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"Liberty, Purity, Solidarity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 28, 2018

posted Oct 29, 2018, 10:08 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every fall our nation remembers the Pilgrims, the intrepid souls who founded Plymouth Colony.  We ought to especially remember them here at a congregation named after their famed colony. And yet, what story do we tell about them?

One story - the classic myth - describes the Pilgrims as refugees from persecution and violence, people who braved the seas in search of freedom.  The Pilgrims started in England, a group of people objecting to the practices of the Church of England. Life became intolerable. And so they left; first to Leiden in Netherlands, and later, for America seeking religious liberty.

And yet, there is another version of the story which speaks of the Pilgrims leaving for America because they found the Netherlands too tolerant.  Leiden not only welcomed in Pilgrims but people of lots of different faiths. And to make matters worse, the Pilgrims saw their own children embracing the tolerant views of the Dutch.  So they left for America, not seeking liberty but instead purity.

Liberty or purity; which did the Pilgrims seek?  Honestly, the Pilgrims tried both; they believed they could only have liberty through purity.  Our country continues to struggle with this question: how can we have liberty? Can we only find it in purity?  Or is there another basis to our liberty?

But this Sunday we look back to another historical moment: The Reformation, and especially Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Catholic Church that gave rise to our spiritual movement, Protestantism.  Luther inspired the “protesters” with his insistence that we are “justified through grace by faith.” This slogan of the Reformation sent millions to prayer (and just as many to war) but today it largely rings hollow.  We might know this slogan, but it doesn’t grip our hearts. Instead, it’s become a bit of a historical anachronism, like “Remember the Alamo” or “Don’t tread on me.” But in what sense are we Protestants if this core slogan of the Reformation doesn’t resonate with us?  So I want to look at this slogan and in particular grace.

Luther’s great insight came from his re-reading of the Biblical text; and this morning as we look at the concept of grace, I think the most Protestant thing we can do is to re-read the Biblical text.  Just as the Letter of Paul to the Romans inspired Luther, it can inspire us too. And in fact, I think it can help us understand how to answer this question of liberty or purity.

This morning we heard one of the core Biblical texts for understanding grace. “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”  Now that’s a mouthful of theological concepts!

I want to work our way into this verse by first stepping back.  The word “grace” which was so important to the Apostle Paul and later Christians doesn’t appear everywhere in the New Testament.  The Gospels of Matthew and Mark never use it; and Luke and John only very sparingly. And in all the gospels, Jesus never used the word grace.  So this word that is so important to Christianity comes to us from Paul. And therefore, we need to know, “what happened in Paul’s life to make the word grace so significant?”

Paul lived in a culture marked by a profound distinction between Romans and the rest.  Roman citizens had rights no one else enjoyed. But even Romans lived in a time of great upheaval.  The Roman state had steadily increased in size in the century before. With growth in power came disputes of how to share the wealth.  Roman society experienced three civil wars in the decades before and after Paul, from the rise of Julius Caesar to after the death of Nero.  And within that span of about 100 years, all the famous families of one generation disappeared as ever new people rose to prominence. We know how our American Civil War continues to reverberate in our country; but imagine if we’d experienced three of them.  The Romans did. And it left everyone uneasy about their place in society and what the future held for them.

Those anxieties affected Paul as a Roman.  But he also faced challenges to his identity as a Jew.  Judaism during the lifetime of Paul varied far more than it does today.  You might remember some of the names of the different groups of Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes.  But there were even more - old-line aristocrats and upstart converts, zealots and dabblers, purists and syncretists.  A decade before Paul wrote, a Jewish aristocrat inserted himself into a Roman debate about imperial succession and put forward Emperor Tiberius; within a decade after Paul wrote, Jews led a revolt against Rome that convulsed the empire.  All of which is to say Jews also felt uneasy about their place in society and what the future held for them.

Both as a Roman and a Jew, Paul felt those tensions of identity and the anxiety of belonging.  At first, Paul tried to resolve his anxiety by becoming an expert at distinctions. He understood his purpose in life as patrolling the boundaries of who belonged and who didn’t.  And, when Paul met the first followers of Jesus, he felt in his heart that they didn’t belong. Paul wanted to make this clear; and the Book of Acts described Paul’s participation in lynchings of early Christians.  So, when people caught an early follower of Jesus named Stephen, Paul held onto people’s coats as they beat Stephen to death. Motivated by his deep anxiety, Paul took part in mob violence designed to make clear: you don’t belong.

