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Liberating letters (May 22)

There was one member of my regular Sunday morning class who consistently protested any lesson that mentioned circumcision. He found it exclusionary, offensive and most of all embarrassing.

Uniform Lesson for May 22, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Galatians 5:1-15

There was one member of my regular Sunday morning class who consistently protested any lesson that mentioned circumcision. He found it exclusionary, offensive and most of all embarrassing. “Can’t we find something else to talk about over coffee than this?” he’d shout out from the back of the class. Most of the rest of the class would nod in agreement.

It’s hard to get away from circumcision in either testament of the Bible. It’s a sign of the covenant in the Hebrew Scriptures and a matter of contention in the early church. For Paul, it’s a make-or-break issue, especially in his letter the Galatians. So deeply does Paul feel about this matter that it leads to one of the most exclusionary, offensive, and embarrassing outcries in all of Scripture when he exclaims: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (v. 12). Oh, boy; we may need something stronger than coffee for this week’s lesson. Yet, this topic, if rightly understood, may provide a path toward true liberation for all.

A kindly cut

We human beings have a real gift for making bad news out of good news. Someone gives us a gift, and we use it to feel bad about ourselves. We question why we didn’t get them a gift or we compare our gifts with others and get jealous. As we learned last week, God came to Abraham with a promise, a covenant. All Abraham had to do was to have faith and trust in that promise, and he would find the way toward life. The mark of circumcision was meant to be a tangible sign of that covenant just like the laws regarding other matters of food, clothing and sex (Genesis 17). All day long in God’s people’s most private and public moments they experienced themselves as marked or cut by a covenant of promise that gave them life as God’s chosen people. They didn’t cut to get a gift; they cut to remember gifts already given.

In Paul’s time, the gift of Christ Jesus and his fulfillment of the promises given by God were threatened by a perversion of the law of circumcision, a gift meant to be kind. Now, some members of the congregation wanted this gift to become a requirement for entry, a means of getting something instead of a means of acknowledging a gift already received.

Paul would have none of this, not because circumcision was the most important of the laws but because all of the other laws would lose their covenantal purpose if circumcision was seen as a requirement. That’s why Paul insists that anyone who let himself be circumcised under this understanding of the law is also obliged to obey the rest of the law, all 613 requirements (v. 3). In effect, this was a path that led straight back to bondage under the law, the very bondage from which Jesus came to set us free. It was becoming the “unkindest” cut of all.

Cut off from Christ

I know that all this cutting language is making matters worse. Blame Paul. Surely his use of cutting and castrating language is not accidental. He is determined to drive his point home. If circumcision is allowed to become a mandatory law for entry into Christ’s fellowship, then those who allow this practice will have no benefit from Jesus’ saving work (v. 2).
They will be cut off from Christ completely. They will have fallen away from grace and submitted again to a yoke of slavery (vv. 1-4). These dire consequences require a dire response. Maybe some exclusionary, offensive and embarrassing talk is necessary, with or without coffee!

Cut off from one another

But there’s still another consequence of turning something good into something bad. Not only does it cut us off from Christ but it threatens to cut us off from one another. All the wrangling over this one part of the law causes us to lose sight of the most important law of them all, quoted in verse 14 and found throughout the Bible: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Yes, there are things more exclusionary, offensive, and embarrassing than circumcision, and those are cuts and tears and fissures in the body that Christ came to repair. Finally, Paul argues that because of Christ Jesus, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (v. 6). Lack of love is what cuts the very heart of God. As an earlier prophet observed, there is “no balm in Gilead” for a wound such as this (Jeremiah 8:22).

For discussion:

Why aren’t we as embarrassed by church schism as we are by covenantal circumcision?

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