On a quiet evening thirty-something years ago, my family gathered in the living room and asked that oh so common question, “What should we watch?” My dad pulled out either the TV listings from the newspaper or a paperback copy of TV Guide and began mentioning things he thought might interest my mom, brother, and I.

When he said, “Highlander,” the discussion ended, even without reading the synopsis of the movie.

My mom, being a good Scot was all for it and the rest of the family was willing to roll with it. While the opening scene confused all of us, by the time the movie ended, to say the least, my mom was disappointed while my dad, brother, and I were ready to watch it again.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the opening scene takes place at Madison Square Garden with professional wrestlers grappling in the squared circle. Two members of the audience make their way to an empty garage, pull out their swords and start fighting. When the winner is clear, the Highlander, Connor McCloud of the Clan McCloud boldly declares, “There can be only one!” and then chops off his opponent’s head.

The rest of the movie tells the history of a group of immortals involved in a centuries long tournament where, one-by-one, they chop off each other’s heads until only one remains.

That is a disturbing opening for a message titled, “There can be only one.”

Two Paths To There Being Only One

And yet, in this dog eat dog world, that is often how things go. You are either the dog who eats or the dog who is eaten, the winner or the loser, the beheader or the beheaded. For there to only be one, demands the elimination, or at least the abject subjugation, of everyone else. We do it as individuals be it in the office or classroom, as families trying to protect our own, in communities when we guard our interests, and as a country wanting to expand our influence and increase our security. It’s a hard road to a place where there is only one.

But this morning I want to explore another path to oneness, a path revealed in a couple of verses from Galatians we know all too well, perhaps so well that when reading the Apostle Paul’s letter we tend to just blow right past them. In the process we don’t really notice how contextually out of place much of these verses appear. But if we pause for a moment, and recognize the contextual oddity, it invites us on a potentially uncomfortable journey to oneness.

So you can think of this message as coming in two parts. First, we will try and make sense of the text. Then we will explore what it might look like to apply it in our lives today.

The verse is Galatians 3:27-28:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

What Is Galatians 3:27-28 Doing Here?

So what makes these words so contextually out of place?

To begin, they contain multiple references that don’t appear anywhere else in Galatians. They have the only reference to the practice of baptism, the 1st Century socio-economic divisions of slave and free, and Paul’s only reference in Galatians to gender.

Yet, despite the bulk of what Paul writes not appearing anywhere else in the letter, they serve as the culmination of Paul’s rhetorical point. They are the conclusion of the first three chapters of Paul’s letter.

As a quick overview, Paul opens talking about how the Galatians have abandoned the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, by listening to those who said that in order to be in relationship to the God of Judaism they first needed to get circumcised.

He then goes through his whole story, arguing the validity of his message and preaching before he restates his message of justification by grace through faith, linking it to God’s promise originally spoken to Abraham who believed and was credited as righteous.

So if God always has been and always will be about grace, then what was the role of the Law, including circumcision? Paul describes it as a temporary guardian, something to keep us safe until our eyes are opened to the grace revealed in Christ. He concludes:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all [heirs] of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Then, starting in Galatians 4, he moves on to what it means to be an heir of God.

So why use content that seems to have nothing else to do with the letter as a central conclusion of the letter? That’s rather odd.

But, while most of these verses that form the culmination of Paul’s argument are foreign to the rest of Galatians, one segment of those verses appears over and over again, the discussion of Jews and Greeks and how the Good News of Jesus is so inclusive that it embraces both the children of Abraham and those the Jews commonly lumped together as the goy. You could argue that all of Galatians can be summed up as, “There is no Jew nor Greek.”

So what is going on here in Galatians 3?

Making Sense Of Galatians 3:27-28

One clue to unpacking this comes in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

Notice how Paul goes from the analogy of the human body to the Body of Christ, to a verse that echos much of what we see in Galatians 3, back to the analogy of the body. It is almost as if Paul is using something familiar to his readers, a Baptism that breaks down our divisions and makes us one, to illuminate the unfamiliar, each Corinthian’s spiritual gifts being a useful contribution to the larger Body of Christ.

