Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus Christ, who calls us his own. Amen.
Developmental psychologists tell us that one of the primary tasks of a person who grows through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, is the development of their own identity. New research has shown that the development of the human brain, the pre-frontal cortex that controls our decision making ability, allows us to focus attention, weigh consequences, gives impulse control and which governs spontaneous behavior, doesn’t finish developing, especially in males, until they are fully 25 years old.
I mentioned this to my Mom in a conversation once. She said “well, that explains some things.”
I would argue though that spiritually speaking, our search for identity isn’t done at age 25…or 30…or 40 or beyond. For our entire lives, we are asking “What is my purpose? Why do I exist? Relative to God, and to those around me, who am I?”
These are not new questions. Theologians and philosophers call it “The search for meaning.”
And this was the context that Paul was writing to in his letter to the Galatians. During his time, the world was changing as Christianity was beginning to take hold. These new Christians in Galatia were wondering “what does it mean to live a Christ-centered life? How do we act? What does God want from us?”
And there was conflict. The conflict centered on signs of the covenant. Remembering back to the book of Genesis, God had made this covenant with Abraham, that he would be the father of the chosen people, and that his descendants would number like the stars in the sky. And the sign of this covenant was circumcision. Jewish men would be circumcised. This would be a sign that they, as the chosen people, were living in a relationship with God.
But fast forward a few thousand years, to after Jesus’ resurrection. The expectations were changing. In Acts 13:47, God commanded the people to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and to the “ends of the earth.” In other words, God’s new promise, the new covenant is not just for the Jews, but for all people, everywhere. So now those of Jewish heritage were full of angst: “if we’re not the chosen people anymore, who are we? What’s our identity?”
And there was uncertainty: “Do these new believers in Jesus need to keep the signs of the old covenant?” The traditionalists were telling the new believers that they too would need to show the outward sign of the covenant, circumcision, if they were going to be one of God’s chosen people. But others believed that a new covenant needed new signs.
There is no question that signs are important. We know this. What we wear…how we act…these are all signs that tell others about ourselves. Police wear uniforms, school teachers and administrators wear name badges, student athletes wear letter jackets, pastors wear albs, stoles and clerical collars. And these signs mean something.
There is an ELCA Pastor’s Facebook group that I pay some attention to. To be honest, it’s mostly a place for grumpy pastors to argue about insignificant points of Lutheran theology and church practice. So I don’t pay a whole lot of attention. But recently, an ELCA pastor in Alabama, deep in the Bible belt, where Lutherans are not common nor well-known, posted about an experience he had recently had. He said that on Sunday, after worship, his wife called him and asked him to stop by Sam’s Club on the way home to pick up two things. They were almost out of diapers for the baby, and they were having friends coming over to grill for dinner, so could he pick up some beer. “Sure,” he said.
So on his way home he popped into Sam’s Club, grabbed a case of diapers and some beer and went to the cashier.
Still dressed in his pastor’s clerical collar, he put his purchases down on the counter, and the cashier gave him this funny look. The cashier pointed at the diapers and said “Well, clearly you’re not a Catholic priest,” and he pointed at the beer and said “and clearly you’re not a Baptist preacher…” And he looked quizzically and said “So what are you?”
The pastor wrote in the Facebook group that “I hadn’t gone into Sam’s Club expecting to have to explain my faith, but sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
Outward signs matter. People pay attention. The old cliché is true, that you “cannot tell a book by its cover.” We can’t make judgments about the quality of a person’s character, or their faith by what they look like. But, there are things that we can tell about a person by the signs they choose to display about themselves.
Many of you are wearing a wedding ring. There is no law or requirement that once married, you must wear a ring. Wearing a ring is a tradition. But at the same time, it is more than that. It is a sign of the covenant that you made with another person and with God, to live in a committed, blessed relationship with someone that you love. It carries deep meaning.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about identity and signs. It tells us that the covenant we live in with God is a new covenant. It is different. It is counter-cultural, and it answers 3 questions.
First, who belongs? Who is in? Who is out? Paul is writing against the barriers and the hierarchies that we erect among ourselves. During Paul’s time, sharp lines were drawn: Jews and greeks…slave and free…male and female…educated and uneducated…wealthy and poor. Paul told the people of his own time, and he tells us now, that actually, those distinctions exist only in the minds of humans, not in the mind of God. God does not separate.
