The Politics of Identity

Galatians 3:1-2, 23-29 (a paraphrase)

YOU STUPID Galatians!  Why are you deceived?  You who have known the revelation of Christ crucified and risen.  Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by the revelation received through Christ Jesus?  Before faith came, you were held captive by the law, awaiting the revelation of faith.
You were under the custody of the law until you were set free by Christ’s love and your faith was justified.  Now that you live by faith you are no longer held captive by the law. You are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.  It was by faith that you were each baptized into the living Christ and received the identity of Christ as your own. You are no longer identified by nationality or tribe, as ruler or subject, or by gender or sexual orientation.  For as long as you live in Christ you are heirs with Christ and given the same promise first given to Abraham by God.

IN THE BEGINNING DIVISION

And Paul says, “You stupid Galatians!” “Why are you deceived?”

Long before Darwin and his disciples the world has sought to divide and classify us and separate us into groups that give us a fragmented identity. This fragmented identity emphasizes a particularity, a characteristic, a part of who we are as the definitive characteristic of our identity. This fragmented identity becomes an exclusive identity by which we are known, labeled, categorized, and valued by the society in which we live, play, and work.

We are defined and separated by what we do!  We are doctors, nurses, technicians, lawyers, judges, teachers, scientists, politicians, artists, musicians, photographers, bankers, brokers, carpenters, cashiers, farmers, ranchers, architects, community organizers, expediters, designers, engineers, stay at home moms, stay at home dads, writers, firemen, postal carriers, garbage collectors, social workers, police officers, brick layers, roofers, day care workers, printers, truck drivers, ship builders, dock workers, advocates, preachers, prophets, and tent makers.

And Paul says, “You stupid Galatians!” “ Why are you deceived?”

We are defined and separated by our physical characteristic!  We are women, we are men, we are children, and we are adults. We are gay, we are straight, we are bisexual, and we are transgender. We are pink, we are yellow, we are brown, and we are black. We are handicapped, we are blind, and we are deaf. We are young, we are old, and we are somewhere in between struggling with our mid-life crisis. We are athletic, and we are athletically challenged. We are anorexic, and we are obese. We are a knock out, and we are homely. We are buff, and we are couch potatoes.

And Paul says, “You stupid Galatians!” “ Why are you deceived?”

We are defined and separated by our mental attributes!  We are smart, we are stupid, we are intellectual, we are pragmatic, we are creative, we are intuitive, we are emotional, and we are analytical. We are extroverts, and we are introverts. We are bilingual, and we struggle to make ourselves understood in our native language. We can speak in the language of numbers, and we see numbers as pretty shapes. We are articulate, and we struggle to get our words right. We think and speak in absolutes, metaphors, irony, and abstractions. We are obtuse. We keep our own council.

And Paul says, “You stupid Galatians!” “ Why are you deceived?”

We are defined and separated by our National citizenship and ethnic heritage!  We are American. We are Mexican. We are Czech, Polish, Irish, Russian, English, Italian, French, Palestinian, Israeli, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Canadian, South African, Lakota, Dakota, Creek, Cheyenne, Navajo, and we are Hopi. We are legal immigrants, and we are illegal immigrants. We are Uzbek, and we are Kyrgyz. We are Turk, we are Armenian, and we are Kurd.

And Paul says, “You stupid Galatians!” “ Why are you deceived?”

We are defined and separated by communities of exclusivity.  We are progressives, and we are fundamentalist. We are Republicans, we are Democrats, and we are Independents. We are moveon.org activists, and we are tea party activists. We are internationalists, and we are isolationists. We are conservative, and we are liberal. We are Huskers, and we are Sooners. We are northerners, we are southerners, we are east coast, we are west coast, and we are midwesterners. We are traditional, and we are contemporary. We are institutional, and we are dissenters. We are Protestants, we are Catholic, and we are Orthodox. We are Buddhists, we are Jewish, we are Hindu, we are Sunni, we are Shia, we are Wiccan, we are pagan, we are agnostic, and we are atheist.

And Paul says, “You stupid Galatians!” “ Why are you deceived?”

