(Gal.3, 23-29; Luke 8, 26-39
On Tuesday last week, I took a primary school assembly, and these were my visual aids: Stan, the banana and Olly the orange. I used them to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.
Before I began the story telling, I spoke about how people divide themselves into groups that hate each other, often over silly things, like which school you go to, or what football team you support; and I was sad to see that when I mentioned football teams, some of the older children were already making gestures and mouthing the names of their favourite teams. Before they were in their teens, they were dividing into rival camps, of the kind that led to one group of football fans beating a member of another group into a coma this last week.
But when I got to the point in the story where Stan, having been beaten up by other bananas, and ignored by all the important bananas who passed by, was approached by Olly, and Olly was standing there wondering aloud whether he should risk helping a member of the banana group who hated oranges, a child from Reception called out “Of course he should help!”
Children don’t naturally dislike and fear people who are different from them. They have to be taught to do it by grown-ups.
The message of the assembly was that we are all the beloved children of God, and the differences between us have no meaning in God’s eyes. It is a message which adults find it hard to hear, and even harder to put into action, even if they are ‘baptized into Christ’. Every human group is inclined to divide their fellow human beings into ‘them’ and ‘us’, with all the dreadful consequences of that.
But, in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. We are all one, we are all children of God.
In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verses 26-28, we hear St Paul at his best, interpreting the message of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
“26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
He is saying “in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”.
Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were the major divisions in Paul’s society. Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and all the disciples were Jewish, like Jesus. They would have been taught as they grew up that the Gentiles, non-Jews, were wicked and unclean, outside God’s love, and no Jew should have anything to do with them. But Jesus overturned that teaching, and as we heard in today’s Gospel, went into Gentile territory and offered healing and salvation to suffering Gentiles, and even commissioned them to spread the good news. It took the disciples time to follow suit, as we see in the Epistles and Acts, but eventually Jews and Gentiles were accepted into the Church on equal terms.
Slaves, usually captives from foreign wars, or children, sold by their families to pay off debts, had no rights, could be bought and sold and mistreated at the whim of their owners. They were not considered to be people. But Jesus healed slaves, Paul urged they be treated humanely, and slaves became full members of the early Church.
Women (like children) had no more rights than slaves, were the property of a man – either their father or their husband – could be mistreated, sold, and could not give evidence in a court of law. Yet, Jesus treated them with courtesy, healed them, and sent them to share the gospel, and never ordered them to be silent; and the evidence from Acts and the Epistles is that they were honoured leaders of congregations, preachers and evangelists in the Early Church.
In Christ, there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’.
In his commentary on the Gospel story that we heard today, Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, observed that the Gospel writers often used demon possession to speak of the disordered powers that affect both people and communities. In this story the demons, which called themselves ‘Legion’ would be understood as standing for the evil influences of the Roman occupation on individuals and communities. John quotes the theologian Walter Wink, who says that Paul believed all earthly powers are created and set in place by God with a good purpose, but almost inevitably, they turn from their God-willed function and become demonic, self-serving, and worshipping the idols of wealth and war, power and oppression, and that these systems become self-perpetuating.
One of the ways in which the powers maintain their systems of domination, is by creating boundaries, and rigidly classifying who is in and who is out, who can be counted as ‘us’ and who is to be treated as ‘them’. The tragedy of the Christian Church, and of Christendom, the societies that looked to Christianity for guidance, is that they adopted those strategies too.
In the early Church, Jews and Gentiles were equal, but as the Church became more Gentile, the Jews became targeted as an ‘out group.’ They were blamed for the death of Christ, there were numerous pogroms and expulsions, and even the horror of the Holocaust didn’t open the eyes of Western society to the anti-Semitism in its midst. When I came to live here I was shocked to learn that Jews were not allowed to be members of our most prestigious local golf club, because to me Jews were not a threatening minority, they were people with faces and names, my friends at school and my husband’s partners at work.
