Sermon from Juneteenth

“One in Christ: Our Origin Unfettered.”
Juneteenth 2022. Gal 3:28. Rev. Rodriguez

“…There is no longer slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from this present evil age. Amen. (Gal 1:4).

Paul masterfully defends the core of his ministry, which is no less controversial today than it was then. He declared that lineage, status, or identity are not barriers to full participation in God’s people, all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28b). This same Christ redeemed us…by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13a) when he was lynched upon the tree of the cross. In other words, he experienced the full weight of our lot in this life that we might taste the fullness of God’s promised blessing. He endured the sin of this world, the -isms that divide, the death of all things, and the evil working in the human heart. So that we might not mistake the barriers between God and us, and us and each other as signs of our origin, blessing, and end in this world. God through Christ’s life-giving death gave to us, an origin story that we may abide together as one, in perfect love.

We all navigate this world with some sense of an origin story, or origin stories. Today we commemorate Juneteenth, how Major General George Granger announced the legal end to slavery, finally making true to this origin story: all are created equal. Yet we know this story’s descent into fantasy considering the history of reconstruction, Jim Crowe, and in this city, desegregation efforts by TSU students. What then of not only this origin story but that of our redemption in Christ? Shall racism and the -isms all around hold us captive against our better blessing? Shall sin continue that grace may abound (Rom 6:1)? Annette Gordon-Reed in her book, “On Juneteenth,” notes that origin stories, “carry, at least a hope that where we started might hold the key to where we are in the present (p. 58).” Today’s sermon, “One in Christ: Our Origin Unfettered,” demonstrates one way to view the systemic ills of today through the eternal lens of our origin story. First, we shall see that Paul considered God’s promise as making a way for all people to become one in God’s family. Systemic sins seem to delay our full participation in God’s promise. So, we hold on to the hope of our origin story even as we lament its long delay.

One in Christ: Promise Made

Paul urged the Galatians, embroiled in a struggle over their own origin story, not to create separate-but-not-equal distinctions in the church. Paul, together with Barnabas and Titus, went up to Jerusalem to discuss “the gospel that he had proclaimed among the gentiles (Gal 2:2).” The question before them, that eventually became the question before the Galatians: What was the role of the custom of Moses, namely circumcision, in the matters of full participation in God’s people? At that time, James, Cepheus, and John issued their own “General Order” that, “Paul should go to the gentiles, they to the circumcised…just remember the poor (Gal 2:9b-10).” They recognized a common gospel, a common origin, and a singular grace in Christ. No circumcision is required for gentile believers. Promises made. Yet the disciples struggled to keep this promise; one disciple, Cephas (Peter). Paul recounts how Cephas delayed the full participation in the gospel by keeping himself back from table fellowship. He had created an atmosphere of separate-but-not-equal. Seeing this distinction arise within the Galatian churches, Paul compels him to consider their own origin story: “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard (Gal 3:2)?”

Put it this way: Is our origin and end found in God’s fidelity to us? How does God make her fidelity known to us? Paul answers with an origin story, defining all of us who claim the God of Israel as our creator: “God…declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham…those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed (Gal 3:9).” And here is where we need to be careful lest we fall into antisemitism. Paul understood that since God’s blessing in Abraham comes to all through faith, he saw the use of God’s demands, the law if you will, as having a preparatory function, the second use of the law in the Lutheran tradition. The law here for Paul is not just the ten commandments but how the very passages of scripture in the Torah are used to sustain life. The Law itself points to the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, “through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:22).” This Christ Jesus suffered a shameful death on the cross so that we all may become children of the promise. All are one in Christ. No longer is there a separate-but-equal distinction but all have been clothed with Christ’s dignity. He took our lot on the cross that our lot may be blessed with life-giving freedom. Blessed Exchange! Our origin story is cloaked with this kind of righteousness: Promise made; promise kept in Christ.

The Struggle to be in Oneness: Promise Delayed?

So is God’s promise in Christ, long-delayed by the sin of racism, a promise denied? An origin story that is nothing more than a mere myth. Siblings, I am not in this pulpit for mere posturing, partisanship or self-flagellation. But I must bear witness that too often the -isms in this world delay our full participation in God’s coming, and already present age. The stories with our tradition are too numerous to recount in full detail; be it the struggle of the first black Lutheran preacher in this land, Rev. Jehu Jones, the divided churches during the civil war, or white-flight congregations. Consider your own lives. Where have you and the annals of your family history been situated? Have you understood, and seen or been a participant in a promise denied? I don’t want to guilt you but extol you towards an Origin Unfettered in Christ. And we have certainly heard of this: General order #3 in Galveston, the struggle of Eldrewey Sterns and his TSU counterparts in pushing Houston towards desegregation in all spheres of life, even our own Revs. Pederson and Dieter in their ministries of justice. God’s promise to us, through faith, presses us forward, from our origin story to the hope of our Origin Unfettered from sin. We work to ensure that systemic sins no longer deny people of color, LGBTQIA people, women, and folks of every identity full participation in our life together.

Promise Unchained: Shall we lift our voices together?

Until the day when we shall experience the fullness of this Origin Unfettered, Being One in Christ, God continues to feed us and clothe us with his promise in Christ. Being so clothed, we perceive our lives from that eternal promise. We then are bold to ask and lament: Has my life delayed God’s promised oneness in Christ? Am I apathetic about the struggles of people of color and the most vulnerable? Is there redemption for me and my kin? Let us listen and see God’s promises fulfilled. God’s redemption may sound like a trickle, bubbling from a copper font. Here is the beginning of a life unfettered. Lift your voice from this long-suffering song, until your voice and feet make a noise like justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24)! Amen!