We see the same thing, minus the reference to baptism, in Colossians 3:11 where Paul writes:

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

This stripping away such divisions is explained to be a part of Christ reconciling all thing to himself as the firstborn of all creation.

Galatians 3:27-28 As An Early Creed

It sure looks like Paul repeatedly quotes slight variations of a common saying amongst the faithful, one that became central to the Church’s self-understanding in the two decades since the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Given the reference to baptism in both Galatians and 1 Corinthians, some scholars argue that these verse could both pull from a very simple early baptismal creed, a declaration that early adult converts would make, not as a confession of what they believed, but a statement of how their faith would change the way they live in the world, a life where there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Further supporting this conclusion are a couple of common expressions of gratitude spoken by affluent men in the 1st Century world.

A Creed Challenging The Ancient World

On the Roman side you have the pre-Socratic philosopher and Father of Science, Thales of Miletus saying:

There are three attributes for which I am grateful to Fortune: that I was born, first, human and not animal; second, man and not woman; and third, Greek and not barbarian.

Socrates took the phrase and reworked it, regularly saying:

Grateful am I for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, Greek and not barbarian.

On the Jewish side, Rabbi Judah, the most frequently referenced sage in the Talmud, was well-known in the 2nd Century AD for teaching his students, all boys of course, to recite the following:

Blessed art thou
who did not make me a Gentile
Blessed art thou
who did not make me a woman
Blessed art thou
who did not make me uneducated

That last line, was later adapted to slave in the Talmud.

To further the offensiveness, it was not uncommon for someone to ask, “Is not a slave the same as a woman?” The question came with the expected response that, “A slave is more contemptible.”

So in a world where affluent men, both Jew and Roman, those who held the most power in each of their cultures would regularly celebrate that they weren’t the other, and even more so that they were not women or slaves, it seems quite likely that those baptized into the Early Church responded with the counter confession, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

This would mean that in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Colossians, Paul calls his readers back to the vision of the world they embraced when they first came to faith, a vision of the world as God intended it to be from before the foundations of the earth, one we lost sight of in the Fall, and can now see clearly in Christ.

What Is The Creed (And Paul) Rejecting?

But what exactly does that mean because obviously, in the beginning, before the Fall, there was male and female. In fact the saying, by switching from “Jew nor Greek” and “slave nor free” to “male and female” seems to echo Genesis 1.

Is there an attempt to argue that these distinctions, be they biological sex or the energies we typically classify as masculine and feminine, are no more? This idea of eradication of differences and the creation of human homogeny might sound good in some ways, after all, would would be opposed to everyone agreeing that we live in a post-racial society, but it doesn’t seem to make sense given biology. So what does Paul mean when he says, “there is no?”

To answer this question we go back to the larger context of Galatians and what it means for Jews and Greeks to be one. We see clearly in the ancient world that whatever tribe, culture, or nation you happened to be from, there was a built in thankfulness that you were not a member of some other tribe, culture, or nation.

At some level I’m sure this is nothing more than a form of national pride. It feels good to know that you are part of the in crowd. Of course, to know you are in often requires knowing that others are out. So the Greeks become proud of being Greek and then highlight their philosophic values. Romans becomes proud that they are Romans and then highlight their war machine and expansive infrastructure. Jews celebrate being Jews and point to their unique relationship with God. Then of course, all three start to demonize the other simply because they are the other.

But there might be something deeper brewing under all of this. One of the things that is universally true about the human psyche is that we fear the other and often become hostile towards it. Sometimes it makes sense. After all, foreign armies repeatedly conquer Israel throughout the Old Testament and the Romans spent decades trying to suppress their enemies and bring about the peace of Rome.

The Galatians Were Other To Paul

And yet, even with this reasonable cultural hostility, while Jewish and Roman men thank God that they are not each other or some other foreigner, the Apostle Paul, embodying his confession that there is no Jew or Greek, sets out with an entirely different agenda.

