Testing the beliefs we’ve inherited from our past

This week, Methodist Conference accepted (by a large majority) a report proposing,  that we should:

  • Be open and positive about sexuality and relationships. We hope to enable the Methodist Church to speak openly, positively, and joyfully as well as wisely about relationships and sexuality as one aspect of God’s gracious goodness and of who God has made us to be.
  • Value all relationships of grace. We invite the Methodist Church to value all committed faithful loving relationships that bear the marks that we can see in the love of Jesus, and are within the law of the land. We encourage the Church actively to offer greater dignity, inclusion and restoration in the community of God’s new creation to those who cohabit, are single, or are developing relationships, irrespective of sexuality and gender.
  • Widen and justify the understanding of marriage as being between two persons. We offer to the Methodist Church a theological reflection on marriage as a particular form of ‘gospel’ relationship between two persons, and propose that we take steps to enable same-sex couples to get married in the Methodist Church. At the same time, we recognise that not everyone will agree with this and so we ask that the Church seek to protect the differing convictions of those who do not agree.

The report will be reflected upon and prayed about at a local level before a definitive vote on these provisions that will be held at next year’s conference. 

This sermon was preached last Sunday, before the vote, and based upon the lectionary reading, Galatians 5: 1, 13-25.

The lectionary is racing through Paul’s letter to the Galatians at the moment. It seems to be going particularly quickly because how much we read from Galatians in any particular three-year cycle is dependent on the timing of Easter in the third year. If Easter is late, as it is this year, then we don’t get to read much of Galatians. Blink and you’ll miss it.

This may or may not be a bad thing. I say this because Galatians is either one of the most important letters Paul ever wrote or is almost completely irrelevant to the modern church. To explore which we need to understand a little of the context in which it was written.

Galatians may be the earliest of the letters in the New Testament. Paul was probably writing towards the end of his second missionary journeys to a group of churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in what is now part of Turkey. He had visited the cities on his first two journeys and had helped establish “churches” there. On those journeys he developed a particular way of operating. When he went to a new town, he would base his activities at the local synagogue. His approach is very similar to how many of us would respond to a move to a new town – we’d probably go to the church, the place where we feel at home and expect to find like-minded people.

There was generally a mix of people at the synagogue. There would be some people who were ethnically Jewish, whose families had emigrated from Israel at some time in the past. Some might have been persecuted, some might have been economic migrants. They preserved their Jewish culture and identity principally through adherence to a code of laws that covered just about every aspect of their lives. They assumed that their relationship with God depended on how closely they followed these laws. Along with them would be non-Jews who were attracted to Jewish ideas about God, they were known as god-fearers. The ethnic Jews apparently encouraged these non-Jews to join in with many of their activities but they were still considered them as separate outsiders.

Paul was adamant that the death and resurrection of Jesus defined a new way of relating to God as individuals which made the distinction between Jews and non-Jews irrelevant. Ethnicity was not an issue. God was for everyone. Perhaps more importantly a personal relationship with God superseded the requirement to adhere slavishly to the law codes. Paul, thus, encouraged these communities to treat Jews and non-Jews as equal before God. The Jews could continue to adhere to the law if they wanted to, but the non-Jews didn’t have to. Having set these communities up in this way, Paul then moved on.

The letter to the Galatians is clearly Paul’s response to hearing news that this way of living was breaking down. We don’t know how he got the news or exactly what he was told, but it is clear that the ethnic Jews were insisting that if the god-fearers wanted to continue in the community they were going to have to start adhering to the Jewish law and, more specifically, that the males would have to be circumcised. Paul let rip; he was furious. The letter to the Galatians is a short  and an angry letter with a specific focus on this one issue.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not the letter is relevant to us today. It was written in a very specific context. If the letter is taken simply as advice to a group of Christian communities in first century Galatia about whether non-Jews should be required to adhere to the Jewish Law, then it is almost entirely irrelevant to us in Bramhall today. We, as Christians, see no requirement to follow the Jewish law and there is no pressure on any male to be circumcised. These are purely historic concerns. If this is how we view Galatians, it would be in everybody’s interest to forget about the letter altogether whenever Easter occurs in any given year.

