A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.” A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “straight church.” A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men. “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say. “Who has bewitched you? Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?”
I’ve had a good many requests for my sermon from Sunday, June 19, quoted above. It was number four in a series called “Getting right with God,” based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but as I said in the introduction, it’s not getting right with God that’s the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.
I’ve posted the full text of the sermon below with a link to the video at the end. I hope you will read it or watch it, and if you feel like sharing please do. I think there’s some good news here.
After worship last Sunday someone asked me why I was spending six weeks talking about “Getting Right with God.” “Isn’t it fairly simple?” he asked. I’ve been thinking about that question ever since, and I’ve concluded that getting right with God is not the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.
Wasn’t that the problem Paul was dealing with in Galatians? It wasn’t that God had any trouble welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into his family; it was that the Jewish Christians had trouble welcoming them into the church. They thought they should be circumcised first, then they could get their names on the rolls, then they could take communion. And Paul argued, “No, it’s not circumcision that makes us part of God’s family: it is faith in Jesus Christ.” That seems so obvious to us now that we could almost fall asleep during a sermon from Galatians. Until someone comes down the aisle who is not like us. And then we sit bolt upright in our pews and begin to come up with all sorts of reasons why that person should not be a member of the church.
It happened here on January 3, 1965. At the close of the 11:00 service two Nigerian students who were attending Virginia Union University came down the aisle to join First Baptist Church. And why not? They were the sons of Baptist ministers in Nigeria who had heard about First Baptist Church. They knew it was the church where the president of the Foreign Mission Board was a member and the former president of the Baptist World Alliance was the pastor. They encouraged their sons to attend. And so, these obedient boys put on their Sunday best and came to church. And it must have been wonderful to walk into this place when Dr. Adams was the pastor, and the pews were packed, and the choir loft was overflowing. These students must have gotten a little giddy from the splendor of it all, and when the invitation was given they came down the aisle.
I don’t know what Dr. Adams was preaching that day. I doubt that he was preaching from this passage in Galatians that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. But something that he said or something that those students felt in this place made them believe they would be welcome. And so they walked down the aisle and asked to join the church. As I heard the story Dr. Adams, who had traveled the globe in his work as president of the Baptist World Alliance, and who had gotten to know Baptists of every kind, would have been happy to welcome them. He knew that in Christ there is neither black nor white. But this was 1965, and this was Richmond, Virginia, and Dr. Adams had the presence of mind to welcome them without promising them membership in the church. That would be decided a few weeks later, after many long discussions with the deacons and a bitter and painful business meeting that practically split the church. In the end, by a narrow margin, the congregation voted to welcome those students as members.
It’s interesting that our church history is called “The Open Door.” 1965 was one of those times (and our historian says as much) when the open door was tested. How open was it, really? Could we welcome black people, as well as white, into our membership? The answer was yes, and I’m grateful. When I think about some of the people I might never have known if this door hadn’t been open I almost weep! The life of our congregation has only been enriched by its diversity. We can see that now, looking back. It’s always easier looking back. We’ve struggled with other questions since then. Can women be ordained as ministers in this church? Can Christians from other denominations join without being immersed? Can people who are differently oriented be members here? Again and again the open door has been tested and every time it makes us sit bolt upright in our pews. So, don’t fall asleep during this sermon from Galatians when Paul is working so hard answer the question of who can be a member of the church and who can’t.
For him the door was open—wide open—and I can almost see him on a street corner in Galatia, inviting people of every description into this new life with Christ. They might ask, “What do I have to do?” And Paul might answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus!” “Is that all?” they would ask. “That’s all!” Paul would answer. And then, when they had confessed their faith, they would be baptized, not as a requirement for membership in the church, but as a symbol of their new life in Christ.
In those days, in that part of the world, they would strip off their clothes on the riverbank, symbols of the old life, and then wade out into the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When they came up out of the water it was like they had been born again, and when they stepped out onto the riverbank they were given a new, white robe to wear, a symbol of the new life. And then Paul might say to them, as he says here in Galatians, “Listen, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus!” And then he would move on to the next little town and start all over again.