As a Jew with Roman citizenship he went to the other, the Gentiles in Galatia, a region where the Gauls settled after they invaded the Balkans. In other words, they were Celts from the European mainland who until recently stood as a significant threat to the Roman Empire. This means they weren’t Jews like Paul, nor a Roman citizen like Paul, they were in every way other to Paul, and yet he went to them anyway.

And for Paul, Galatia wasn’t an after thought. He went to them first. Most of the cities Paul visited on his first missionary journey were in Galatia. And whenever he set out on future missionary journeys, he always returned there in route even though sailing right past them would have been faster.

Galatians is also the first of Paul’s Letters.

And when he arrived he didn’t demand that they embrace the Jewish Law, to the contrary, he insisted that their behaving like Jews would put them in opposition to the Gospel. In other words he did not try to create a oneness by demanding conformity, cultural assimilation, or a unified doctrinal confession. Rather he declared that they were already one … they just didn’t know it.

Paul’s oneness is based on the recognition that as in Adam all die so in Christ all are made alive, and in both instances all means, well, all. This means that all people are God’s children and fellow heirs, the only difference is that some realize it and others don’t. In a world where people were fixated on dividing and categorizing themselves, Paul’s missionary journeys become extensive attempts to help people see and live in the reality of who they already are, because Paul knew there could be only one.

What Makes Us One?

So how does this shape our understanding of Paul’s confession that, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus?

Contrary to a unification based on some kind of homogeny, or a singularity that comes when the other is annihilated or subjugated, the Earliest Church that emerged immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus, embraced a oneness of all humanity as the children and heirs of God.

In a world that sought to dehumanize the other, be that otherness based on ethnicity, class, or gender, the Early Church recognized the agency, value, and humanity of everyone, especially those most marginalized throughout human history.

Divisions Today

I have to admit, at one point in my life I would have found everything I just said perplexing. After all, just like the masses in Paul’s day, we are seeped in a society that divides people. This is true when it comes to ethnicity, class, and gender just like it was in the ancient world. We also see it with politics and how easy it is to vilify Democrats or Republicans. As someone who views the political more in terms of top and bottom rather than Right and Left, I want to dehumanize Jeff Bezos and the Wal-Mart heirs. There might even be a strong temptation in this room to demonize Raiders and Chiefs fans.

And this is just as true in the church as broader society. Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in America. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met over the years who won’t darken the door of the church because of they looks they got when they showed up in the best tattered clothes their single mother could afford. And many church bodies continue to marginalize women, often using readings of Paul that ignore context and grammar, something I have come to describe as the Disorder of Creation argument. If nothing else, we often want to take the words, “in Christ” and assume that means there are people who are “out of Christ,” as if there is some place you can go where the love of God isn’t. This is just the natural outcome of living an “us and them” world.

So if both your experience in broader society and your experience in the church teaches you that it’s all about “us and them” then of course all of this talk of oneness sounds foreign. After all, it demands an entirely different way of thinking about yourself and the world around you. And that’s the point.

Two Ways Of Being In The World

A couple years ago I stood up here and talked about two ways of being in the world, the way of love and the way of power, to merge them with language Peter often uses we could call them the giving/receiving way and the taking way. I think of them as operating systems, just like you find on a computer.

I grew up a Windows guy. I am guessing it is because my dad is an engineer and even before most people had personal computers, I was tinkering around in DOS. This naturally evolved into using Windows and developing a staunch dislike of all things Mac.

Then, in the early 2000’s I became friends with a guy named Bob. He was a creative type, a web developer, and super cool guy. We’re actually still friends today. Bob was such a devoted Apple user that, when a new model was released, if he didn’t place a pre-order, the company would literally call him to make sure everything was ok.

As I got to know Bob I began to think that Apple products might not be so horrible after all. It took a year or so, but I finally purchased an iPod Mini, and the rest was history. That little box felt so good in my hand, and gliding my thumb on that circle to search my music, it seemed to sooth the soul as much as the tunes did. If everything Apple felt this good, why would I want anything else? A year later I bought an iBook and have never looked back.

