All One in Christ Jesus

Galatians 3:28 – All one in Christ Jesus

How do you picture Jesus in your imagination? What does he look like? The picture of Jesus that has dominated my imagination is that of a white European, looking benignly down or with sorrow. When a minister I was working with used this picture of Jesus (PP), I honestly didn’t know how to take it. Jesus laughing? Jesus not looking serious or sorrowful?  This caused me to stop and think and read some of the stories of the New Testament in a new light. 

My image of Jesus obviously was a result of my upbringing and the pictures I had seen in church and in my Bible. It was a result of the classical paintings that are reproduced widely and were the imagination of the artists concerned. Images are powerful. It must have been in my 40s when it really dawned on me that Jesus couldn’t have been a white European or American, as depicted in the films from Hollywood. You may think that incredibly naive, but I think if you reflect and are honest, the prominent image you have had of Jesus is no different from mine – and I think many people from other cultures will have shared the same image, because it has been exported throughout the world. 

What do you think of these depictions of Jesus? PP How do you react to them? Are they fair? One of the reasons I use the Lumo project for video Bible readings is because they use actors from the Middle East. The other is that they use the text of the New Testament. These pictures of Jesus demonstrate the fact that Christ has been preached across the world and that people from different cultures need to relate to Jesus as someone who is like them, just as Europeans depicted Christ as looking like them. If we take on board that we see and understand Jesus from the perspective of our culture and upbringing, we can perhaps begin to accept that other people may have a different perspective that will enhance our understanding of Jesus. 

I would suggest that even if we dismiss depictions of Jesus as wrong or even blasphemous, we still cannot avoid in our imaginations seeing a person like us as we read the gospels, and people like us as we read Acts and the letters. Of course we might want to say our perception is the correct one – which is what has happened since the beginning of the church. It has also led to Christians separating from other Christians or seeing them as lesser Christians or even heretics. As we explore what this verse from Galatians means and what it might mean for us at EBC, we will have to ask ourselves some difficult questions, change our perceptions and be able to realise we are not all clones in Christ Jesus, but one in Christ Jesus. 

Now just taking Galatians 3:28 out of the letter makes it a soundbite and takes it out of the context in which it was written. So right at the beginning we need to put it back in and think about why it is there in the middle of Paul’s letter to this branch of the early church. Traditionally, Galatians is read through the lens of the superiority of grace over law – and that clearly is the argument Paul is making, although we probably need to understand how Jews thought of and think of the law. It is different from the Protestant explanation, but that is for another day. The question is, why was Paul having to explain grace to these Christians? What were these people, whom Paul describes as perverting the gospel, wanting from the Galatians? 

It seems they were people who were Jewish Christians, living out their faith against the background of their Jewish heritage, but believing everyone else had to be a Christian in the same way, and this meant following the law. In effect they were saying, ‘This is where we come from and where Jesus ministered; this is the way to be a Christian. If you don’t do this you are not really a Christian.’ Of course this raises questions about their understanding of what Christ has done. 

There are also nationalistic and ethnic motivations here, and so Paul is not just addressing a theological issue concerning grace and law, but the insistence that the Christians in Galatia become like ethnic Jews. You must become like us in order to be proper Christians. Paul says we are all one in Christ Jesus, not all clones in Christ Jesus. The laws the Judaisers were wanting to impose were those that set Jewish people apart and were distinctive to Jews as well as those who had become Christians from a Jewish background. There was nothing wrong with  being culturally Jewish, and you may find that Messianic Jews are still culturally Jewish in many ways. The problem was that they were saying the grace of Christ was needed and the keeping of these practices, because you have to be like us. One commentator makes the point that the Judaisers were not just converting others but nationalising them as well, in order to be acceptable.

