A God of Both/And

Posted: June 24, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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bothI preached this sermon at Grace United Methodist Church on June 23, 2013.  The text is Galatians 3:23-29.  Here’s the audio.


Source: zazzle.com


One of our church members shared with me a t-shirt that her English department had made for themselves. I thought was pretty clever.  Now, English has many irregularities, but there are still rules that you’ve got to follow to write or communicate properly.  That’s just the way it is.  Sentences are either grammatically correct or they aren’t.  Lots of things in life are this way.  Most math problems are either right or wrong.  A sheet of paper has no less than two sides to it.    Games have rules.  For instance in chess, pieces have very specific ways that guide how they can move.  The bishop only moves diagonally along the same colored squares and doesn’t change the color that it is on.  One bishop will always be on white, the other on black.  Life seems to have rules too.  You can’t eat or drink whatever you like and expect their to be no consequences for your actions.  In many ways, we live in an either/or world.  As we’ve heard from pastor Bryan – the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the churches of Galatia – about an either/or issue.  Should Christians concern themselves with following the Mosaic law.  Should they or shouldn’t they?  Either/or.  The law itself was an either/or sort of thing.  Either you were in compliance with the law or you weren’t.  It is into this either/or context that Paul wrote our words of Scripture this morning.  Let’s hear Paul’s words:

Galatians 3:23-29, NRSV


Our text this morning contains the single most hotly debated translation issue in all of Scripture.  It rests on the translation of a single preposition.  Its significance is as consequential for Christian theology as the placement of the comma is for grandma.  It too deals with the saving of lives.

Do you think you can handle the controversy?

This translation issue comes from a phrase that Paul uses often and does in verse 26 of our passage this morning.  Paul says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:26, NASB] The phrase in question is “faith in Christ Jesus.”  The debate is whether the Greek is best translated as: faith in Christ Jesus or faith of Christ Jesus.    When we ask this little preposition the question: How is it that we are saved? What is the basis for our salvation? It tells us either we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ – an action we take to believe.  Or, it tells us, we are saved by the faith of Jesus – the faith Jesus had 2000 years ago, a faith that, frankly, we had very little to do with, other than it being done because of Christ’s love for us.  To make matters more complicated, there is no scholarly consensus – good, knowledgeable, intelligent scholars across the theological spectrum can be found on both sides.  Each can point to Pauline passages elsewhere that seem to lend support to their interpretation.  Certainly most English Protestant backed translations render the phrase, faith in Christ.  But detractors point out that there is no linguistic or historical reason to justify this translation over its alternative.  They suggest that it is our modern theology, (particularly theology informed by the Protestant Reformation) that favors the personal choice to put faith in Christ / being read back into Scripture.  This is an anachronistic bias, the detractors maintain.  So, we are left with an either/or choice.

This isn’t the only source of division suggested by our Scripture today.  Paul’s letter to Galatians is his angriest letter.  Paul was engaged in a rather heated battle over what the core of what the gospel was.  We’ve heard this playing out in our Scripture readings and sermons the past several weeks – Paul was trying to fight Jewish Christians who were insisting that the gospel of Christ still entailed following all of the Mosaic Laws – or at the very least, some core elements of that law – circumcision, table fellowship and such.  Paul wanted to make clear that these works of the law – the Mosaic law – were not an essential part of the Christian faith.  Galatians was written during the hottest part of this debate – and those in the churches of Galatia were being pulled both ways – they were left with an either/or choice.  Paul’s passion runs so hot that he suggests later in the letter to those advocating circumcision that they go one step further and cut the whole thing off.  It’s true – look it up – Galatians 5:12.

  • And so we have an either/or in the interpretation of the Scripture.  Either faith in Christ or faith of Christ.
  •  We have an either/or in the history behind the Scripture.  Either we follow the Mosaic law or we live by the Spirit.
  •  And we also have either/or-s in the Scripture itself.

When we read the text, we see several divisions.  Paul states them plainly.  They are Jew or Greek.  Slave or free.  Male or female.  They are the most significant divisions of Paul’s day.  They are places where there are clear breaks in the culture.

