Paul Knitter’s Homily, June 19, 2016

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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Egalitarian Community Clothed in Christ

 

Readings: Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8: 26-39

 

  1. THE COMMUNITY OF JESUS FOLLOWERS IN GALATIA WAS PROPHETICALLY EGALITARIAN

 

  1. I’d like to focus my reflections this morning around the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians – mainly because it gives us such a clear, sobering, and inspiring picture of the kind of communities the early Jesus-followers formed.
  • Galatians is the second oldest of the seven Pauline epistles that we know Paul really wrote. He wrote it around the year 52, so just about 20 years after Jesus was executed. And it shows just how radically, even dangerously, counter-cultural the Galatian community was.

 

  • Paul contrasts the values of the community of Jesus-people with “the law.” Throughout much of the history of Christianity, Christians have thought that Paul meant this as a rejection of “the Jewish Law” or Torah. Paul never rejected his Jewishness. As scholars tell us, by “the law” – the Greek word nomos – he meant any system that tells us who’s in and who’s out, who’s superior and who’s inferior on the basis of how people perform, where they come from, or their social ranking.

 

  • And here, Pauline scholars point out, for Paul “the Law” also, and especially, meant Roman law. Roman law shaping Roman culture was clearly, insistently,   Everyone had a place either above or below: Roman citizens ranked above all others (who were called “barberi” – barbarians); slaves, who constituted as essential part of the Roman economy, were below everyone; and just a few rankings above slaves, women were totally subordinate to men (especially those men who were patres familiae, fathers of families). In Rome, every day was Father’s Day.

 

  • This was the strictly, ruthlessly hierarchical society in which Paul dared to announce: in the community of Jesus-followers, there is “no longer Jew or Greek (Roman), no longer slave or free,” and the real whopper, “no longer male or female.” We’re all one community in Christ Jesus. 
  • Paul was proclaiming an egalitarian community in the midst of the hierarchical Roman Empire!

 

  • To be clear about what he seems to have had in mind: he wasn’t denying differences in ethnicity, or in gender, or in social structures; he was declaring that such differences, real as they are, don’t make a difference when it comes to one’s fundamental value and goodness, when it comes to how we treat each other.
  • In the Galatian community, there were both Gentile and Jewish Jesus-followers (and the differences were evident when the men gathered in the communal baths); there were slaves and free-persons, for slavery at that time was sadly an accepted institution; and of course there were men and women.

 

  • But the differences did not determine rankings, did not make some better or superior over others. All were of equal value. We have clear indications that Paul recognized women as apostles in his communities.

 

  • This early Christian society was in stark, threatening contrast to Roman society.

 

  1. In so defining themselves, these Galatian Jesus-followers were carrying on the original counter-cultural vision of society that they learned from Jesus. His vision is contained in his message that the Reign, or Society, of God was taking shape in their midst, and that meant in the midst of the Roman occupation of Palestine. God’s society was to be one built on the foundations of equality that called for compassion and justice for all, especially for the marginalized – the sinners, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and as in today’s Gospel, those possessed by demons.
  • Such a message was clearly at odds with how the Romans wanted to maintain their hierarchical control of their colonies; that’s why they “disappeared” Jesus.

 

  • Jesus’ opposition to Roman hierarchical power is subtly suggested in today’s Gospel.
  • Luke gives a name to the demons that Jesus was casting out: He calls them “Legion.” As the text tells us, that meant that there were lots of demons. But for the early Jewish readers of Luke’s Gospel, the word “legion” would also, and immediately, point to the Roman legions moving at will throughout their land. Even more locally, this Gospel scene takes place near the town of Gerasa, where in the year 67, Emperor Vespasian’s General Lucius Annius slaughtered 1000 Jewish rebels who were held up in Gerasa. Luke wrote his Gospel probably between 80 and 90. Memories of the Roman legions in Gerasa would have been still vivid. These were the demons that Jesus wanted to free people from.

