Unconditional Love

    May 2000

    "One in Christ Jesus"
    By Donald H. Mader

    "For you are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, for as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Therefore there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither master nor slave, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:26-28)

    Thus St. Paul's ringing declaration of freedom and inclusivity in Galatians 3:28. Inclusion has been a theme of the gospel from the very beginning. Very close to the beginning of Matthew's version is the visit of the three wise men from the East; those from afar come to pay homage to their Savior. (Matt. 2:1-12) In Luke's story of the presentation in the temple, which occupies the same position at the beginning of his Gospel as Matthew's account of the visit of the Gentile seers, there is a parallel affirmation. The aged Simeon, who had been awaiting the arrival of the promised savior, calls the Christ "a glory to Israel, and a light to enlighten the Gentiles." (Lk. 2:32)

    So it is not much of a step at all from the words of Simeon, speaking as he does of Jews and gentiles, to St. Paul, writing to the Galatians of Jews and Greeks. The first level of inclusion which St. Paul lifts up has been a part of the gospel from the start; the good news of inclusion which Paul declares to the churches in Galatia was in fact first voiced by Simeon in the temple.

    The ancient world was strictly divided upon many lines, but one of the most prominent and thorough was the division between "us" and "them," between insiders and outsiders. It was enforced by every people. For the Greek, the division was between the Hellenes, insiders to the Greek language and culture, "us," and the barbaroi, barbarians, those culturally in the dark, "them." For the Jew, it was between Israel, those who are on the inside of the covenant, within the light, "us," and the gentiles, those in outer darkness, outside the covenant and grace of God, "them." Now, with some difficulty one could change one's status: there were converts to Judaism, or by learning Greek and accepting Greek cultural usages, one could escape from barbarianism. But that was merely to accept the divisions, to move from the one side of the chasm to the other, not to believe in inclusion, to suggest that there was, or should be, no distinction. Even if one did cross the line, change one's allegiance, one never quite had it made like one who had been born there: the Greeks, though flattered that the Romans adopted their Greek language and uses, still looked down on them, and Jewish proselytes were never quite as "inside" as those who had been born into the covenant. Insiders were insiders, and outsiders were outsiders, and ne'er the twain should meet. That was the way life was.

    Before we smile and feel superior to that, we should pause to remember some of the divisions that the world perpetuates today. Race, for starters which meant less in the ancient world than it means today, for both the categories of "barbarian" and "gentile" contained the majority of people, black and white alike. Then there is language, although English, not Greek, is today the "lingua franca" lingua franca, ironically, a term left over from a day when the language of culture was French; but no matter what our language, those who jabber in another tongue are never quite like us in our esteem, and the thick accent of the foreigner is as much a source of humor today as it was for Greek comedy. Nationality divides us: need we mention "ethnic cleansing"? Economics also divides us: the First World and the Third World, into which the Second World has slid. If anything, today we have less a neat division between insider and outsider than one between insiders and many outsiders, one "us" and many "thems."

    But there can be no room for such thinking among Christians. This has nothing to do with creation either the idea that we are all created by the same God, or the idea that we are all created equal, no matter how enshrined that may be. For while the first is certainly true, the second is patently false: human beings are simply not created equal, though we must strive for laws treating them as though they were. The truth is that we are all different, and therefore we are unequal. As individuals, we are different, and therefore unequal, in intelligence, in talents; some are given more and others less, and the imbalance is not always compensated in some other area. At the social level, it is clearly false to think that, even if they should be of the same race and gender, and of the same intelligence, and have access to the same schools, a child born into a millionaire's family and a child born into a welfare family will have equal chances in life. The simple truth is that we are not equal in our creation by God, and the cradles in which we are laid are not equal.

    But we are equal somewhere else. We are all equal when we stand at the foot of the cross; somehow no one seems to stand taller there. It does not matter there how much money or power or social status one has, or how many talents or how much intelligence, or what one's race or nationality or gender is. We are all equal at the foot of the cross, for everyone must come there for forgiveness, for salvation. And because God's forgiveness there is available to everyone because God so loved the world that he sent his Son, that ALL who believe in him should have life and life abundant (John 3:16) we can no long keep up the distinctions between people that God has refused to recognize. God, in Jesus Christ, has unified us at the foot of the cross, and we cannot, if we accept His gift of forgiveness, divide people any longer, for we are all God's children, through faith, in union with Jesus Christ, as Paul said.

