by David Baer, May 21, 2017
British author Neil Gaiman is a lot of things, but he’s no slouch. He’s won the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, Newbery, and Carnegie awards for his works of fiction. His 2013 novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, won Book of the Year at the British National Book Awards. He’s one of the most imaginative authors I’ve read. Still, despite his success, Gaiman doesn’t always feel confident. This month in a post on his blog, he wrote:
Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter [sic], maybe everyone did.1
What does it take to feel as though you belong? What do you need to have in common with others to feel as though you’re part of the group? It’s amazing to think that a prominent author and an astronaut could feels as though they didn’t belong in the company of accomplished people. But I know I often find myself looking around at how I measure up. If I’m at a social gathering, I want to see how others are dressed to see if I missed the mark with my own outfit. How do decide if you fit in, if you measure up? Have you ever felt like an outsider, like you were deficient?
Last week we heard about a debate in the early church about what it means to belong. Some of the early followers of Jesus said you had to be Jewish to belong to the community of believers. If non-Jews wanted to belong, they had to become Jews first. They had to keep kosher and celebrate Jewish holidays, and the men had to be circumcised. We heard about how Peter and Paul related to the elders of the church in Jerusalem how they had experienced the Holy Spirit moving among Gentiles, people outside of the Jewish faith and nation, who had heard the good news of Jesus. And after hearing from both sides, James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church, says this comes from God, and we need to accept it.
But that clearly didn’t settle it. Paul’s opponents didn’t give up, simply because James and the apostles said it was OK to accept non-Jews into the movement. They came to Antioch, which had been a successful church that bridged the gap between Jews and Gentiles. Under their influence, Peter himself—in this letter Paul calls him by his Aramaic nickname, Cephas who used to have no problem sitting down at table with Gentile believers, drew back and separated himself. Paul’s close friend Barnabas, who had come down to Jerusalem with him to make the case for letting Gentiles into the disciple community, knuckled under as well. Paul was aghast at the damage they had caused. Before these meddlesome teachers had come, there was one unified disciple community, encompassing Jewish and Gentile believers. But they had come to Antioch and built a wall right through the center of the fellowship, with the first-class Jewish followers of Jesus on one side, and the second-class Gentile-come-latelies on the other. The goal of this effort seems to have been to pressure the Gentile believers to adopt Jewish practices. But in practice it just split the community in two. Paul calls Peter out for his hypocrisy, saying, “That’s quite a 180 you just did! You’re asking our Gentile friends to be stricter Jews than even you used to be!” But I take it from Paul’s silence that he likely lost the debate.
Now the strict Jewish Christian teachers have made inroads in the church in Galatia, a church that Paul founded, and Paul is angry. Paul calls the members of this church foolish. He says they’ve been bewitched. He says he hopes the folks who are so passionate about circumcision would take it a step further and physically emasculate themselves! (He really said this.)
Why is this so important that Paul stoops to such crude, graphic language? Why does this issue make Paul angry enough to have a public confrontation with Peter, a respected church leader who was close to Jesus himself? Why does it make a difference whether Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus can sit down and have a meal together?
For Paul, it’s about how a covenant community is formed. It’s about how it is we come to belong to God and to one another. God embraces both Jews and Gentiles in a single covenant of grace, Paul says, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.
Now, Paul uses some technical language in this passage of scripture. “Justification” isn’t a word we use too often, and sometimes when we do use the word we’re not sure what it means. I’m going to follow the suggestion of Mary Hinkle Shore, a Lutheran pastor from North Carolina, who says we can understand this passage better if, every time we read the word “justification,” we substitute the word “belonging.”2 Paul wants to know just what it is that allows us to trust that we belong, that we belong to God and to one another.
So, listen to this paraphrase of what Paul wrote: “We know that a person belongs to God and to the community, not because they observe the outward signs of Jewish tradition, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Paul reminds the Galatian believers about what his life looked like when he was enthusiastic about the law, but before he had encountered Jesus. He was a violent persecutor of the church. When Jesus came to him, he was completely transformed. Paul came to belong to God and to the community of believers through Jesus, not the traditions he had so zealously guarded in his previous life. He had a new orientation toward God, and a new community around him. In fact, it was such a complete change that Paul talks about it as dying with Christ and rising again: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
The one thing that makes us belong to God and to one another, Paul says, is Jesus Christ, who “loved me and gave himself for me.” We belong to God and to one another because, like Paul, we’ve been joined in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Human beings are good at finding things that bind us to some of our neighbors, and things that separate us from others. Last summer I was on vacation with family in Wisconsin, and we went to a Milwaukee Brewers game. Now, it was a sunny day at the start of the game, and the only hat I had was a Boston Red Sox hat. Fortunately, the Brewers were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks that day, but I did get comments from the Brewers fans—everyone was polite and curious, but it was clear to them, and to me, that I was an outsider there. Sometimes, such as with the strict Jewish Christian teachers in Antioch and Galatia, folks can be made to feel like outsiders at church. When we focus in on what people are wearing or what language they speak or where they come from and make that the basis of belonging, we miss the mark.
But sometimes it’s the folks like Paul who win out. Some years ago I was on a trip with my campus ministry group to Mexico City. We were building a home with Habitat for Humanity International. But we weren’t the only campus group there. There was another group from the U.S., somewhere in the South. When they worshiped, they sang different songs than we did. It sounded like their teaching emphasized personal holiness and conversion, while our group talked more about God’s justice and the transformation of individual lives alongside the transformation of society. But for that week none of those differences mattered, because we were all participating in the same work, and we were all there because we had a sense that this was what Jesus asked of us. When Jesus is at the center of who we understand ourselves to be, when what he did for us, the gift he gave us in laying down his life, and the pattern of life he set for us–when these things take center stage in our sense of identity as Christians and as a church, then Christ lives in us. The things that separate us—differences of culture, language, politics—don’t disappear, because they are a part of us as well. But they are not at the center, and they no longer divide us from our neighbors.
How do you know you belong to God and to the fellowship of believers? It’s not through outward signs that can be seen. It’s not your familiarity or lack of familiarity with certain prayers or hymns. It’s nothing you do, nothing you control. You belong to God, and we belong to each other, because Jesus loved each one of us enough to lay down his life for us. That’s our common identity. That’s what we hold onto as we wrestle with differences and difficult questions, as they did in the early church. Children of grace, children of the cross and empty tomb, we live together, for the one who love us and gave himself for us. Amen.
Neil Gaiman, blog post published 12 May 2017. http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/160603396711/hi-i-read-that-youve-dealt-with-with-impostor.
Mary Hinkle Shore, “Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21.” Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3043. Accessed 5/19/2017.