Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Finally a lectionary omission that I can live with! On Sunday we will ready the opening verse of Galatians 5 and then skip all the way down to verse 13, and I don't mind one bit. Sure, the preacher should take time to read the intervening text and understand the fullness of Paul's "becomes slaves to one another" argument, but I think it's perfectly fine to leave out the part about circumcision.
No, I'm not squeamish. I have no problem saying or hearing the word "circumcision" in church (even the six times that it is used in the omitted verses). In fact, I find it funny when Paul writes hyperbolically, "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" No, I think we can omit these verse because, in this case, the issue at hand (circumcision) isn't as important as the conclusion Paul reaches (freedom). In fact, taking that a step further, I think the particularities of the issue actually detract from the passage's teaching today.
Who cares about circumcision? I remember my mother speaking to me before I went to summer camp about boys whose penises might look different than mine, but I don't know of any Christian parent who debates the issue of whether to have their newborn son circumcised because of a ritual observance of the Jewish law. Unless you're in an interfaith marriage where you might be fighting with in-laws about whether circumcision is necessary as a sign of the covenant made with Abraham, you can pretty well skip these 11 verses. There are more important fish to fry in today's church.
Paul urges the Galatians to take their freedom in Christ seriously: "Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." He has circumcision in mind, but that doesn't mean we need to. The fact remains that, in Christ, we have been set free--not for self-indulgent behavior but for grace-actualized love for one another. We are not justified to God under the law of "thou shalt..." and "thou shalt not...," but, in Christ, we are free to act as Spirit-filled, Spirit-guided agents of God. That principle of grace is threatened in today's church, but it isn't circumcision that is threatening it.
What has become the sine qua non of a religious life? If Kevin Bacon taught us anything in Footloose, it's that rock music and dancing aren't the issue. Likewise, I don't hear a lot of people complaining about "mixed bathing" anymore. So what is it? What has replaced circumcision as the legalistic thing the contemporary church is fighting over? For what reason are we dismissing would-be Christians and Christian movements? Is it because they don't gather for worship in a pretty building? Is it because they meet for church on a day other than Sunday? Maybe it's because they don't believe in the personification of evil known as the Devil, or maybe it's because they do. Real wine or grape juice? KJV or NIV or NRSV? Seminary-educated clergy or Spirit-called, Spirit-taught ministers?
In our denomination, we seem to have mutually anathematized each other over the issue of human sexuality. If you support gay marriage, you must not believe in the bible and, thus, aren't a real Christian. And, if you refuse to support gay marriage, you must not believe in the inclusive ministry of Jesus and, thus, aren't a real Christian. What would Paul say to us? "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." Those are powerful words. They are spoken from a place of true freedom, which is to say effective vulnerability to others because of the invulnerability provided by Christ. Whatever our circumcision issue, we have forgotten what it means to love one another so fully as to become slaves to one another--to say to those with whom we vehemently disagree, "Whatever you want, master." We have been using our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. It's time to try mutual slavery and see if our shared freedom can become an inseparable bond of love.