Speaking of breaks…I think sermons are the last place on earth that are commercial free.  I got to thinking, why should that be?  So I want to take a break from the sermon for a word from our sponsors.  Have you seen those Coke Zero commercials?  The one with the young kid who seems to have life all figured out just by asking the question, And?  Let’s take a look…

The Coke Zero guy doesn’t settle for either/or.  That which most of us assumed couldn’t simultaneously co-exist – zero calories and real Coca-Cola taste does.  Interestingly, its the beverage industry seems to have this figured out.  I’m not brave enough to show a beer commercial in the house of the Lord, but the classic Miller Light commercials also tried to hold that which we assume to be either/or together as both/and – Miller Light, the commercial goes, both tastes great and is less filling.

Often that which we assume is either/or can be paradoxically held together in a both/and framework.

mobius band

Source: James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective

I’m going to blow your mind right here…   I want to show you all a trick that you can use to impress your friends and family.  In your bulletin there’s a long, slender sheet of paper.  Two sides, right?  In case you doubt me, I’ve even numbered them for you.  If you make a loop, still two sides – one on the inside and one on the outside.  Yet, there is something we can do to this paper to transform it from a binary object – one with two sides to an object with one side.  It is something called a Möbius band.  Hold your sheet straight out in front of you with the ones facing you.  Turn one end of it 180 degrees, so that the 2 now faces you.  Without releasing the twist, connect the both ends with the two’s so that they are kissing one another.  You should now have a simple loop with a twist in it.   And if you trace one side with your finger, you’ll find that you cover the entire surface area.  There is no longer two sides.  It turns a contradiction – an either/or situation – into a paradox – both/and.

A contradiction is where opposites are unresolvable.  It’s when two given things can’t co-exist.  Contradictions force either/or choices.  God has a way of turning contradictions into paradoxes.  Paradoxes are merely apparent contradictions.  At a certain level, framed a certain way, they appear to be contradictions.  But when one takes a step back, when a larger frame is placed around that which seems contradictory, the either/or fades away – even through differences may still remain.  Paradoxes turn either/or choices into both/and opportunities.  In grammar, these sets of words I have been using either/or and both/and are called correlative conjunctions.  Since, it seems that God is so fond of conjunctions, let me introduce another one that seems critical to the transformation of a contradiction into a paradox.  Unless.   Unless is that conjunctive word that typically introduces the exception that reframes the either/or into the both/and.

Black Swan

Either/or holds until an exception emerges.  The word unless describes the exception.  In his book, The Black Swan, author Nassim Taleb explains the principle of the black swan – they are seemingly highly improbable events or things that disrupt what we assume to be true.  They take our blinders off, reveal the errors of our dogmatism.  In 15th century Europe, no one had ever seen a black swan.  All anyone knew were white swans.  But in 1697, explorers found one in Australia.  It only takes one violation of the rule – that swans are white to permanently shatter the rule.  Complexity forces us to view things from a higher vantage point.

This view from a higher vantage point, I believe is the timeless message embedded in Paul’s stern letter to the Galatian churches.  In fact, it is the very formula for spiritual growth.  The Christian faith teaches that repentance is the birthplace of becoming a Christian.  The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which is often explained by preachers as a turning around or a 180 degree turn.  Another layer of meaning in this word, however, is just as important.  Literally, metanoia means, “bigger mind.”  Meta means higher/bigger/transcendent/above.  Noia comes from the word nous – which is the Greek word for mind.  Paul often speaks of having the mind of Christ – which I think is just another way of saying the same thing – view things from a higher vantage point – look at the world the way God looks at the world.  Paul uses similar language in our passage this morning in verse 27, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

This higher vantage point – this larger way of seeing the world obliterates either/or thinking.  It finds ways to draw that which is separated into itself.  The either/ors become one in Christ Jesus.