But we can look at the letter it a different way. We can see it as Paul’s more general advice on how to deal with any religious beliefs which we may have inherited from previous generations and the culture in which we have grown up. The book becomes highly relevant if we read it like this because many of our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in the culture in which we grew up and many have been passed onto us by our parents, both biological and spiritual.

The starting point is for us to be honest and accept that the beliefs that the church has held to over the years have been bit of a mixed bag. Much of what the church has believed in the past has been true to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Along with this, however, are many beliefs which, in light of a modern understanding of God, we now see as at best distracting and often quite simply wrong. The church accepted slavery as inevitable part of God’s created order for nearly 1800 years, for example. Just over 100 years ago the countries of Europe slipped into the most devastating war there has ever been all believing that the Christian God was on their side. Over our own lifetime the  way we view certain parts of the Church’s historic teaching have changed. Methodists now celebrate the gifts that women can bring to ordained roles in the church (even if other denominations do not). Most of us now accept that divorced people should be offered a second chance through remarrying in church. Our understanding of God, and the way we live out our lives in response, has changed.

When we look back, we are forced to accept that the faith we have inherited from past generations is a mix of the good and the bad, the true and the false. On this basis, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, becomes incredibly relevant in providing us with tools to look back on that inherited faith and discern which elements we should hold to and which we should move on from. So, what is that advice?

Perhaps the most obvious thing to state is that he does not simply dismiss that inherited faith. He sees it as something that the Jews should continue to honour, but they should honour it by testing it seriously against the new understanding of God as revealed in Jesus. Those parts of our tradition that pass that test we should continue to celebrate, but we should move on from those that fail.

So what is that test? Earlier in the letter Paul has repeated his understanding that our relationship with God is based primarily on how God loves us (as demonstrated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). He sees our response to this as reflected in and how well we love our neighbours. He sees this as “summarising” or “fulfilling” those huge volumes of the Jewish law. Paul’s teaching here is very close to Jesus’ repetition of the commandment to love each other as you love yourselves or his gift of a new commandment, that we should love one another as he has first loved us. The test of the faith that we have received from previous generations is firstly then, whether it fulfils the commandment to love our neighbours.

But Paul sees faith as more than just intellectual assent to ideological beliefs. He sees faith as something that leads to radical transformation of who we are and how we act. If we allow that Spirit to dwell within in us then we will exhibit its fruits, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When we look at those beliefs that we have inherited we need to judge them in the light of the people they help us become. Are they leading us towards love, joy, peace and kindness?

The final point that I think is relevant today, is that Paul is telling the Jews to welcome people who have very different lifestyles to their own. I don’t think there is anywhere in the whole of Paul’s letters where he tells the Jews that they should stop adhering to the law. If that is what works for them, brings them closer to God, results in the fruits of the Spirit, then by all means continue. But, and this is a really big “but”, don’t assume that this is the only way to honour God. Jews had to accept that the non-Jews might honour God through lifestyles that were quite radically different to theirs but of no less value in the eyes of God.

The report that is to be debated at Conference this week, and which we will have an opportunity to discuss in various forums over the coming year, can be seen as an application of Paul’s teaching as embodied in the passage we’ve heard read this morning. First, it offers us an opportunity for us to examine the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations of Christians – an opportunity to discern which of those we should continue to hold, and which we should decide to move on from. Secondly, it offers a test to help us make this decision: What best expresses our love for our neighbour and what allows ourselves and that neighbour to be open to the gifts of the spirit? Thirdly, it offers us an opportunity to welcome into our community people who love God but who’s lifestyles may be different to our own. It does this without this requiring us to give up those lifestyles that have allowed us to live God filled lives until now.

So in the rest of this service and throughout this coming year let us pray for a vision of how God’s church should move forwards in a way that honours what we hold most precious from the past but also welcomes those who love God in different ways and have different lifestyles. Above all let us pray that whatever decisions are made, they will express our love for our neighbour and open channels for all people to have their lives transformed by the blessing of God’s Spirit. Let us, through sharing our different views, unite to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

 

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