 

  1. So the counter-cultural challenge of Jesus’ and Paul’s egalitarian communities was a threat to the established order. So much so, that even Paul seems to have gotten a little scared. I’m uneasy about pointing this out and criticizing my patron saint.  But a year or two after he wrote his letter to the Galatians, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he repeated his message of equality: “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body –Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.” (I Cor 12: 13)
  • Do you notice what he left out? Male or female. (The same omission of male and female is made in Colossians 3:11.)  – To question slavery would have been a hard sell in Roman culture.  To question patriarchy, even harder.  It seems that Paul felt he had to tone down his radical message.
  1. THEIR PROPHETIC WITNESS WAS GROUNDED IN THEIR CONTEMPLATIVE EXPERIENCE OF ‘JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH’

 

  1. But despite Paul’s apparent waffling, this vision of an egalitarian society, remains at the heart of his and Jesus’ message. And this morning’s reading from Galatians makes it clear how this vision is to be continued and nurtured in other such communities of the future, including our own.  People are called to such a community, in Paul’s words, “through faith” – through being “justified by faith.” 
  • That does not mean through affirming and following a certain list of beliefs. That would be to endorse another law or set of rules.

 

  • What Paul means by justification by faith is, I think we can say, a mystical experience. In this passage, he describes this mystical experience as “being baptized into Christ” (note: not in Christ’s name but into Christ!)…or even more mystically, being “clothed with Christ.”

 

  • It’s not easy to find neat words to explain what Paul is talking about. In many different images throughout his letters, he’s describing an experience of being one with the Spirit of Christ, of sensing that, as we heard last Sunday, “it is no longer I who am alive but it is Christ who is doing the living in and as me.”

 

  • This is a nondual, unitive experience in which we realize what we really are – what Merton and others call “our True Self” – a Self held, as was Jesus’ Self, in an unconditional love that Christians call God; a Self that receives and then extends or becomes this unconditional Love.

 

  1. As we come to sense our own True Selves, we come to see the True Selves of others. And this is what creates and continues to nurture the egalitarian community.

 

  • As my Buddhist teachers explain it: as we deepen our mystical realization that we are all held in and are expressions of the Love Christians call God, we realize that all the ideas or preconditioned notions of ourselves and others – as male or female, white or black, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, yes Democrat or Republican – such images may be real and important, but they are never fully true, never the full picture of these peoples’ true identity and value as children or expressions of God.

 

  • And so we value them and feel connected with them, yes love them, even when we note our differences, even when we disagree with or have to oppose them (as Jesus had to oppose the Romans; he never hated them).

 

  • To so live as a prophetic, egalitarian community, especially in a world full of hierarchies that claim superiority and dominance, we must also live as a contemplative or mystical egalitarian community.

 

  • THE CHALLENGE FOR OUR HOLY WISDOM COMMUNITY: TO OFFER AN EGALITARIAN WITNESS ROOTED IN CONTEMPLATION

 

  1. Like so many of you, I joined this Holy Wisdom community because I saw it as a group of people who really do want to realize Jesus’ and Paul’s vision of an egalitarian community. While we recognize our differences here in Holy Wisdom – differences in roles and responsibility, differences in gender and sexual orientation, yes, differences in theological or confessional or political viewpoints – we want no hierarchies of subordination among us, either in language or in fact. All are valued; all are cherished, all are welcome even when we disagree.

 

  • And how important it is that we – along with other egalitarian communities both religious and secular – remain committed to offering such a prophetic witness in our American Empire, just as the Galatians did in the Roman Empire.

 

  • In what we have been hearing in the political discourse over these past months of campaigning about the superiority of some and the exclusion of others, what we’ve seen recently in the gay night club in Orlando of how such discourse can lead to acts of hatred and violence – we need all the more to nurture our egalitarian community among ourselves so that we can also live it prophetically and courageously in our society, in our families, among our friends.

 

But to do that, we must care for the contemplative soil in which such egalitarian communities are rooted and continuously nurtured.  

  • We need spiritual practices that will nourish our connectedness with our True Self which we Christians call the living Christ or the Holy Spirit, and which has other names in other communities.

 

  • While each of us will have our own particular forms of daily prayer or meditation, we all have and need our weekly communal mystical practice called the Eucharist.
  • The Eucharist is intended to be not just a ritual but a contemplative exercise in which we continue to tell and identify with the Jesus story, in which we continue to clothe ourselves in Christ, in which, as we will shortly pray, we realize that when we share the one bread and drink from the cup, we are indeed one body.
  • Let us now gather around the table to break bread, share the cup, and feel the living Christ-Spirit within and among us.

 

 

 

 

 

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