Now, you might be thinking, wait a second.  Paul himself throughout the book of Galatians draws a rather stark black and white line between those who still observe the Mosaic law and those who live by the Spirit.  Certainly Paul is passionate about this issue, yet I think it would be a mistake to assume that Paul has relegated the law to the trash can.  In our passage, he carefully explains what its proper role is and was.  It was to act as a disciplinarian until Christ came.  It had a purpose – it shaped the people who adhered to it until the world seemed ready for a more advanced guide.  Parents and teachers know that it isn’t healthy to give children and youth the same level of freedom that adults are granted.  More structure, more rules, a stronger disciplinary hand is appropriate for these younger stages of human development.  What sounds like an either/or dichotomy in Paul – either the law or faith in Christ – is really more about the appropriate place of both.  This described the changing era unfolding in Paul’s own day, but it also describes spiritual growth more generally.  The discipline and rigidity of either/or thinking – of legalism – is actually well suited for specific times in our lives.  But the spiritual goodness inherent in a child earnestly doing his or her best to follow the rules, color between the lines, raise his or her hand before going to the bathroom, is no longer what we should strive for in adulthood.  We’ll always have the law as part of our spiritual tool box when we progress beyond it, so we can break it out when useful, but if it remains our primary operating system as full grown adults, it turns us into legalists and doesn’t leave room yet for guidance by the Spirit.  One spiritual teacher says, “you’ve got to learn the law really well so that you know how to break it properly.”  (Thich Nhat Hanh via Richard Rohr)  Grammatical rules are important when you’re in grammar school and they will serve as the foundation for communication into adulthood.  But if you’re e.e. cummings, breaking those rules can be part of your unique art form and playing by the rules would make that art impossible.

Everything has its own divine purpose – good and holy.  And it just might be the case that God is big enough to hold what we call opposites together in different ways – each for their own purpose.  They only seem like opposites to us because we have taken them out of their proper place or held on to them for far too long.

When we clothe ourselves with Christ – we no longer see the world as either/or.  We’re no longer dominated by the binary nature of the law.  That doesn’t mean anything goes (we’ll talk more about that next week) – we are now guided by the Spirit of Christ rather than the black and white of the law.  While at the same time still able to see the purpose of the law.

The gift of putting on the clothing of Christ is that we no longer have to see the world through the limited lens of either/or.  For in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.  There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer Methodist or Baptist, there is no longer black or white, there is no longer rich or poor, there is no longer straight or gay, there is no longer conservative or liberal, there is no longer the saved and the lost, there is no longer American and foreigner, there is no longer educated and illiterate; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Jesus Christ is the unless – the black swan – the exception that shatters the exclusive hold that either/or has on the world.  Jesus was both the chosen one and the damned.  His broken body reconciled light and darkness. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  In Christ, we are one.

God invites us to see the world this way too.  This higher vantage point from which to see the world is available to you right here and right now.  Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, Paul tells us.  Let Christ blow your mind up a few levels and give you a new operating system.

In the game of chess, the bishop moves diagonally and stays on the same colored square at all times.  Unless.   Unless, the bishop has been captured, a pawn makes it all the way across the board on a color opposite to that which the bishop started on.  The player can then choose the bishop to replace the pawn on a different colored square than it started on.  Unless transforms the black or white to the black and white.  Christ is the great unless that unlocks the stuck places of our lives.

There’s a sense of abundance that comes with the both/and.  We don’t have to choose between two competing goods.  Each have their own place and we can enjoy them so much more in their proper place.  With Christ, you can have your cake and eat it too.  Soda with zero calories and real Coca-Cola taste.  Beer that tastes great and is less filling.  Paper with 2 sides and 1 side.  Bishops that can move on black spaces and white ones.  A faith that is both our faith in Christ that is simultaneously the faith of Christ.  An ethics that is both bound by obedience and set free by the Spirit.  A life that both embraces real, painful sacrifice and is showered with the most abundant of blessings.  A God of both/and wants more for us and demands more of us than a world of either/or.

Let us pray.

Lord, we give you thanks for the law.  For the Mosaic Law that shaped the lives of the Israelites and was foundational for Jesus’ faith.  We give you thanks for the role that rules have played in our own lives, forming us into respectable and responsible people.  We give you thanks for the way in which it is forming our own children today.  But we also rejoice in the freedom we have from the law – the freedom to live according to the Spirit of Christ not to veer into relativism, but to pull the intention of your design for us and our world even closer to our hearts.  Let us not be afraid to boldly claim this freedom as spiritual adults or be satisfied with staying in the spiritual structures that now bind us.  For it was Christ that transformed the either/or of the law into the both and of grace.  Free us for joyful obedience.  Amen.


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