    Thus it is that finally, in the last analysis, a system like apartheid, or racism of any sort, is a heresy. Now, that may seem to sound a bit whimpy to say that the most basic thing wrong with a system like apartheid is that it is heretical of all the things wrong with an evil like systematic racism, to condemn it for being theologically wrong! but that is the truth. Racism goes wrong when it denies the truth of God's inclusion, of equality in Jesus Christ, and all of the other horrible results stem from that. Any system which perpetuates human divisions and inequality is a denial that Jesus Christ died for all and no Christian, if he or she really believes that Christ died for all, can tolerate it. This mentality, like all systems that enforce human inequality, is wrong because it creates a "them" and an "us", when Christ abolished such thinking; such systems are wrong because they are sin.

    But if Paul's world was divided vertically into an "us" and a "them" through divisions like Jew and Gentile and Greek and barbarian, sundering peoples from fellowship with one another, it was no less divided horizontally, within both the "us" and the "them," by another division, one which was just as radical and as deep. This was the division between slave and free, between those who were their own masters, and often the masters of others, and those who were mastered; between those who had power and those who were powerless, between those with property and those who were property.

    Slavery was endemic to the ancient world. The captive in war was enslaved whole cities or nations, on occasion; the poor were enslaved for debts, or sold one of their children into slavery for a year's living; those born to slaves remained slaves; even the otherwise free man or woman, perhaps a slave owner themselves, who had the misfortune to meet up with a pirate or slave caravan could suddenly change their status, if they did not have friends or family to buy them back out of slavery.

    No one in the ancient world could imagine a world without slaves, any more than we today can imagine a world without poverty. Nowhere in the Bible is the institution of slavery questioned; nowhere is it suggested that the institution of human slavery is anything other than part of the God-given, natural order. To question its existence had anyone thought to do so, which they did not they would have been questioning the very foundations of the social order, as laid down by our Maker. The lives of the patriarchs assume slavery the story of Hagar, for instance, and the story of Joseph's sale into slavery in Egypt by his brothers; the law of Moses assumes slavery, and merely regulates it. Whatever he seems to suggest there in Galatians, Paul himself elsewhere lays down the rule, "Slaves, obey your masters." (Col. 3:22) Slavery was as much a part of the "God-given" "natural" order as today many still assume that the "God-given" subordination of women is, or the "God-decreed" abomination of homosexuals. But there are at least voices today which question these assumptions, while to the best of my knowledge, it was not until the 17th century, among the Puritans and Quakers, that anyone made a theological argument against slavery. As late as the 1850's, a sermon, widely reprinted and discussed at the time, was preached from the pulpit of the First Reformed Church of New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Holy See of American Dutch Reformed thought, which justified the existence of slavery on Biblical grounds, and insisted that attempts at its abolition, which here being made by certain misguided elements among Christians, were a denial of God. And what's more, in its own terms, there is certainly no flaw in that sermon, as there is not a single text in the Bible you can point to which, on its face, would contradict the conclusion of the good dominie.

    But all this coexists with quite another stream in the Bible more a torrent, indeed, than a stream of citations that God is not fair, that God is not even-handed in his dealings with mankind and that His bias is against the rich and the powerful and for the poor and oppressed. The key experience for ancient Israel, their formative experience, that which made them what and who they were, had been their experience as slaves in Egypt, and God's liberation of their forefathers when he heard their cries. And that set in motion in Israel, and particularly in the prophetic tradition, a certainty that, while it did not question the institution of slavery, did make it clear that God was on the side of the slave, the poor, the powerless, whomever they might be. From that time onward, no member of the community of Israel could hold another Israelite in perpetual slavery, and the foreign slave, while he and his children could be slaves forever, were to be given the same rights for instance, the day of rest which the Israelites themselves enjoyed.

