Heirs of the Promise—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2C/Proper 7 (Galatians 3)

Galatians 3:23-29 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.


                The good news concerning the way of Jesus emerged out of first-century Judaism. All of its earliest leaders and missionaries were Jewish. However, it wasn’t long before that good news, which Jesus commissioned the church to share to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) was taken beyond the Jewish community to the Gentile community. A lead figure in this effort was Paul, who with Barnabas went off on a missionary journey that took them to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), where they founded a series of faith communities. Among them was a set of communities in the inland region known as Galatia. It is believed that this letter is among Paul’s earliest, and he writes it because he believes that an alternative message is being proclaimed to them, one that many seem to imbibe, and which Paul believes poses a danger to their relationship with Jesus. That is because this message appears to undermine Paul’s message of grace. We know from the letter that some claimed to represent James, leader of the Jerusalem church. These so-called messengers claimed that these Gentile believers needed to be circumcised if they were to be admitted to the community (Gal. 5:2-6). That message ran counter to what Paul had proclaimed. So, from the very beginning of the letter, Paul makes it clear that he had a divine call and that the message he proclaimed came from God, and so if anyone suggested otherwise, they were anathema (cursed). It is with this strong, even harsh, word that Paul opened his letter (Gal. 1:1-12).

                Now that we have come to chapter 3, Paul begins to contrast what he calls the law with faith. Now, whether he has in mind Torah or something else is a matter of debate. With this reading, we dive into the middle of a conversation concerning the purpose of the law and its relationship to faith. This conversation is rooted in the promise God made to Abraham, that through his descendants, the nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-4). The question then concerns whether and how Gentiles might be brought into this covenant. Is it through law or faith? While that covenant promise is marked by circumcision (Gen. 17:10), the question Paul raises here concerns whether that requirement is an ethnic marker or something required of all Abraham’s heirs. According to Paul’s message, it is not, but you can understand why there might be a difference in interpretation here.

                We might read this in a way that does not denigrate the Law (Torah) by thinking in terms of faith being the ultimate way in which one is drawn into the covenant, with baptism being the new marker of that covenant relationship. When we think here of faith, Paul doesn’t have in mind signing onto some doctrinal statement. Rather he envisions faith as trust in Jesus. The Law had its purpose because it served as our disciplinarian, revealing what the First Nations Version calls our “bad hearts and broken ways.” To be in Christ is to put one’s trust in Christ as the pathway out of sin/bad hearts and broken ways. So, by faith, by putting our trust in Jesus as the pathway to our inclusion in the covenant promise, we are now numbered among God’s children. Thus, as Brad Braxton notes, “Christ’s redemptive work releases Jews from a narrow understanding of the law and rescues Gentiles from the necessity of becoming Jews. Christ thereby fulfills God’s intent—a covenant family including both Jews and Gentiles” [Connections, p. 98].

                The vision that Paul has of God’s sacred family is one marked by its diversity, a diversity that includes both Jews and Gentiles in the same family. This family is by no means monochrome.  Of course, achieving this goal of being a family that is both united and diverse is far from easy. Church history proves that. We continue to struggle with barriers, some of which are ecclesial and doctrinal, while others are racial/ethnic or gender-related. Decades after Martin Luther King declared that 11 AM on Sunday morning is the most segregated moment of the week, we still live in our silos. The Lord’s Table is supposed to be a symbol of our unity, and yet it is often a closed table, requiring people to fulfill certain requirements before their admission to the Table. This is true even though Jesus practiced an open Table. Many denominational traditions continue to bar women from pastoral/preaching/teaching roles. Since it is Pride Month as I write this, I cannot neglect to mention the barriers placed in the way of the full inclusion of members of the LGBTQ community. Now, I will admit that Paul might have erected some of these very barriers, but if, as I believe, the Spirit continues to move in our midst, and so as Peter learned with regard to Cornelius and his household, God can and does open up new possibilities for God’s children (Acts 10-11).

                The key to this change of status, replacing circumcision, is baptism.  Paul writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28).  If we are baptized into Christ, we clothe ourselves with Christ. It is worth noting that in the early church when new members were brought into the community, they would strip off their old clothes, walk into the water naked, and after departing the water receive new clothing symbolizing the change in identity. Therefore, in verse 28 we are told that to be clothed with Christ through baptism means that “there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t matter whether you are Jew or Gentile, you’re part of the family. It doesn’t matter whether in your current life situation you are slave or free, that external status has no meaning in the church. You are one in Christ. There is no social hierarchy, no caste system. When it comes to gender, it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female. Again, you are one in Christ. Now, did Paul fully understand the implications of this revelation? I’m not sure he did, but that doesn’t mean we can extend the meaning to our own context and add other barriers to the list.

                When it comes to living out the message of verse 28, Brad Braxton offers a helpful caution. He writes:

In order to understand Galatians 3:28, we must correct the misconception that Christian unity entails the absence of social distinctions. Paul pleads for the eradication of dominance, not the eradication of difference. When they entered the Christian community through belief in Christ and baptism, believers do not lose the social distinctions that have characterized their lives. [Connections, p. 98].

We live in a particular world and are subject to its realities. It’s likely that our external situations don’t change, but in the body of Christ, there is no hierarchy of relationships. All are one in Christ, no matter our external situations. What we can commit ourselves to is to pursue within the body of Christ more equitable relationships that cross these social distinctions. That means we continue to have work to do.

                With this word of wisdom, we hear the reminder that to be in Christ is to be an heir of the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12. We who are Gentiles are not Abraham’s descendants by birth but by adoption through Christ. That adoption is an act of grace received through faith. If we are children of Abraham not by becoming Jews but by clothing ourselves in Christ through baptism. When Gentiles do this, they not only become children of Abraham, but they become heirs of the promise made to Abraham. That promise involves being a blessing to the nations (on being called to bless in Abraham see my book Called to Bless). So, in Christ we can sing :

The God of Abraham praise. All raised be the Name,

who was and is, and is to be, is still speaking the same;

the one eternal God, ere all that now appears,

the First, the Last, beyond all thought through timeless years!

Daniel be Judah (14th century) --- Chalice Hymnal, #24






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