In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’
It took nearly eighteen centuries for the Church and Western society to realise that slavery was incompatible with the Christian faith. But the fear of people of colour lingered on into the late 20th century, and even now we tolerate slavery in parts of the world with which we trade, and some fear people whose skin colour is different from ours, and whose ancestors our ancestors wronged.
But, in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’
It took longer for the male-dominated power systems of society and church to accept that discrimination against women was not the Christian way. Only in the later part of the 20th century was equality reached to some extent in society, and the Church is still struggling. The Church of England reached a sort of qualified equality when women were allowed to become bishops about 18 months ago, but we still can’t say honestly in the church with regard to gender, ‘In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’’.
And the principalities and powers of Church and society have found new divisions to shore up their power, new categories of ‘them’ onto whom we are encouraged to direct our fear and anger, in order to distract ourselves from our own inadequacies and failures. We have been so painfully reminded of the demonic consequences of that in the last weeks and days.
One group which often carries the burden of being the ‘out group’ and the nameless threat in political discourse today is that of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They are talked of as a swarm or a horde as if they were insects or ravening animals. The realities of their lives – the terror and threats from which they are escaping – are minimised and some are dismissed as ‘economic migrants’. I can’t think of them in that way. The refugees I knew came from another generation, escaping the Holocaust, but they have names – A. and G. and H. The immigrants I know in this generation also have names – my much loved daughters in law, B. and K. the people who keep our local shops, and the care assistants in the residential homes I visit.
Today, in our collections of goods, food and money for World Refugee Day, we have a chance to speak up against the categorisation of refugees and immigrants as ‘them’; to remember, as Ban Ki-moon said “Refugees are people like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again. Let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance, and open our hearts to refugees everywhere”.
Let us both say and live “In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”, no refugee or native citizen.
Another ‘out group’ for society and the Church is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. There has been progress towards equal rites for LGBTI people in society, but also recently an increasingly nasty backlash. The Anglican Communion at the moment is deeply divided over the issue, and LGBTI Anglicans feel marginalised and excluded. Hate speech against gays and categorising them as sinful leads to things like the horrific homophobic attack which took place last Saturday evening at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed and 53 injured, simply because they were in club for LGBTI people.
People tend to talk about LGBTI people as ‘the gay mafia’ as if they were a large threatening mass. But I can’t think of them that way. The gay people I know, loving, faithful couples, have names: A. and D., D. and R., EJ. and S., R. and S., L. and A., G. and S.; so now do the people killed in Orlando; and I know them all to be beloved children of God.
In Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no gay or straight.
In some of the debate about the EU referendum, there has been a tendency to create another ‘out-group’, ‘Europe’ which is blamed for all the problems that Britain is encountering as a nation at the moment. This ‘Europe’ is conceived as a nameless and faceless unelected bureaucracy, which is out to take our money or our fish, and undermine our NHS or our way of life. But for me, ‘Europe’ is not nameless or faceless. Europe is I., the pen-friend I have had since my teenage years; S. and V.and K., the husband and children of one of my cousins; S., about to marry my nephew; the people I have stayed with and met on many holidays in Europe over the years. Conversation that demonises Europe seems to me to be toxic, and that poisonous talk contributed, I am sure, to the senseless and horrific murder of the MP Jo Cox on Thursday, by someone who is said to have shouted ‘Britain First’ as he shot and stabbed her. She was a person who spent her life working to help the poor, refugees, women, the dispossessed, the excluded, all those often categorised as ‘them’.
But in Christ, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no European and British.
Jesus stepped bravely into the territory of the Gentile, the madman, the demon possessed and brought healing and peace. Can we who claim to follow him do the same?
Can we give up the hate speech against those who are different from us, and speak up against those who use it, whoever and wherever they are?
Can we oppose everything that categorises and demonises people and treats them as threatening groups without names and faces?
Can we say, with Paul, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, refugee or citizen, gay or straight, European or Briton.
In Christ there is no ‘them’ or us’ for all of us are one in Christ Jesus?”
And can we, please, as people baptized into Christ, live it?