(From Galatians 6:7-16)
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which[a] the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
One of my all-time favorite Hymns is number 545 in our current Hymnal, “The Church’s One Foundation.” The first verse of this Hymn reminds us as members of Christ’s body, the Church, the true nature of our relationship with him. It states:
The Church’s One foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the Word. From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
Thus, we understand that the Church is the beloved bride of Christ Jesus, whom he sought and then bought at the price of his own blood. Surely the Church, as well as its life and welfare, are of great concern to our Lord. Knowing the great price that Jesus paid for the sake of the Church should compel us to live for Christ Jesus, and to follow his command to love, support and uphold one another and his blessed Church. Yet, verse number three of this Hymn is a stark contrast to this vision of Christ’s Church, it states:
Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
In case this description of the state of our beloved Church is unclear, schisms and heresies are not good things for the welfare of the precious Church Christ Jesus so dearly loves. A schism, as it is described in the dictionary’s definition, is a separation between two strongly opposed parties. Synonyms of schism are discord and disharmony. Heresy is holding a belief that is opposed to the doctrine of belief of the Church. I believe these definitions make it obvious to us that schisms and heresies are situations that are not in the best interest of the Church of Christ Jesus.
It may surprise you to learn that this Hymn is the product of the 1864-1866 collaboration of Samuel J. Stone and Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Samuel Sebastian Wesley was the grandson of Charles Wesley, John Wesley’s brother and cohort in establishing Methodist Societies in 18th Century England. John Wesley is credited as the forefather of Methodism, and yet this Hymn bespeaks of the “schisms” and “heresies” that plagued the Church in the era of this younger Wesley’s 19th Century experience less than a century later. In truth, I believe that this description is apropos, not only to the Methodist Church, or the Anglican Church of 19th Century England, but to the Church Universal and its endless struggle to exist against the backdrop of the world. For example, Paul was no stranger to schisms in the church at Corinth. The New Living Bible translates 1Corinthians 3:4 of Paul’s words to this church as follows: “When one of you says, ‘I am a follower of Paul,’ and another says, ‘I follow Apollos,’ aren’t you acting just like people of the world?” There was a division, a schism, in this church over who had baptized its various members, and so, who had more status in that church. Paul’s letter stepped in to put an end to such thinking. Instead of quarreling over who was better than another person based on who it was that baptized them, Paul called this church to rejoice and be thankful that they had all become believers and been baptized into the body of Christ.
Paul’s issue among the Galatians, which we read about in our lesson for this morning, was more of a matter of alleged heresy. Some of the Jewish followers of Jesus, whom Paul described as “Judaizers”, held the belief that the Mosaic Laws regarding circumcision should be upheld within the new territories and among the new converts Paul was making in them. Paul called these people out on their true motives. They sought the ritual circumcision as an outward proof of inner faith in the converts. However, these people were criticizing Paul for not keeping a particular part of the Mosaic Laws, when they themselves were equally guilty of not obeying all of them. For Paul understood well it is not anything we ourselves do that brings us salvation, it is what Christ Jesus has done for us through his cross. Therefore, Paul drew the final conclusion from our lesson today, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but what Jesus did for us to make us a new creation-now that is everything!”
Jesus himself confirmed Paul’s lesson for today in his own words. Matthew 22 verses 36-42 recount Jesus’ encounter with a member of the Pharisees who was also a lawyer who was concerned with legal matters. To test Jesus, this man asked him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Just imagine how radical these words would have been in Jesus’ time-teaching believers that the law of love, love first for God, and then for our neighbor, is the greatest law. It is superior to all other laws, and even the Mosaic Laws and proclamations of the prophets are subject first to the law of love. It is this radical new understanding that compelled Paul to write in Chapter 13 of his letter to Rome, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Lest this morning, we sit too comfortably in our Church pews celebrating a relaxing, and hopefully uneventful, July 4th Independence Day weekend, I have a further word to share with you. “Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed”, as the words of our Hymn today recall of the schisms and heresies plaguing the Church of that time, we may stand in similar awe of the schisms and heresies that plague the Church of our time. Oh yes, dear friends, we do face issues today that have created separations among church members and between churches. Conflicting beliefs abound about the “proper” interpretation of Holy Scripture in areas such as the role of women and folks within the LGBTQ community in the ministry and life of many of the churches of our time. I can share with you personally, from the vantage point of a woman in ministry for more than twenty years, these differences have often been approached in ways that do not first speak the words of love and compassion for neighbors whose opinions or lifestyles differ. For example, it may surprise you to learn I was told at one church I served that the church would be more successful if I were a male in the pulpit; because that would make my ministry more credible to many of the church and community members. These words and actions are mild compared to the divisions that led twelve churches in our East Ohio Conference to formally engage in the process of disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church over differing beliefs about human sexuality and its expression in human relationships. Disagreeing in love, keeping love and mutual respect as the primary focus in all of our complicated human relationships is challenging. But church, we are the people of God called apart from the ways of our world! We need to love first, to pray first, and to seek the Spirit to guide us first; so that we do not act with the unloving haste we witness even within the walls of our own beloved United Methodist Churches. If we add to these issues the damage caused by our current socio-political and racial-ethnic related differences and struggles, we find that we are standing more than knee-deep in the sin of the schisms and heresies that are plaguing our own time. How long, Church, as the Hymn today asks, how long?
The solution for sin is repentance, turning from our own self-focused and self-centered thinking to remember that we are first called by our Lord Jesus to love God, and then to live out that love by loving our neighbors. Only then will we move toward fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to all believers that overshadows all of the components of the law and the words of the prophets. Only then is the Church able to truly become the one body of Christ we profess in our prayers and creeds. Only then will our difficult night of weeping move forward to become the morn of song Hymn 545 declares for us. As the final verse of this Hymn states:
Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.
May God’s people say Amen.