    To be sure, this was not always observed, but two of the three persons in the "Holy Trinity" of the Old Testament prophets the orphan and the stranger within your gates, who along with the widow make up that trio whose welfare is always enjoined these two were particularly subject to slavery, and care for them is particularly stressed as the prophets denounce injustice against them, denounce those who would "sell" the poor for the price of a pair of shoes. (Amos 2:6) And Mary, in her song of joy after the annunciation of Jesus' birth, is not reticent about what the work of God means: "He brought down the mighty kings from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away." (Lk. 1:53) There is no question that God, in his demand for favorable treatment for those without power in society, sets Himself and his law firmly as a bulwark for the slave, the poor, the powerless. But alas, just as certainly, the institution of slavery is never questioned.

    Even in the New Testament, in the text which most certainly involves a slave Paul's letter to Philemon, asking for freedom for Onesimus, Philemon's slave who had run away and joined Paul and proved of value to him even here, Paul's request is not based on a challenge to the system of slavery, or even its existence among Christians, but on Onesimus' particular use to him. Paul does not say, "Look here, Philemon, it is no longer fitting that you should hold another Christian brother as a slave," but rather "I ask, because of his particular use to me, that you free him and send him back to me."

    And yet, and yet, this same Paul, who decrees "Slaves, obey your masters" and will not question slavery as an institution in his plea to Philemon, this same Paul can write to the Galatians, "in Christ, there is neither slave nor master." Is it that Paul is merely speaking metaphorically here, as the dominie in New Brunswick suggested when he dismissed this passage a century and a half ago? Or could it be that Paul has indeed sighted something which he does not yet comprehend, of which he does not yet understand the ramifications? Paul surely understood that the work of Jesus Christ had abolished the distinction between Jew and Greek; he understood its ramifications, and made it the cornerstone of his ministry. I believe that he here glimpsed the fact that the same principle that at the foot of the cross, where we must all come for forgiveness, there can be no distinctions among persons that this principle must also apply to other divisions as well as ethnic and racial divisions, that it applies as well to divisions of wealth, of power. What Paul had seen, he would not follow up; it was a step too great for him in his day. And yet, although every word of scripture was against it, he has seen the truth of Christ, the truth revealed in the saving work of Christ: that because Christ died for both master and slave, both the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless, they too were now equals.

    Brothers and sisters, the Bible is not the Word of God. Accustomed as me are to calling it the Word of God, accustomed as we are to venerating it as such, it is not. The Word of God, as the first lines of the Gospel of John make clear, is Jesus Christ himself. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God; all things were made through the Word, in whom was life, and the life was the light of mankind, and that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:1-5) This passage is not about a book, but about the Christ, in whom God is revealed, and whose story is taken up in that book. As Martin Luther said, that means that at best the Scriptures are the manger in which the Word of God is laid, to be displayed and seen by the world and, as Luther also went on to say, there was more than a little straw in that manger.

    Though not a word of scripture would speak against slavery, though in its every part the Bible approves the ownership of one person by another, the truth of Christ which it reveals refutes all that. The Gospel of John, which calls the Christ the Word of God, also comes as close as any other text to Paul's brief realization in Galatians, when John has Jesus say to his disciples, on the eve of the crucifixion, "No longer do I call you slaves, but friends." (John 15:15) John too saw that what Jesus was about to do made all persons brothers and sisters and brothers cannot hold their brothers slaves, brothers and sisters should not turn away while another member of the family suffers or is homeless. It is no longer a matter of justice or fairness, but of love. As surely as the cross wiped away the divisions of Jew and Greek, Greek and barbarian, of race and ethnicity, of "us" and "them," it also refutes the divisions of economic and power inequalities. In Christ, we are one family, and must live as such with one another. We must use what power we have not to oppress, but to seek the good of others.

    Now we reach the third level of Paul's great declaration of inclusion: Neither male nor female. It is curious that Paul should have listed them in this order, for this last level of inclusion is one which has not yet to this day been realized by the church. Paul, in his own day, saw the implications of "neither Jew nor Greek" before the cross; it was close to 2000 years later before the church finally came to realize, much to its shame, that whatever the scriptures said about slavery, that before Christ, at the foot of the cross, that was not possible. But sexism, in all its forms, is something with which we have not yet really begun to struggle; issues such as the ordination of women and the role of homosexuals in the church are far from begun, much less resolved.