Now I will admit, at first the iBook threw me. Simple things like not have the double click mouse confused me, but the more time I spent with it, the more I loved it and the more foreign Windows became.

Today, at work, I have to use a Windows laptop and I’ll admit, I hate it. Everything from the user interface to the feel of the keyboard irritates me. I just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Now I don’t want anyone to take that analogy too far, after all, despite my lack of appreciation for the Windows environment I don’t want to suggest that it is analogous to the way of power and pretend that Apple embodies the way of love. Rather, I use the analogy to explore the experiential transition from one operating system to another.

When you grow up immersed in an operating system of power, where everything is about us and them, it is hard at first to imagine anything different. But what I have discovered over time is that, just like my move from Windows to Mac, when you begin to embrace the way of love, when you believe that there is only one, it changes everything and you have a hard time imagining why you would ever go back.

Preparing My Road To One

One way most dramatic ways I experienced this began as an undergrad and culminated at Seminary.

I believe it was second semester my freshman year that we read a book in one of my classes about educational disparities in America. It was a strange book to read at my deeply conservative Lutheran liberal arts school and, as far as I know, it was the one and only time this adjunct professor was invited on campus.

While I don’t remember much from the book, I still vividly recall reading the chapter on East St. Louis. I remember reading about children being taught in schools that were literally falling apart around them, where heat didn’t work in the winter and AC failed to temper hot and humid midwestern summers. And that was before we got to the quality of teachers the inner city draws, the instability of families, and so many other factors that would work to keep kids trapped in poverty. Ultimately, I found the descriptions within it so sensationalized that I simply wrote them off. I couldn’t believe that there was anywhere in America where a child was expected to learn in those kinds of conditions.

Rejecting The Road To One

But there was something going on under the surface. I grew up a staunch believer that we live in a meritocracy and that outcomes are entirely about individual responsibility. In the end, if the book were true, I could no longer believe that.

To probe even deeper, if we didn’t operate on a level playing field and things like where and how you grow up have a significant outcome on who you become, then it could challenge my own performance-based identity.

Was I a 13-year old Eagle Scout because I was just more driven and devoted then all my peers, or maybe it had something to do with how engaged my parents were in Scouting? Then again, it might be an outcome of being performance driven and desperately seeking to prove I was good enough.

Were my grades and academic performance a consequence of hard work at my end, or did growing up knowing I’d have a roof over my head, food on the table, and a mom at home give me a significant leg up, not just on the kids in the inner city, but the kid at the desk next to me. Or maybe God just blessed me with a double dose of brains.

In the end, anything that potentially undermined the idea that it was entirely because of my own hard work and performance was dangerous because that was the basis of my identity and self-understanding. And if I didn’t have that, who would I be? What would make me significant?

So in my desperate attempt to matter, I created the division of hard workers and lazy, then rejected a book I read that brought category of lazy into question.

My Road To One Through East St. Louis

Eight years later I enrolled at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis to begin my training as a pastor. As part of our program, each student was assigned a field work church where we would attend on Sundays, teach Bible studies, and preach our first sermons. As fate would have it, I was assigned to Unity Lutheran in East St. Louis. That first Sunday morning driving to the church my heart absolutely broke as I drove by the dilapidated school buildings I read about eight years earlier. I began to wonder if that book I’d read actually understated reality because the truth was so unbelievably abhorrent.

That morning, I met a number of neighborhood children who would come to church on Sunday mornings because adults there would pay attention to them. A few of them had parents who were strung out, but most were single moms working two and three jobs just trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. In either case, they were functionally absent parents and these kids suffered both academically and even more so emotionally.

Over the next three years, I spent hours every week in inner city St. Louis and East St. Louis, hearing the stories of the people who lived there. We worked side-by-side on neighborhood projects and wept together at funerals. We worshipped together and, despite coming from two radically different worlds, in many ways we lived as one. In the process, I got a small taste of what it was like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It changed the way I see the world, and yes, it unraveled my own.