This problem had obviously arisen amongst the leaders and the community of the early church, because Paul refers to it in this letter. In chapter 2 He talks about a visit to Jerusalem when Titus, an uncircumcised Greek, came along. There seems to have been some who wanted to influence the leadership concerning circumcision, but as Paul says in v.6, those who were in authority accepted that it was unnecessary. However, when Peter visited Antioch, he was clearly pressured by Jewish Christians and separated from uncircumcised Christians. Even Barnabas, to Paul’s astonishment, joined in the cultural separation. Paul calls this out as hypocrisy and has a confrontation with Peter about it. This is not what the gospel of Christ was or is about. Those early Christians could choose to live as cultural Jews if that was their heritage, but it did not make them superior or better Christians. If they saw the ritual laws as a necessary part of salvation, they had misunderstood the gospel. It was not necessary for those from other cultures to become culturally Jewish in practice. It was certainly not necessary for salvation. We are one in Christ Jesus, not clones. 

The question of culture in following Jesus has not gone away. It has been present right through the history of the Christian Church. The dominant culture within Christianity has always insisted that faith and church should be done their way, and that cultural expressions of faith or church were inferior or wrong. We know that a western European view of Christianity has dominated the world as a result of the missionary movements of earlier centuries. This is most vividly expressed in church buildings. So if you travel to big cities in Africa or Asia you will find cathedrals and churches that have been built in the style of those found in Britain, because that is what church looks like and that is how you do church. It is also expressed in the images of Jesus and the characters of the Bible – Old and New Testament – that have also been exported around the world. Hence beginning with the pictures of Jesus. 

Whilst I may say these things are unimportant, I do so from a culturally dominant perspective. We don’t notice them because we are used to them and anyway they reflect a European cultural heritage with which we are comfortable. When we see images of Jesus as ethnically different, or experience different ways of worshipping, we either realise that being one in Christ Jesus is not about being clones; or we do what the Judaisers did and say this is the right way and you have to become like us. 

These are controversial and challenging issues, but we are a church of people who have a variety of cultural backgrounds. If we value and learn from the broad Christian experience represented here this morning, we will grow stronger as the body of Christ. We will do this as we talk together and step out of our comfort zones. We will do this if we act humbly and are prepared to listen to each other. In the Gravesham area we have different cultural expressions of the Christian Church. One of the reasons it is important to be part of Churches Together and engage with other Christians, is that we will realise the breadth of Christian expression across our area and can learn from it. We will begin to understand that we are all one in Christ Jesus, but definitely not clones. 

So how do we continue on this journey at Emmanuel? 

  • We celebrate the fact that we are a church of many cultures through:
    • Sharing meals together that reflect our cultures
    • Finding ways of mixing up the way we worship together. One simple way is the inclusion of different languages in readings and prayers. There must be other ways.
    • Valuing different cultural perspectives and interpretations of the Bible. We don’t all read it the same way.
  • We take time to listen to each other and to our experiences of Christian faith. In the light of the death of Chris Kaba last week, listening to the experiences of those from other cultures becomes even more important. We rightly find out about and pray for Christians persecuted in other countries. What about our brothers and sisters here who face subtle or not so subtle forms of prejudice and discrimination?
  • We build relationships so that we are comfortable in each other’s company and not just snooker balls that bounce off each other into the week.
  • Be willing to have uncomfortable conversations and question our own views and assumptions.

Foundational to all of this we need to look at the Bible, understanding that

  • We have a common bond in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for everyone regardless of ethnicity or culture.
  • The key players in the Bible were not white Europeans, but people from the Middle East and North Africa. There is plenty of evidence of this from Genesis through to Revelation.
  • Jesus challenged social and cultural superiority during his ministry. Roman centurion. Children of Abe from the stones. Woman at the well. Martha and Mary. The temple.
  • Not everyone interprets the Bible in the same way – but the Holy Spirit still speaks and we can learn from the different perspectives we all bring.

I realise that in leading on this theme of being one in Christ Jesus, as a white Protestant Christian man I speak from a position of privilege, and so need to be prepared to learn and to change as we journey together. I have been reading history from the perspective of other cultures as well as reading theologians from other cultures. Hopefully this will feed into what we are doing together.

I have always said Christian faith that doesn’t address the issues of the day and only looks to be taken to heaven, is not particularly helpful and won’t speak to people. I don’t believe that is the faith we see expressed in the Bible or the faith lived by the saints throughout the history of the Church. To follow Jesus and to put our faith in him is to seek to bring his Kingdom in now, and look forward to its fulfilment when Jesus returns. 

‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’