out into all world.
We are a people who like to have our cake and eat it too. Peter and his followers showed that as they lived like Gentiles but told the Gentiles they had to be Jews first in order to be Christians. So Paul “called their bluff,” so to speak, and pushed the Jewish Christians to the point of either/or. It’s a challenge that extends to us today. “You cannot have it both ways!” he says. In those early years of Christianity, it meant that you could not be both Jewish AND Christian. Today, it may take on a different meaning. We cannot fight for economic equality and at the same time defend our own economic affluence. We cannot talk about an “open table” at communion, but exclude people from full fellowship with our church. We cannot only partially cross the lines that divide, or even divide our hearts between Christ and something else. Paul was not saying anything that Christ had not already said. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Christ’s death means that we are changed completely! Otherwise, Christ’s death means nothing. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Christ’s sacrifice to be for nothing. I don’t want to be the person who limited the scope of God’s grace because of my own selfish aspirations. I think God in Christ Jesus offers too much to each of us and to this world for us to choose any other way. In Christ is the greatest hope the world could ever have. In Christ is the source of blessing beyond measure. He is our guide, our healer, the great miracle-worker, an “ever-present help in time of need.” I want people to know that. I want my life to be a reflection of God’s light, and I want our church to be a reflection of God’s boundless grace. I want Christ’s death to mean something in this world. I want Christ to live in me, and I want the whole world to be transformed in such a way that we are all “one in Christ Jesus.”
There is a remarkable story that emerged from the bloody conflict in Rwanda in 1994, when members of the Hutu tribe carried out mass murders of the Tutsi tribe. In the small village of Ruhanga, a group of almost 14,000 Christians had gather for refuge. They were of various denominations: Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Baptists, and others. According to a witness at the scene, when the militias came, they ordered the Hutus and Tutsis to separate themselves by tribe. The people refused and declared that they were all one in Christ, and for that they were all killed, gunned down en masse and dumped in mass graves. It is a disturbing story, but it is also a compelling witness to the power of the gospel of grace to overcome all that divides. This is the kind of thing that happens when “we no longer live, but Christ lives in us.” The walls we have built in our hearts are torn down. The walls that society as erected to divide are torn down. We are changed! The world is changed!
It’s easy for us to gloss over these words from Paul. It’s easy to point to this passage and conclude that Paul just had a “bone to pick” with Peter. But Paul’s message to the Galatians is also Paul’s message to us. The gospel is nothing less than God’s takeover of our entire lives. If we do not surrender ourselves totally to God in Christ Jesus then Jesus’ death means nothing. All that matters is Christ’s life within us and through us, which means that the gospel is not an option or a lifestyle or even a decision. The gospel is the whole of life.
And I, for one, praise God for the abundant life he offers!