A LONGING FOR SOMETHING NEW

We only have to look at the news with all its sensationalized images of war, violence, poverty, greed, and environmental horror to understand the consequences of the way we as ordinary human beings define and separate ourselves from one another and from God. Each of these identities carries with it characteristics, expectations, traditions, and boundaries that seem to separate us from one another, and binds us to a downward spiral of self destruction that in the end threatens to destroy humankind, along with all of creation.
But not every way we define ourselves is as bad as that. In the midst of all the ugliness of human behavior within this world, there is still a lot of good that takes place in life. We can find joy in our work, in our families, in our social and cultural connections. Little acts of kindness take place everyday, often where we least expect it, often out of sight. People all over the world seem to find the courage to stand up and speak truth to power, to witness to the call for justice. Individuals and entire communities are working to find ways to live sustainable lives, living in harmony with the environment and the human community. This community of faith, that gathers here in this place, certainly brings great joy and hope to many within and beyond these sanctuary walls, as it courageously seeks new ways to faithfully offer radical hospitality to those who seek to join in communion with one another, no matter where they might be on life’s journey.
Those who seek to make social and political criticism into a simplistic dichotomy between good and evil, or between religion and secularism, or any other duality, are missing the remnant beauty that still resides in the human heart and in creation. Those pundits who play the blame game putting the responsibility for violence and injustice enacted everyday upon one national or ethnic group, or upon one political party or another, one social or cultural affiliation, are only furthering the ugly divisiveness that fuels our self destructive behavior.
For some of us there is a longing for something radically different than what the world as it defines itself is offering. For some of us from deep down in the ground of our very being there is a longing for a world that is filled with peace and love between people. There are those among us who long for a radical inclusive community where everyone is truly welcome no matter what there personal God given characteristics might be. There are those in this world who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the very idea that human beings can live in community together defined not by hate and violence, greed and brutality, but instead by mutual love and respect. There is little evidence that would lead any practical person to believe this to be possible. But at the end of the day if we are honest with ourselves and take the time to listen to that still voice speaking from within our silence there remains deep down within us a longing for something different, something new.

PAUL'S MESSAGE

As angry as Paul is in his confrontation with Peter and those in the church at Galatia who are urging the community of faith return to the bondage of Deuteronomic law, Paul is still speaking in love to the longing shared by human beings for inclusion in God’s love, and an end to all those things that separate us from God and from one another. For Paul none of this made sense outside of the incarnational event of Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection.
Paul understood the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to reconcile the world. This event initiated a new creation, which included a radically inclusive new promise—a promise based on faith and not law. Paul knew that the law could not justify the promise being offered the world through Jesus Christ. Paul saw the law as limited in its exclusivity and thus inadequate to redeem the world. Paul understood the law as a temporary measure given by God to Moses as a nursemaid for the children of Israel until that time when faith was revealed to the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul preached the same message wherever he went, from town to town, and even from his jail cell. Paul’s message was that this Jesus of Nazareth, was in fact God coming to be one with us, both fully God and fully human. The world in sin rejected Jesus the Christ, humiliated him, crucified him dead and buried. As an act of grace God conquered death and on the third day Christ rose from the dead that the world might be reconciled unto God. In this act God was creating within himself a new creation. Paul believed that the life we now live is itself in the process of becoming new; that the horror we are seeing in the world in which we live is merely the death throws of the old life and the birth pangs of the new life. And in this new life in Christ, God is putting to an end all those things that divide and separate us from one another and from God. God is fulfilling the promise to reconcile all people with one another, with all of creation, and with God.
So with a radical proclamation of God’s inclusive love, Paul declares that there is no longer Jew or Greek, Male or Female, Slave or Free. By the faith of Jesus Christ and through our baptism we are made into a new people having as new creatures the identity of Christ. As Paul said of himself, “It is no longer I that lives but Christ that lives within me.” Because our identity is now in Christ our faith is justified. And because our faith is justified, we are now to be included in God’s kingdom as heirs to the promise given to Abraham--the father of faith.

