Thomas J Parlette
“Being the Body of Christ”
Galatians 3: 23-29
Author King Duncan loves the tell the true story of something that happened to his grandfather, the Reverend G.F Cox, who was lay pastor in the Methodist Church in the circuit riding days of the church. To appreciate this story you have to understand that East Tennessee, where his grandfather preached, is Baptist country. Even the dogs and cats are Baptists. In the early days people would join the Methodist church, but the Baptists had told them that a person could not go to heaven unless they had been baptized “all over”, meaning by immersion. A little bit of Methodist, or for that matter Presbyterian sprinkling would not open the Pearly gates.
One day, rather tall lady came to Rev. Cox wanting to join the Methodist church, but first she wanted to be baptized by immersion, “just in case the Baptists are right,” she said. Rev. Cox said that would be fine. So they scheduled a time for the church to gather down by the river for what must have been a most beautiful and meaningful occasion. What happened on this occasion, however, was a little unexpected and just a bit ridiculous.
The river was quite shallow that summer, and as already noted, the lady was rather tall. To complicate matters, she also wore her hair in a top knot, a once fashionable hairdo in which the hair appeared to spiral upward on a lady’s head for another 8-10 inches – just think of Marge Simpson and you’ll get the gist. So this lady must have approached 7 feet tall, top knot and all, and Rev. Cox was a man of rather modest height.
So he labored mightily as he eased this statuesque lady with the top knot backward into a shallow river. As she made her entry into the chilly waters, she did what most of us would do – she jerked her head forward until her chin nearly rested on her chest. This, in turn, kept her topknot from going under the water.
Triumphantly Rev. Cox lifted her from the water and stood her upright as the choir sang the last verse of “Shall We Gather at the River.” He had already started for the bank of the river, when she stopped him. “My hair is still dry. I’m sorry Brother Cox. You’ll have to do it again.” I guess she didn’t want to go to heaven without her topknot.
So with a prayer for patience muttered under his breath, Rev Cox braced himself to lower her into the water again. Speculation ran through the congregation gathered on the shore as to why the baptism was being repeated. Once is usually good enough. Gently the Rev laid her back into the water. Again, as soon as she entered the chilly water, she pulled her head forward and her topknot stuck defiantly out of the water. So they had to try a third time. This time, the good reverend put his left hand on the lady forehead to make sure the topknot went under the water. Finally, it worked.
The people on the bank had finally figured out what was happening and were in stitches. They would never forget the lady with the topknot who wanted to be baptized all over. “Interesting,” wrote Rev. Cox, some years later, “most of us are not like that lady. We do not want to be baptized that completely. Most of us want to leave something out when we are baptized – our money, our habits, our moral inclination, whatever it may be.”(1) He makes a good observation.
That story is a reminder that there was a time when denominations in our land would literally come to blows over topics like baptism. We still have our differences, but we’ve become a little more tolerant of different beliefs and customs. But conflict still comes up. It certainly did in the church in Galatia. For them, the topic being disputed wasn’t baptism, but rather circumcision.
So here was the issue for the church in Galatia – many of the early Christians who had originally been Jews believed that all believers ought to follow the path they had travelled – to undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision as well as the rite of baptism. Since circumcision is not a particularly appealing ritual, especially as an adult, this was causing some tension in the church, as you might imagine.
It broke Paul’s heart to see the Galatians divided like they were. He knew how dangerous “us vs them” thinking is to the church, and he was not going to go easy on anyone who tried to create divisions in the body of Christ.
Keep in mind the spiritual background of these Jewish believers before they came to Christ. In the time Paul was writing there was an actual dividing wall in the Jewish temple which separated the Court of the Israelites from the Court of the Gentiles. Signs were posted in Latin and Greek warning Gentiles not to go any farther into the temple under penalty of death. Those who were advocating circumcision for adult men in Galatia were dividing the church into those whom they thought were most pleasing to God – the circumcised, Jewish followers – and those whom they thought were less pleasing to God – the un-circumcised Gentiles, the slaves, and the women. This was the mindset they had brought with them from their Jewish backgrounds. And it was taking a toll on the church.
It’s like the old limerick”
“There once were two cats from Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many.
They fought and they spit, and they clawed and they bit
Till instead of two cats… there weren’t any.”(2)
Here Paul was striving with all his heart and soul to build up churches while the “Judaizers” as they were known, were working to tear things apart. That could not be allowed to happen. They needed to be reminded of who they were and, even more important, who they followed. They were the body of Jesus Christ whose love brings people together, not tears them apart.
It’s like a story Martin Luther once told about two mountain goats who met each other on a narrow ledge. The ledge was just wide enough for one of the animals to pass. On the left was a sheer cliff; on the right was a steep wall. They were facing each other, and it was impossible for either to turn around or to back up.
Now you might expect that they started headbutting each other to force their way through, quite possible sending both of them over the edge. But instead, one of the goats laid down on the trail and let the other one walk over him – and both goats were safe.(3) It takes humility to follow Christ, and humility means accepting each other. For the Galatians, that meant accepting the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised.
Being the body of Christ also requires that we look after one another’s needs. In short, it means that we develop a generosity of spirit that makes it easy for us to obey the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
Pastor Sue Owen travelled to Kenya not too long ago, and she tells of the wonderful experience she had of seeing unselfish sharing among the students at a school there.
Her group had a bag of gummy bears they wanted to give to the children, but they didn’t know how to do so without having the children fight over them. They feared the kids would become pushy and demanding and get upset over sharing the candy. So they gave the gummies to the head teacher to distribute. Much to their surprise, the head teacher handed the bag to a nearby student to distribute.
This little girl carefully handed out one gummy bear per child, so that everyone got one. They she went around and gave everybody a second gummy. And then a third. When it became clear that she wouldn’t make it around for a fourth round, she got some scissors and started cutting the gummies in half, so everybody got an equal share.
There was no crying, no complaining at all. Each child gratefully received his or her allotment of gummy bears, and they all enjoyed sharing a treat together.(4) Being the body of Christ requires that we look after one another’s needs.
And finally, being one n Christ, a part of the body of Christ, means we are to become advocates for one another, and for all God’s children.
Author Tony Campolo tells of the time when Mother Teresa visited a town in Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. The directors of the state mental hospital wanted to build some halfway houses in this town to provide living space and mental health services to patients who were transitioning back into society. The local citizens protested that they didn’t want this halfway house in their neighborhood. The city council voted unanimously against the proposal.
Mother Teresa happened to be visiting this town for a meeting with her order, the Sisters of Charity, and she heard about this city council meeting. She walked into this very contentious meeting, where there was a lot of arguing and finger-pointing. And she walked up to the table where the city council members were sitting. She knelt down in front of their table and she pleaded, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God. When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you embrace them, you embrace Jesus.”
So the council took another vote – but it was still unanimous. Except now they were unanimously in favor of the project moving ahead. The sacrificial love of Mother Teresa overcame any self-serving objections they had.(5)
That is what Paul is saying to the church in Galatia. “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God, whether they are circumcised or not. When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you embrace them, you embrace Jesus.”
When we focus on the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, all the self-serving, ugly walls between us fall. There is nothing half-hearted about Jesus’ love for us. Jesus died to take away our sin and restore us to oneness with God. If we are baptized and clothed in Jesus, then we are also one with every believer throughout all time and every nation, part of the body of Christ.
Imagine how it would change the world if they saw us love another in such a radically authentic and sacrificial way. What a wonderful world it would be!
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p75.
2. Ibid… p72.
3. Ibid… p72.
4. Ibid… p73.
5. Ibid… p74