Paul became a leader in patrolling the borders of who belonged and who didn’t.  He decided to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus in order to seek out more people who he thought didn’t belong.  But then, in the desert, something happened. A blinding light knocked Paul to the ground; and he heard in his heart a voice saying to him, “Why do you persecute me?”

I find it so interesting that this happens to Paul while he was in-between places; in-between the center of Jewish religious power and a regional center of Roman political power.  Anxiety about his own identity caused the young Paul to believe strongly in distinctions, that you were either this or that, in lines drawn between people, a world of the righteous and the rest.  But then, while he was in an in-between place, neither here nor there, something happened that altered his life.

Paul came to realize Jesus spoke to him in that in-between place.  And what did Jesus say? Probably what Paul would record later in the Letter to the Romans: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”  In between places, Paul found Jesus relieved his anxiety and fears, till he knew he belonged, no matter what.

A new Paul emerged in that moment, one who stopped patrolling the borders of purity and instead embraced others as children of God.  Paul once worked hard to draw distinctions between people; but now he found God erasing them. Paul came to embrace a new purpose for his life: opening up the family of Abraham to include other people, literally welcoming in the people treated as “others” and “aliens” in his society.  When I wonder what grace means, I think of this conversion of Paul from fear and hatred to inclusion and embrace. And nowhere does this conversation become more clear than in the Letter to the Romans.

Paul wrote to a community he didn’t know; in the other letters he picked up conversations he’d already had with people but in Romans Paul starts a new conversation, giving us the most complete description of his spirituality.  And, taken as a whole, the Letter argues for including gentiles into God’s covenant with Abraham. Instead of purifying the community, Paul moved to make it expansive and inclusive.

In the Letter he did this by making an argument about sin, showing over the course of several sections the ways in which everyone fell short of the demands of the Law.  And that line of thinking culminates in our reading today, which opened with Paul’s pronouncement: “Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.”

Paul then quotes a series of Biblical quotations - a laundry list really - that underscore this sense that everyone disappoints.  But the people receiving this letter knew the quotes; like when someone sings a line of popular song and you can hear the rest, the first people to hear Paul’s Letter knew the rest of the quotes.  So, for example, Paul at one point quotes Psalm 36, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” And the people hearing him would know how the Psalm continued, “The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and do good.”  And their memory would have carried them from this depressing indictment on to the promise and hope of God’s action that will save people; “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” This same theme underlies all the Bible passages Paul quotes; after confession, the assurance of hope.

Having laid the groundwork, Paul then made his case for solidarity overt.  All have fallen short; there is no distinction; God helps all of us in our need; and so, we live on equal footing, before God and each other.  The key to unlocking this meaning comes in Paul’s comment about boasting. He said directly, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded.” By boasting he meant the sense of superiority we get when we draw distinctions; that boastful pride that says, “well at least I’m not like them.”  Just as he found God’s grace erasing the distinctions Paul tried to draw, so too he tells us: there is no distinction.

The grace that first came to Paul in-between Jerusalem and Damascus now fully blurred the lines he once made between us and them.  This is grace for Paul: the gift that came to him from God, experienced by him in the person of Jesus, that moves him to see beyond all the distinctions and self-prides and boasts which one defined him, till he embraced all as loved by God.

Ellen Charry helped me think about this grace that changed Paul’s life from a quest for purity to a commitment to solidarity.  For Paul, she wrote, “Grace comes from God through Christ to Paul and through him to his converts as a possession. One carries grace on one’s person and spreads it around.”  When I heard Charry say that, I imagined grace as a cord: coming from God, through Jesus, to Paul, beyond Paul, to the world; a cord binding up all those who’d been broken apart.  God doesn’t use grace to draw a line between insiders and outsiders; God uses grace to draw a line through our hearts, linking us together, in solidarity.

This morning, as we baptize Callum, we see the power of grace revealed.  Just before we baptize him I will remind you, as I do before every baptism, the meaning of what we do: “Through baptism we celebrate publicly what is always true: God loves every person, God treasures every life, God rejoices over our nearest relative and the most distant person.”  Baptism grounds us in the reality of grace - God’s love, not as something that separates the righteous from the rest, but as the power that pulls us into solidarity, one with another.  And in this solidarity we find our truest liberty: “as children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

Paul began as a man committed to purity; wanting to make his community holy by excluding those who didn’t belong, purifying it.  But he came to embrace solidarity. How can we achieve liberty in our country? Paul once thought liberty came through purity. But God’s grace taught him to find his liberty in solidarity.  May we open our hearts to grace, that we too can find liberty in solidarity. Alleluia and Amen.