REASON TO DOUBT

But Paul himself was martyred. Executed by those most threatened by the radical message of God’s inclusive love. And as we look around us today at the world we live in it should not surprise us that it is despair and cynicism that appears justified, not hope and faith. The harder one looks at the world we live in with its horror, violence, destruction, greed, and just plain indifference to the self-destructive nature of humankind, we are compelled to ask ourselves can our faith actually be justified? Can any one of us with a straight face proclaim that we are in the midst of the continuing birth pangs of a new creation when the world is filled with nation at war against nation, tribe at war against tribe, when human greed and hubris is destroying the life of the water and all the living creatures in the Gulf of Mexico and its surroundings—the whales, dolphins, pelicans, fish, shellfish, plankton, coral, algae, all living creatures. There may come a day when the oil leaking from the bottom of the ocean is stopped. But there is no evidence that the human condition that led to this horror, and all other horrors inflicted on nature and on the human community, will ever stop.
The truth is that there is nothing in our ordinary daily lives that would justify our hope, or our faith. And to argue with the world according to the laws of observation and so-called common sense appears to be a lost cause. Not even self-interest, or threats of apocalyptic self-destruction, seem capable of changing the way human beings and human communities live their self-destructive lives.

IN THE END UNITY

But we are the people of the empty tomb. We hang on to our hope that our faith is justified in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The world might think us stupid and call us foolish. But we are a people who dare to hope even when the world would have us believe that only despair is justified. As Paul says we are fools for Christ. We are fools who dare to hope that it is possible to live with one another in love and justice. We are fools who believe that a day is coming when we can say that peace has arrived and war is no more. We are a people who foolishly speak of a day when love sustains all life; a day so mysterious that we must speak in metaphor--a day when the calf and the lion lie down together, and the little child plays over the viper’s den. And in a time when so many people in this world believe that God is dead, we are a people who foolishly proclaim that God is still speaking.

The world might think us stupid and call us foolish, but…
We are a hopeful people. We hope for something that will bring us together in all our diversity, no matter where we might be on life’s journey, as one community. Through love we seek out ways that affirm and value diversity while powerfully uniting us together in faith. We long for a day when the pursuit of our own ambitions and sustenance is not in competition with the health and well being of others, or the sustainability of this planet and all the creatures that live here. And our hope gives us the courage to be a people that goes about its work, its play, its community and family life, free of the divisive ways the world would use to define and confine us. Hope gives us courage, the courage to be free of all that would divide and separate us from one another.

The world might think us stupid and call us foolish, but…
We are a people of faith. We are a people who unable to justify faith on our own dare to proclaim that the faith of Jesus Christ is sufficient to redeem all of creation, creating us and the world we live in anew. We are a people who justify ourselves, our identities, our very being as being mystically united with the identity of Christ and proclaim that by that union our faith is justified.

The world might think us stupid and call us foolish, but…
We are a people of love. Who proclaim that love is more than sentimentality, or the coming together of kindred people. We proclaim a love that is powerful enough to reconcile an entire world making a new creation of a world bent on self-destruction. It is love that sustains us during this time when the old world is destroying itself and the new creation is being born.
But what about all those identities that the world uses to divide and separate people? In the end we keep all those characteristics, but not the identity. These characteristics contribute to who we are as people. After all, Paul did not stop making tents as he traveled from town to town preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul did not stop struggling with his own humanity whether it is his famous complaint of a thorn in his side, or his confessed inability to stop doing what he would not do or to do what he would do. Paul, like us, retained his humanity. But these very human characteristics no longer separate us from our brothers and sisters in Christ, nor do they separate us from our God. In Christ we were chosen by God and given a new identity. It is God who defines who we are and who we are becoming.
We are a people defined by the faith of Jesus Christ. And in faith we proclaim that there is unity in Jesus Christ. We are a people who say to the world in ordinary ways that in Jesus, the Sacred and the Ordinary have become one. We live our lives in the assurance that by faith the sacred and the ordinary are united in our own lives, and in our life together. And by the faith of Jesus Christ, as children of God, in all of our diversity and particularity, we are made one in Christ.
So we have hope and our hope gives us courage. We have faith and our faith is justified. And we have love and love sustains us. Thanks be to God! Amen.