The second question: how does Jesus life, death and resurrection change the role of the law? For the Jewish people, law was everything, and their understanding had always been that God’s love was conditional. That for us to be “righteous” in God’s eyes, for us to be worthy of being in relationship with God, meant that we had to follow the law completely, to the letter. But humans are trapped by sin, and couldn’t fulfill the law ourselves. It is an unattainable goal, a ladder too tall for us to climb. But Paul tells us in Galatians 3:23 that “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”
The law had become the identity of the Jewish people. It defined who they were. The Jewish people literally called themselves the “People of the Torah.” That is, the people of the law.
If we were honest, we’d need to admit that though not Jewish, sometimes we do the same kind of thing. Some of us are so wound up about rules and expectations that it can almost become oppressive. Or it maybe you experience a well of guilt over things from your past. Some of you are trapped by anger, and you feel like it’s eating away at your spirit. Some of you are dependent on someone or something. Or maybe you have a need to excel, to perform, to exceed high expectations at work, or at school. These things can make us feel trapped. They become a cycle we cannot break, and they can become our very identity.
We all have our issues where we feel trapped, and don’t know how to get out of by ourselves. While I don’t know what your issues are, I do know that Paul would tell you that it is not the law that makes you who you are; nor guilt, or anger, or depression, or dependency, or expectations that define you. These things are issues that you need to walk through, to work on, quite possibly with help because it’s almost impossible to do alone. But these things are not your identity. Let me say this again, these things do not define you.
Paul is telling you that through Christ it is your faith that makes you who you are. And that faith is a gift from God. That is our identity. It is in the water of baptism when we receive the promises, and we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever. That is our identity. Or as Pastor Peter reminded us a couple of weeks ago, “I am a child of God, loved beyond measure.” Remember? Let’s do that together again…”I am a child of God, loved beyond measure.”
The third question Paul answers in our Galatians text is “What is the sign of this new covenant? How do people know?”
In the late 1930’s, the nation of Norway worked hard to maintain its neutrality, and to avoid being drawn into a pending war. But its strategic value made that almost impossible. And in April of 1940, the King of Norway and the legitimate government fled to London, to operate in exile, and the Nazis moved in, established a puppet government and occupied Norway until 1945.
During those 5 years, the German occupation became more and more oppressive. And the Nazis began rounding up those of Jewish heritage. A resistance movement grew, and at first, the Norwegians began wearing red hats, and red vests as a symbol of protest. However, this wound up being a bit too blatant. So as an alternative, the Norwegians, being a subtle people, began wearing paper clips, which were a Norwegian invention, clipped to their ties, and their lapels, as a silent protest, and a sign of solidarity with each other, and with the Jewish people.
And in the process, they thoroughly annoyed the Nazis. After all, what were the Nazis going to do…arrest people? For a paper clip? Tens of thousands of Norwegians wore paper clips every day. It became a powerful sign. It was a mark. It was a reminder of their identity.
We are people of the new covenant, and our identity is our faith in Christ. We are children of God, loved beyond measure. We still have the law, which guides and protects us. But it does not define us. And yes, there is a new sign for us to wear. It is the sign of our faith. It is the sign of the promise.
Paul writes: “you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The outward sign of this new relationship is quite simply our whole lives. We don’t wear a sign, we are a sign. It is how we live. It is how we love. It is how we treat people. It is how we care and are cared for. The old camp and Sunday school song “They will know we are Christians by our love” holds true. Faith and love; this is our sign.
Christ’s love shows through us like light through a magnifying glass. Because of Jesus, those around us cannot help but know that there is something different about us. Because of Jesus, everybody matters. Our identity is in him, and the things that separate us fall away. Jew or Greek; slave or free; African American or white; Asian or Latino; married or single; Mom or Dad; gay or straight; democrat or republican; male or female, everybody. We are all children of God. We are guided by the law, but we are subject to the love of God.
And your life…your whole life…is an outward sign of your relationship with God, and of God’s great love for all.
Child of God, remember who you are. Remember that you are God’s sign to the world, and remember that God shows through you.