    As with slavery, the Bible is clear enough about the role of women and homosexuals. For women, one is scarcely a chapter and a half into Genesis when the basic theme of women's subordination is sounded. God names man; one who gives a name to another controls that which is named; therefore the naming of Adam is a sign God is superior. But Adam, man, names the beasts and Eve. In terms of this dynamic of naming, women, like the beasts of burden, are inferior to men. Jewish laws and marriage customs assume the same: a man buys a wife from her father, females being little more than property; and perhaps most scandalously, if an unmarried woman is raped, her father receives a payment for "damaged goods," and she must marry her rapist! (Deut. 22:28-9) In the New Testament there is St. Paul's well known, though admittedly personal instruction that he will not permit a woman (or wife, as the Greek actually says) to speak (or preach, as the Greek actually says) in any of his churches. (I Tim. 2:12) But compared to the Old Testament's sublime denial of personhood, that restriction is minor. And it must be noted that in the Greek of the very same passage in which Paul writes "neither male nor female," almost in the very same dip of the pen he writes that in Christ we are all sons of God: no daughters need apply.

    The church has of course merrily gone all this one better: I recall one brother, in the Synod debate the year that women's ordination was finally accepted in the Reformed Church in America, holding aloft his Bible and announcing, "If Jesus Christ had intended women to give communion, he would have had a woman at the Last Supper!" No one pointed out that by the same logic, apparently Jesus didn't intend women to receive communion either though one other minister did point out that by the same reasoning, if God had intended men to preach the resurrection, he would have had one at the empty tomb on Easter morning!

    As a matter of fact, Jesus' own practice does soften the scriptural image somewhat. To this day, in Orthodox Jewish synagogues, women are not permitted to participate in worship; they must sit in the balcony, behind a screen or curtain. Contrast that with Jesus' commendation of Mary for sitting at his feet as he taught (Lk. 10:42), and you can begin to see how revolutionary he was. Or again, in Jesus' day, as in Moslem society today, to approach an unfamiliar woman was, for a man, a distinctly questionable action; it was practically a declaration on the part of the man that he assumed her to be a woman of easy virtue. Yet Jesus vaults both that barrier, and the barrier between Jew and Samaritan, when he engages the woman at the well at Sychar in a dialogue about salvation. (John 4:7ff) That is what so shocks the disciples when they return and find the two talking. Jesus is repeatedly unconventional in his insistence that women were persons, that they had a spiritual life. And yet, when you compare that with the powerful affirmation of subordination in Genesis, and the explicit instructions of Paul, it doesn't even come close to evening out.

    As far as the Bible goes, the story for the homosexual is equally clear. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are unsparing in their condemnation of male homosexual practices and the New adds the only condemnation of lesbianism known in the ancient world. (Rom. 1:27) As with Paul's words about women/wives speaking/preaching, it must be noted that all this is not quite as straightforward as most Bible translations make it. There is no word for the concept of homosexuality in Hebrew or Greek; what the Old Testament condemns is, by a study of the words used, male prostitution in the service of fertility cults, or the action of placing semen in an "unsuitable" place, in a law text which deals with the proper respect for blood, milk, semen and other "vital" fluids. (Lev. 18:22, 20:13)1 What Paul condemns in the New Testament, in Corinthians, is, like other Old Testament passages, "effeminacy." Neither this, nor cultic prostitution, has much to do with homosexuality as it exists today in Western society. It also must be said that as far as the Bible is concerned, on the authority of Ezekiel, the crime for which Sodom was condemned was not what we today term sodomy, but pride and the failure to minister to the poor, and in particular travelers (Ez. 16:49). Yet when all this is said, without any doubt, those who have sexual relations with their own sex are, for whatever reason, consigned, along with a host of others including cross-dressers and eunuchs (Deut. 23:1) to the class of abominations before God, and cast out of Israel.

    So, scripture has spoken. Women are secondary beings, and homosexuals are abominations. Of course, scripture had also spoken about slavery, and found it a part of God's order. And it enforced the division between Jew and Gentile, until Paul realized that before the cross, that was wiped away, that all of the vitriolic passages in the Old Testament against the Nations, the Gentiles, were left hollow by God's act of love in Jesus Christ. Paul said that many times; he spoke of slavery and sexism only a few. But, again, could he have glimpsed a truth that the church and society were not ready to see, a truth that he himself was not ready to follow up?

