Sermon Archives

Sunday, July 3, 2016
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9, Year C)
The Reverend Canon Ronald Spann
Farming the New Creation

Happy 4th of July weekend, everyone. This weekend we celebrate the moment when colonial America gave itself permission to pursue a new form of government by rejecting monarchy to embrace democracy. Something truly new and revolutionary was taking the stage in the drama of human affairs. It has inspired a lengthy caravan of nations to see in democracy their best hope for building a common life.

The driving insight behind democracy is that the dignity of the human person requires freedom as its natural condition. This is a nonreligious expression of a fundamental spiritual truth, which is how I would want to characterize the essence of democracy at it best.

Well, the same spiritual truth is front and center in our own Christian tradition, where it also has a distinctly religious expression. Nowhere is that truth better laid out than in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which is celebrated as his charter of Christian freedom. I am going to use today’s text closely and invite you to follow in the blue-covered scriptures in your pew racks. Turn to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. [This is an Episcopalian bible study, so we’ll use page numbers: pg. 147 at the back, where you will find the original format of today’s reading.]

Paul is the undisputed herald of the spiritual truth that freedom is the natural condition required by our dignity as creatures made in the image of God. That theme is summed up in an early climax at Galatians 5:1-2 [look over on page 146] :

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm then and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Jesus’ death and resurrection frees those who believe in him from bondage to sin and from the tyranny of death. Why, Paul wonders, would we ever allow ourselves to be drawn back into such a condition after knowing God’s liberating love?

Today’s reading is taken from the letter’s grand finale, in which we see Paul at pains to take a parting shot at what compromised and threatened to destroy the Galatian church. Working backwards from vv. 11-16, we find him interrupting the dictation process to say in effect, “Look! See these big Sesame Street letters? This is me, Paul, begging you to understand how good and how new the Good News truly is! “ In vv. 14-15, we find the foundation on which the entire letter turns out to be built:

“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 neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything.

Paul, like Jesus, taught that the Gospel completely replaces the old ways of being and doing and introduces something utterly new, the only thing that now matters, a New Creation! Nothing is exempt, including how we express ourselves religiously. That is what’s behind all those references to circumcision and non-circumcision. In the reality of the New Creation neither practice has any ultimate spiritual value. And worse, those terms are coded language that cloaks attitudes of ethnic pride and racial prejudice, pitting Jew against non-Jew. None of this, says Paul, has any place or virtue in the New Creation, where circumcision no longer cuts it [go ahead, groan].

Why does Paul insist that we stand firm in the freedom for which Christ has set us free? Because it is the only way to take part in the New Creation. And to do that, we must break with the Old Creation by joining Paul in “boasting” in the one reality that makes this doable, the Cross of Christ. By means of the Cross, the world [read “Old Creation”] is crucified to us and we to it. There’s a reason why our baptismal renunciations include the world; we’ve been called to leave its ways behind and to take up those that belong to the New Creation in Christ.

Actually, Paul has given a personal account of the practical power of this truth back in Chapter Two. There he tells how after Peter and the apostles confirmed his mandate to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, Peter visited Antioch, the base of Paul and Barnabas’ mission to the Gentiles. Peter had such a good time of it that he tossed his customary dietary practices aside. It was a firsthand experience of the freedom of the new Gentile and Jewish believers to enjoy social and spiritual unity. Such a thing was unheard of; it was the New Creation in action.

Paul then recalls his dismay when less sympathetic Jewish Christians from Jerusalem followed Peter there, only to disapprove of what they saw. This swayed Peter to back off of his new-found freedom by getting up from the Gentile table and moving to the self-segregated Jerusalem side of the cafeteria, so to speak. In Paul’s words, he called Peter out on the spot, daring to “[oppose him] to his face because he stood self-condemned” by his actions. Even, Barnabas, Paul’s fellow envoy to the Gentiles got carried away in this travesty of the Good News. They had put the liberating truth of the Good News in jeopardy.

So, anchored in Paul’s foundational theme that freedom in Christ is inseparable from the New Creation, we can back up to the preceding few verses, vv. 7-10 and to Paul’s warning not to “be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” If we try to farm the New Creation with the values and practices of the Old – i.e, if we sow to our own flesh - we choose not what is constructive but what is destructive of who and what we truly are, and we reap the results. There is no in-between, and in that sense God is not mocked.

When the framers of the Declaration refused to renounce America’s trafficking in African lives, but rather let it go on for the sake of the wealth it gained, they denied freedom to a million slaves and thus turned their backs on the spiritual truth that gives democracy its virtue. America in the 21st century continues to reap what they sowed. You cannot serve God and mammon. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked.

The fact is, the freedom we are called to is scary stuff; our souls long for it, our spirits rejoice in it, but our flesh is ambivalent about it at best. Worse yet, we are fearful of those who have found freedom. Such was the dilemma of St. Paul’s opponents: their inability to live fully into their birthright in the New Creation only left them threatened to see it lived out by the Christians of Antioch.

And no doubt, in the Gentile quarters of Antioch, there were many who found it not revolutionary but revolting that neighbors or relatives of theirs would have anything to do with a bunch of Jews. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian Christian and sociologist, created a Pedagogy of the Oppressed to help peasants learn not to fear their human freedom. In a real way, we are all spiritual peasants when we shrink from our freedom in the New Creation. In the image that Priest Vicki offered to us last week, we are all learning to come out of our closeted fears of living fully into the freedom of the children of God.

Back in 1776 it was clear what the colonies wanted freedom from, but what – and who – they wanted freedom to be for was not clear. Did America really desire to see all those Africans running freely across its landscape? Did America really want women to be free to run around its voting booths? Today, do we really dare enter a contract to care for the welfare of orphans, widows and aliens, including those we otherwise call refugees, in our land?

Democracy is a humbling proposition that confronts every new generation with its steep, costly learning curve. The power of Paul’s spiritual and religious insight into freedom is that it tells us both what we have freedom from and what we have freedom for. It provides a motivation we can draw on to live as neighbors among all people of goodwill and to share what we know of the things that make for peace, as Jesus asks us to do in today’s Gospel. And where that peace is received, the New Creation can be seen to have come closer as a reality for all the earth.

The good news in vv. 7-10 is that if we farm the New Creation on its own terms and sow according to the spirit, we will be rewarded with a harvest if we do not give up. As believers, we must not give up on building the New Creation; as citizens we must not give up on democracy. I cannot think of a more urgent truth to proclaim in a political season that is all but trashing the American vocation to democracy.

Paul thus exhorts us as we have opportunity to work for the good of all, not just those who call ourselves Christian and who also happen to call ourselves Americans. We begin with the household of faith, perhaps, as a way to work out the kinks before we try doing good to our unsuspecting neighbors, but the goal is the same: to build a City whose every precinct is vibrant with the freedom of the glory of all God’s children.

In short, what if this band of Grosse Pointe Farmers give ourselves as never before to farming the New Creation on its own terms?  We can, but not in our own strength. God has not given us a scapegoat but a Lamb, who has absorbed the hostility of our sin and unbelief into his own death, once and for all, so that there need be no other scapegoats and that all might be freed by his rising again. We do what we do in his strength. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.