It’s not that I was a bad person before, I’d done plenty of donating, food distribution, and service projects focused on helping the less fortunate, but I always kept that “us and them” dynamic. They were the poor people who needed my help and it made me feel good to help them, but I didn’t love them because I didn’t really know them. We were not one. That changed during my Seminary years.

Beginning To See Oneness In The Bible

Those times also began to change the way I read the Bible. For the first time I could see how it is a text, from Genesis to Revelation, that shows preferential treatment to marginalized, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.

Be it God picking Abram who worshipped other gods and taking him to a foreign land, to God choosing Israel not because they were a great nation but because they lacked power in the ancient world, to the laws of Leviticus instructing Israel to treat women and foreigners far better than they were in surrounding cultures, to Jesus coming into the world not surrounded by pomp and circumstance but dirty shepherds and animal feed, to the full revelation of God’s love happening on a humiliating instrument of torture, throughout the text God lifts up everything that those in power despise. And if that is the heart of God, than as a child and heir, it should be my heart too. After all, isn’t that what it means to put on Christ?

The crazy thing is, while these experiences obliterated my performance-based identity, they also gave me the one tool I needed to ultimately put myself back together. It started with me becoming less judgmental and more compassionate to my inner city family. Then it turned to the people closer to home. And ultimately, I was able to extend it towards myself, and come to the realization that I am significant because I am a beloved child of God. You could say my time in the hood taught me the nature of grace and just how expansive the love of God is.

Your Road to One

But you don’t need to spend countless hours in the inner city to have these experiences. All you have to do is ask, “Who do I know that feels other to me?” It can be someone in your family or your neighborhood. Perhaps it is someone at work or even right here at the Sanctuary. Heck, it could very well be me.

Once you identify them, think about how you would describe yourself and them. Earlier I offered hard worker and lazy. Maybe you’re a Republican and they are a Democrat. You might be an executive and they’re a worker. You might be charismatic and they’re think there is no better spiritual gift than administration. Perhaps they’re a Calvinist and you’re a Lutheran.

Once you have your terms, take a bit of poetic license with Galatians 3 and say, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, and there is no … fill in the blank … for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

In the end, who knows what makes them feel so other to you, but odds are, it is because there is a whole lot about them that you don’t know or understand.

Perhaps like me, they were desperately insecure and shame riddled, longing to be enough so they have to create an us and them.

Then again they might have found a group that embraced them as so they adopted whatever that group believed as their own ideology.

Maybe they had a traumatic experience that has them afraid of those they now perceive as other.

The reality is, just like you, they are a person longing to know they’re loved, and perhaps, the fact that they feel so other, makes you the perfect person to love them. It seems that’s what Jesus was getting at when he told us to have love that surpasses that of the Pharisees.

The crazy thing is, this isn’t really all that different than what we talk about every week here when we invite each other to believe the Gospel. The only thing different, is that this time, we are not focusing on your belovedness, but theirs.

The Lord’s Supper and Oneness

One more thing, as we prepare to come forward and receive this meal. In 1 Corinthians 11, the chapter right before his analogy on spiritual gifts and the body of Christ, the one where Paul uses the same argument he pitches to the Galatians, Paul writes:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.

Then he goes on to talk about how they practice the Lord’s Supper including asking the question, “do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”

As best as we can tell, when the Corinthian Church would gather for a community meal, they would hold to the divisions of broader society. The more affluent men and their wives would eat first, enjoying a lavish meal. Outside on the portico the widows and slaves would gather and wait, hoping there might be enough left over to fill their bellies. In other words, from the outside, it would be hard to tell how the church was any different from the rest of the world.

This as Paul says, is not for the better, but for the worse, so much so, that the Church would be better off if everyone just ate and home and then gathered without an agape meal. In other words, it is not just baptism that is an expression of our oneness, but the Lord’s Supper and our life together.

When we come to this table, when we receive the body and blood in the form of bread and wine, we are saying that we too embrace and want to embody a world where there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female, no … you fill in the blanks … there are no lines we draw to create an other, simply a wide array of humans we love, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

So come to Christ’s table where there can be only one.

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