    There is one other passage which may shed light on this: the story of St. Philip the Apostle and the Ethiopian, in Acts 8. Back when Paul was still Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church, Philip, in the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen which this Saul of Tarsus had organized, is led out of Jerusalem and meets an Ethiopian eunuch returning from Jerusalem to his own land. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God, and was reading Isaiah on his way home. He was clearly a "God fearer," but there was no way he could ever have been a Jew. Quite apart from his ethnicity for he could have become a convert, and there were in fact Jewish colonies in Egypt and Ethiopia he had one clear disqualification: Deut. 23:1 forbids a man not sexually whole from being a part of God's people. Actually, in a sense, the Ethiopian eunuch fits into all three of Paul's categories in Galatians: as an Ethiopian, he was almost certainly ethnically a Gentile; he was a slave; and he was a sexual outcast, along with the others who because of their sexuality were barred from participation in Israel. And yet before Paul was Paul, this gentile was converted; for him there was neither Jew nor Greek. Although a slave to the Queen of Ethiopia, he becomes a full citizen in the kingdom of God; for him, there is neither slave nor master there. And finally, his sexuality or to be more precise, his lack of it no longer mattered. There was no longer male and female, and the prophecy in the 56th chapter of the same book he was reading, "Eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose to do my will and hold fast to my covenant, shall receive from me something better than sons and daughters: a name within my own house and within my walls" (Is. 56:4-5) has come true. For the Ethiopian eunuch, before the cross, it no longer mattered what race or nationality or language was his, it no longer mattered where he stood in society, and it no longer mattered what his sexuality was: in his baptism he put on Christ and became a child of God.

    Can we apply this story to others whose sexuality, according to scripture, bars or restricts them from participation in the covenant community: to women, who could not be full participants, and sometimes cannot to this day, and to people whose sexual preference or nature means they could not and can not participate at all? The promise in Isaiah makes it plain that the only criteria for being a part of the people of God are faith in the covenant and a willingness to fulfill the will of God which Isaiah summarized elsewhere (1:17) as "pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights and plead the widow's cause."

    That these criteria of faith and acts of justice and mercy toward others are the whole of the criteria is also suggested by the account of the healing of the centurion's slave boy (Matt. 8:1-13; Luke 7:1-10). Although it is a controversial reading of the text, it is possible to understand the Roman officer's relation to the boy as the pederasty of the ancient world, and as we know, Jesus not only praises the officer's faith, but grants his request for the healing, suggesting that it is less an individual's sexuality than their faith and general attitude of love and concern for others that matters in the eyes of Jesus.2 The standards for persons of every sexual persuasion are exactly the same: that all relations be responsible, not promiscuous or exploitative, not merely using a partner for one's own sexual satisfaction, but valuing them exactly the same standard which the church maintains for heterosexuals. Because of the cross and the grace of God which is revealed there, all bars to the kingdom of God are removed save only the response of loving others, which is required of all those who respond to God's love.

    That is a radical proposal: but perhaps all three parts of Paul's discovery were deep, and we, because two of them were navigated before our day, just don't appreciate how radical they were. The elimination of all human divisions at the foot of the cross those of race and nationality, those of insider and outsider, those of class and wealth, of power and status, of slave and master, of free and unfree, of sex and gender: that is a truly radical reordering of our world. The role of the church, the people of God by faith in Christ Jesus, is to be the crucible in which that occurs.

    1. See Rabbi M.S. Cohen, PhD., "The Biblical Prohibition of Homosexual Intercourse," in: Journal of Homosexuality 19:4 (1990), 3-21, for an analysis of these passages in Leviticus. [return to text]

    2. See D.H. Mader, "The entimos pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10." in: Paidika 1:1 (1987) 27-39, reprinted in: Studies in Homosexuality, Vol. 12, Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy (New York: Garland, 1992), 223-235. [return to text

    The Rev. Donald H. Mader is assistant pastor of the Pauluskerk (St. Paul's Church), Rotterdam, which has a ministry to sexual minorities. 

    This sermon was delivered June 11, 1995, to the English-speaking congregation at the Pauluskerk. It is reprinted with permission from Hans Visser and D. H. Mader, eds., Misunderstood Intimacy: A Pastoral Approach to Pedophilia (Rotterdam: Stichting voor Kerkelijk Sociale Arbeid), 1999.

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