Sunday, July 3, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 12:53; sermon starts around 19:55)
It’s not often that you come to worship on Sunday morning expecting to hear the word “circumcision” read aloud quite so many times (or I suppose it’s possible you do; I don’t know your life, lol) – but we get a heaping helping of it today in our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. To a casual reader of scripture, it can seem really odd that Paul gets so hung up on this one particular issue – I mean, the book of Galatians only has six chapters and Paul talks about circumcision in three of them!
Why do you suppose that is? Why was circumcision so important for Paul?
Circumcision was an ancient Jewish practice, part of the law of Moses – its origins traced all the way back to Abraham. As part of the covenant with God, Abraham himself was circumcised, along with all the males in his household and their descendants.
To the Israelites – the descendants of Abraham – circumcision was a physical sign that someone was righteous before the law, that they were a believer in good standing. Those who were not circumcised were cut off from the community (ancient irony?); and over time, the word “uncircumcised” even came to be used as a derogatory term for non-Jewish people – because they were considered to be outside of God’s law.
And beyond adherence to the law, circumcision was a mark of identity, a physical sign of belonging. By being circumcised, a believer showed with his own body that he belonged to God’s chosen, covenanted people. Circumcision was an essential rite for conversion to the Jewish faith, and even outsiders who just wanted to share in the Passover meal were first required to undergo circumcision.
When Jesus first began his ministry, he and his followers all came from within the Jewish community; they all came from this tradition – in fact, you can even read about the circumcision of Jesus in the second chapter of Luke (so weird that that gets left out of our Christmas Eve readings 😜). But eventually, Jesus himself began to take his ministry beyond those boundaries. And after his ascension, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost blows the early church wide open – Christ’s followers are equipped and sent to preach the good news to every people living in every nation on earth.
But as the early church grew to include both Jewish and non-Jewish believers, it started to raise a lot of complicated questions for them. What role would the law of Moses play for converts to this emerging faith? Would Gentile believers be required to follow all of the rules? Some of the rules? And, for that matter, would Jewish believers still be required to keep the entire law themselves? There was a lot of disagreement and conflict over these questions – and one of the most controversial questions of all was this matter of circumcision.
After all, without circumcision, how could a believer – or those around him – be certain of his righteousness before the law? If some believers were circumcised and others weren’t, how would the community handle the holier-than-thou attitudes that would inevitably arise? And how would they signal their identity to others, to set themselves apart as followers of the way? Apart from circumcision, what kind of sign could unify them and show that they belonged?
This was the controversy raging in the Galatian church that Paul is addressing in his letter. On the one side, you had the hard-line traditionalists, who insisted that everyone must follow the letter of the law, which included circumcision. On the other side, you had believers who were more open to compromise and change – including the recently converted themselves, who were (understandably) less than enthusiastic about the prospect of getting snipped. And on all sides, you had people of faith doing their best to navigate a complex situation.
But Paul urges them to take a step outside of the narrow, limited ways in which they have been thinking about this issue. Instead of choosing a side, Paul shifts the entire focus of the conversation altogether. He writes to the Galatians:
“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For circumcision and uncircumcision are no longer anything; but a new creation is everything!”Galatians 6:14-15
Paul deals with this controversy by pointing toward what is most central and most important – and that is Christ. He doesn’t hand down any kind of sweeping ruling one way or the other. In the end, circumcision is neither commanded nor outright banned: instead, everyone is given the right to choose what happens to his own body, the right to choose for himself whether to be circumcised or not. Paul reminds his readers that what really matters most is the saving acts of Christ on the cross.
And by pointing to Christ, Paul is saying that the old rules by which we determined who was good and righteous are no longer the ultimate authority on righteousness and salvation; Christ is. It’s no longer the law that decides who is in and who is out – it is Christ who decides, and he has decided that everyone is in. We are justified, not by the law, but by the grace of Christ. That way, no one can boast about being holier-than-thou – and no one has to feel shame, worrying that they are not holy enough.
Christ has redeemed us and made us children of God forever. It is no longer the mark of circumcision that unites God’s people; instead it is the cross of Christ with which we have been marked. Through our baptism, we are claimed by God and welcomed into God’s kingdom. All the different distinctions and disagreements that have divided us are washed away by the love of God poured out through Christ. In Christ, we are truly made one people, under God.
Tomorrow, our country will celebrate its independence day. And on the eve of this celebration of our nation, I know I’m not the only one whose heart is burdened by the news of recent national events. Both the controversial rulings that the Supreme Court has made in the past week and the ongoing revelations of the January 6th committee have been more than enough to underscore the fact that we live in complicated and troubled times. Our nation seems to be more divided than ever – and it feels all but impossible to imagine a path toward reconciliation when we can’t even agree on what is true and what is “fake news.”
But in these times, I keep looking to the example set by Paul – and by Jesus himself – for ministering to a complicated and broken world. Neither one of them shied away from the messiness and complexity of this life; instead, they marched right in to meet people where they were, and in the midst of their struggles, they pointed those people toward the hope of the kingdom – toward the hope of the new creation.
As followers of Christ, we are called to live into this tension – the tension between our citizenship in heaven and our citizenship on earth. In this life, we each stand with a foot in both kingdoms, witnessing to the one and doing all the good we possibly can in the other. We don’t shy away from the messiness and brokenness of this world. Following the example of Christ, we meet people where they are, with compassion and understanding; we witness to the love and peace and grace that is ours through the cross of Christ; and we allow our divisions to be washed away by the waters of baptism so that, together, we may find our way forward toward the future toward which God calls us.
Standing in that tension can be exhausting – and it’s often easy for us to become discouraged. But every time we come back to the scriptures, every time we gather here around sacraments of bread and wine and water, we are pointed once more toward what is most central and most important – and that is Christ. It is his love and strength, his grace and wisdom, that flow through us; it is his power that empowers us to keep on going.
So, as Paul writes, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”