But apparently someone was coming along behind him, telling those new Christians that believing wasn’t enough, baptism wasn’t enough, that if they wanted to be part of God’s family they would have to become Jews, they would have to start obeying the Law of Moses, and the men among them would have to be circumcised. You can probably imagine what Paul had to say about that. But you don’t have to imagine it. You can read it for yourself in Galatians 2. Paul says, “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (vs. 16). And as far as circumcision goes, Paul reminds us that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, not after. “He believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), Paul says, arguing that Gentile believers stand in that same tradition.
You might ask, “Then why did the Jews even need the law?” and Paul anticipates that question. He says that the Law was “added because of transgressions,” and what he means, I think, is that we humans have a tendency to stray, that on our way from the Present Evil Age to the Age to Come we might wander off the path and get lost. Have you ever seen two teachers walking with a group of preschoolers, where the teachers are holding on to each end of a long rope and the preschoolers are holding on in between? It keeps everybody safe until they get back to their school, and then the children let go of the rope and run to the door. I think that’s what Paul would say the Law was like—like a good, strong rope we could hold on to that kept us from going astray. Until. Until it brought us to Jesus. And then we didn’t need the rope anymore. We were free to run to him. And as Jesus himself once said, he is the door, the door that lets us in to his Father’s house.
Can anybody go in through that door? Let’s see what Paul says.
- In Galatians 3:26 he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
- In verse 27 he writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
- In verse 28 he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
- In verse 29 he writes: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the Promise”
Can you picture those children of God, still dressed in their white robes, coming into the Father’s house and sitting down around the family table? Whatever distinctions divided them before have disappeared; they are all one in Christ Jesus.
And Paul says that’s how it should be in the church, but often that’s not how it is. A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.” A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the straight church. A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men. “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say. “Who has bewitched you? Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ? I’m telling you he has opened the door, and if you are in him you are in—period! All you have to do is believe it, to accept the good news that you are accepted.”
And that’s where faith comes in.
Paul uses that word five times in the first four verses of today’s reading. Count them: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Did you get all five? “Faith, faith, faith, faith, faith!” Paul says. “That’s what sets us free from the law, that’s what puts us right with God, that’s what makes us part of his family.” And I want to be careful about how I say this, but I believe that for Paul faith is the new circumcision, the sign of the New Covenant—not some mark in the flesh but a matter of the heart. So, who can be part of the church? Anyone who has faith, and the faith that I’m talking about is the faith that God loves us and wants us for his own. It’s the gospel Jesus preached. It’s the message Paul proclaimed. And most of the time the only thing that keeps us from receiving it is our own disbelief:
“How could God love somebody like me?”
But sometimes others keep us from receiving it. They say, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “How could God love somebody like you?” That is at least one of the messages that came out of last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando. It certainly seems that someone judged those people dancing in a gay nightclub and found them worthy only of contempt. It’s at least one of the messages that came out of last year’s shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. Someone judged those people who had gathered for Bible study and found them worthy only of hatred. They may not have done it with guns and bullets, but there have probably been people along the way who judged you, and found you worthy only of contempt and hatred. And, God forgive us, there have probably been people we judged, people who don’t come to church here because they believe that if they did they would not be welcome.
Who can be part of the church? Anyone who has faith. And who can have faith? Any one. Paul would say that it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These days he might add some other categories but it wouldn’t change his message: all you have to do is believe that God loves you and wants you for his own, all you have to do is see Jesus standing at the door, begging you to come in, all you have to do is find the courage to take that first step. “It takes faith,” Paul might say, “but faith is all it takes. It is the new circumcision, the sign of the new covenant. It is not a mark in the flesh, but a matter of the heart.”
Have you ever been to one of those conferences where there is a registration table at the front with all the name tags already made up? They sit there in their shiny plastic sleeves—the names of all those who have registered for the conference. I sometimes look at them when I ask for my own tag, and sometimes I see the name of someone I know. “Oh, look! John is coming to this conference. Oh, look! There’s Betty, or David, or Jane.” But when we take a break for lunch and I walk by that same table, I usually see some name tags that have not been claimed, some people who were planning to come to the conference, but for whatever reason didn’t make it. If church were like one of those conferences there might be a table out front with everybody’s name tag on it. Everybody’s. And when we went out after the benediction we would see the names of all those people who didn’t make it: some who found something better to do, some who weren’t physically able, but some who didn’t believe…they would be welcome.
–Jim Somerville, 2016
Watch the video by clicking HERE