Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church + First Sunday in Christmas + December 28, 2014
Once upon a time, before the United States was born, there lived a botanist named Peter Kalm. And I bet you all came to church hoping to hear a story about a guy who studies plants. Peter, like some of you, was Swedish, but probably unlike you, he was sent by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to North America to study the plant life. But, like I said, this was before the United States, before Canada, in the days of the colonies. 1748, to be precise. America was still a wild, mysterious place to Europeans. So when Peter the Botanist published the account of his travels back in Europe, he wrote about more than the red mulberry plant. He wrote about the people here – the natives, the European colonists, and the African slaves.
What I am interested in this Sunday is what he observed about the relationship between slaves, masters, and the church:
“It is…to be pitied that the masters of these [slaves] in most of the English colonies take little care of their spiritual welfare, and let them live on in their Pagan darkness. There are even some who would be very ill-pleased at, and would by all means hinder their [slaves] from being instructed in the doctrines of Christianity; to this they are partly led by the conceit of its being shameful, to have a spiritual brother or sister among so despicable a people; partly by thinking that they should not be able to keep their negroes so meanly afterwards; and partly through fear of the [slaves] growing too proud, on seeing themselves upon a level with their masters in religious matters.”
In other words, he saw that many people wanted to keep Christianity away from the slaves. Of course there were many Christians in this time of slavery who did seek to welcome Africans into the life of the church. The great revivals that swept through the country, for example, welcomed slave and free alike – as both seekers and preachers. But Peter the Botanist captured the other side of the story: the many, many colonists who were terrified of the power of Christianity among the slaves. They feared that sharing the gospel and the sacraments with slaves would blur the boundaries that ordered their worlds. As it stood, the colonists were European, Christians, and the masters, and the slaves were African, pagan, and, well, slaves. Their circles were separate. But if slaves were baptized into the Church, the circles started to overlap, like a Venn diagram. And even that little overlap – that affirmation that the African slave had also been adopted into the family of God – could throw off the whole system. English colonists knew this from experience: according to English law, it was illegal to hold a baptized person as a slave. And even though the colonies did not have this law, most people believed that the Christian faith made slaves think too highly of themselves, and could even give them the will to rebel.*
Engraving: Slave Ship Arrives in Virginia 1619. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
And you know what? I think they were right. Just look at our teeny-tiny reading from Galatians:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child than also an heir, through God.”
Can you imagine growing up a slave, and then hearing the gospel message that “you are no longer a slave,” but a child of God? Wouldn’t that fill you with a new sense of worth, and a new sense of power? And that’s just one verse.
And it wasn’t just the African-Americans whose perception of slavery was changed by the experience of the gospel. As slaves and former slaves were welcomed into the fold of the Methodist and Baptist revivals, these churches began to take a stand against slavery. After worshipping and fellowshipping with slaves, these European-American Christians could not see them as a race destined for bondage. They saw Africans as beloved children of God. Their boundaries had been challenged; their circle grew.
Christianity at its best carries to us the story of God’s radical love for all creation. And so throughout the history of Christianity, people have felt that love shaking the boundaries that we use to separate ourselves from one another, to mark the good and the bad. And when that happens, there is always a fight.
These are the images that came to my mind as I read the words of Simeon in today’s gospel reading. Simeon was an old, old man, who had spent many years in his own Advent season, waiting for God’s messiah. And he knew that this messiah wouldn’t just be for the people of Israel. The messiah would shake the boundaries of Jewish identity and widen the circle. So Simeon confesses when he first holds that tiny, newborn Christ-child in his arms: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” I can almost hear a group of people whispering in the corner of the temple: “Gentiles? What is that old man talking about? There’s no way God is sending the messiah to Gentiles too.”
Because many Jews around that time took very seriously their separation from Gentiles, or non-Jews – just as some Jewish groups do today. They were set apart by God as a chosen people, and they had customs which showed that separation in a visible way. They refused to eat pork and certain other foods. They wore special clothing. And, most important of all, the men were circumcised – a sign that they were part of the original covenant between Abraham and God. During various waves of persecution, Jews had chosen to be tortured and killed rather than break these customs of separation. So these were holy customs, and people were ready to fight for them.
I think this is an example of why Simeon then turned his eyes from the infant Jesus to Mary and Joseph and said something a little more chilling: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” I’ll take a risk and put that into my own words: “This child has been sent by God, and what he does and says will give life to many, but to others he will bring downfall.”
We can see that this is true even within Christianity, even within the first decades after Jesus’s death. Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians is a response to the “falling and rising of many” within the church community there. The conflict grew out of two incompatible facts: (1) Paul’s mission was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and (2) the Jesus movement was still a very Jewish movement. And so the question came up: Did these Gentile Jesus-followers need to become Jewish, and live under Jewish law? In more specific terms, did these Gentile Christians need to keep kosher? Did they need to stop eating with Gentiles? Did the men need to be circumcised? The struggle to answer these questions caused major arguments in Galatia and among the apostles themselves.
Paul’s response has been preserved in our Bibles: to bind someone to the law goes directly against the gospel of Christ (Gal. 3). The gentiles could be part of this “Jewish” movement without being bound to Jewish law. The boundaries were shaking, and soon they would fall.
We tend to like our boundaries. They map out our world. They help us make sense of things. I’m sure many have experienced those hard-lined cliques of middle- and high-school: where everyone knows who’s cool, who’s outcast, who’s the jock and who’s the nerd. Then we grow up, and there are even more divisions: the right-wingers and the left-wingers; the old and the young; the Christian and Muslim; the citizen and the foreigner; the UT fan and the Vandy fan; the women and the men; the wealthy and the poor; us, and them.
“Whenever you draw a line, Jesus is on the other side.” A friend of mine shared that line with me last week, and it’s really stuck with me. And I think there’s truth to it: When Christ was with us as Jesus of Nazareth, he constantly challenged people to consider what it was like on “the other side” of their lines. When people questioned Jesus for eating with sinners, he replied that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but the sick do” (Luke 5:31). While others saw the sinners as dangerous company to avoid, Jesus saw them as people in need of help. When his disciples tried to keep children away, afraid that they would be wasting their master’s time, Jesus welcomed the children into his arms and told everyone how valuable they were (Mark 10:13-16). Jesus shared wisdom with Samaritan women and healed Roman servants (John 4 and Matt. 8:5-13). Jesus even shook the lines by which we judge who is great and worthy of our reverence: Jesus the Lord – the King, the Son of God — did not die gloriously in battle, or slip away with the dignity of an old king on his grand deathbed, but he was executed in shame, on a cross, between two criminals – maybe like a man put to death at Nashville’s Riverbend prison. Jesus most surely calls us to peer over the lines we draw and see the world differently – to try and look at our world more like God looks at our world.
Today is the first Sunday in Christmas: unto us a child is born. And that child “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” How is God revealing your inner thoughts today? Where is God shaking the boundaries of your world? Whose experience do you need to try and understand?
May we always be among those who seek to glimpse Jesus on the other side of our lines. Amen.
*Information and Kalm quote are from Raboteau, Albert J., A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), Chapter 1.