With the Grain of the Universe

by Jason Micheli

Length: 28:07

Galatians 4.21-31  (click to see Scripture text)

August 29, 2021

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Clarence Jordan was a farmer, Southern Baptist minister, and Greek New Testament scholar, whose colloquial paraphrases of scripture inspired the production of the musical The Cotton Patch Gospel. Two decades before the climax of the Civil Rights Movement, in southwest Georgia, Clarence Jordan founded the Koinonia Farm, an interracial Christian farming community. κοινωνία is the word the Apostle Paul chooses to describe both the mystery of the sacrament and the mystical body of believers who live according the new age wrought by Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Clarence Jordan eschewed the political marches and protest demonstrations of the era, believing instead that the most effective means to make a difference in society was to bear witness to the difference Christ had made in the world. That is, by living, in community, the radically different life made possible by God raising Jesus from the dead. Hewing to the model of the church laid out in the New Testament, therefore, the Koinonia Farm committed to embodying amongst themselves equality of all persons, rejection of violence, stewardship of the land, and common ownership of all money and material possessions. For the first few years, the Christians at Koinonia Farm amounted to little more than a curiosity to their neighbors in Sumter County, Georgia. 

As the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest, however, the white residents of Americus, Georgia increasingly viewed the Koinonia Farm with suspicion and, later, as a threat. By the early 1960’s, segregationists— so-called Christians— targeted Koinonia with economic boycotts, violence and vandalism, and, eventually, bombings. One winter during the early 1960’s the local heating oil company began boycotting the Koinonia Farm. 

Worried the residents of the farm would freeze to death, Clarence Jordan approached his brother Robert, a big-shot attorney in Atlanta, to represent the Christian community in suing the company. Robert Jordan would later become a state senator and State Supreme Court Justice. 

As the theologian James McClendon recounts in his book, Biography as Theology, Robert Jordan responded to his brother’s request by saying, “Clarence, I can’t do that. Everyone knows you’re a n@#$$%^ lover. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point,” Robert explained. 

His brother was unimpressed. 

“Could that point, Bob, by any chance be— the cross?”

“That’s right,” Robert answered, “I follow Jesus to the cross but not on the cross. I’m not about to get myself crucified.” 

“Well, then,” Clarence challenged his brother, “I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus perhaps, but you’re not his disciple. I think you ought to go back to the church where you belong and let them know you’re not really a follower of Jesus you’re an admirer.”

“Well now,” Robert replied, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t even have a church, would we?” 

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, “Do you have— is what you have— a church?””

Do you have a church?

Or do you have a club?

Are you a church?

Or are you the Jesus Admiration Society?

Are you followers of Christ?

Or are you the Jesus Memorial Society?

———————-

Paul has spilled so much ink writing to the Galatians about forgiveness of sins and freedom from the law that the notion of following Christ might seem to us like a non sequitur. 

Indeed what the Apostle Paul says about justification in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, particularly in the Letter to the Galatians, has been so consequential for the Protestant message it’s easy to fail to attend to what Paul goes on to write in the remainder of his epistle. 

Our text today is the pivot in Paul’s argument— the point at which the Apostle transitions from the forgiveness that is ours through faith to the end for which that forgiveness is graciously given; namely, the freedom to live as a pilgrim people. 

It follows then that the Gospel is about more than the forgiveness of sins. 

Rather, the forgiveness of sins is the necessary condition for the freedom to live into the salvation made possible by the fact the crucified Christ is the Living Lord, for so long as you are alienated from God and neighbor by your sin, you are unavailable to be God’s resident aliens in the world. 

The Gospel is about more than the forgiveness of sins. 

The Gospel is about our being made citizens of a time and space that is in tension with all other forms of citizenship. 

Faith alone— sola fides— justifies, Paul has told us in his letter.  

Our  justification, our enough-ness before God, is nothing else than believing God when God makes a promise. 

Faith, Paul has insisted, the unwavering and steadfast reliance on God’s promise is what makes us righteous— not the works of the Law. 

After all, Paul has already pointed out to the Galatians that Abraham believed God hundreds of years before God even gave the Law. 

And as with Abraham so it is with us. 

Our faith in the promise of God is reckoned to us as righteousness. 

The doctrine of justification by faith is at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and thus, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, it should at the heart of our Protestant hearts. 

The only problem with the doctrine of justification so understood, however, is that the promise God makes does not stop with— and therefore it is not reducible to— the promise, “Your sins are forgiven.”

We’re accustomed to asking the question, “Why was Jesus crucified?” 

Less often do we attend to the question, “Why was Paul executed?” 

To ask why Rome executed Paul for preaching the Gospel is to posit a correlative question, “Why were the first Christians willing to die for the Gospel?” 

The forgiveness of sins does not seem to be a message about which Caesar would find it necessary to make martyrs. 

No doubt you think it’s good news that in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven, but the empire seems unlikely to notice much less care. 

To account for the fact of Paul’s own death, to account for the fact that so many of the first Christians gave their own lives for the sake of the Gospel, we can only conclude that the Gospel is about more than forgiveness and that when Paul speaks of our “citizenship in heaven” it’s more than a metaphor. 

The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of sins. 

The forgiveness of sins is not an end in itself. 

The forgiveness of sins is instrumental. 

The forgiveness of sins sets you free to be his peculiar people in the world. 

The formation of such a people, after all, is precisely the promise God makes to Abraham.  

It’s true, as Paul points out, Abraham believed God and God reckoned his faith to him as righteousness; however, who Abraham believed is inextricable from what Abraham believed. Paul simply assumes you know the content of the promise God promises to Abraham. 

Abraham believed God’s promise that through Abraham God would bring into being— create from the nothingness of Sarah’s barren womb— a particular people through whom God would heal his sin-scarred world. 

Or, to render it according to Paul’s allegory today:

Abraham believed God when God promised that through Abraham God would call into existence a people who would live in the world but not of the world, a people who would live on earth as it is in heaven— in the Jerusalem below but in allegiance to the Jerusalem that is above— a people who would have no Caesar but the King whose throne is a cross, a people who, by so doing, might bear witness to the truth that those who carry crosses, and not those who build them, are working with the grain of the universe.  

———————-

When Robert Jordan resisted his brother’s plea for him to represent the Koinonia Farm in court, Clarence Jordan pointed out that his brother wasn’t the only one who risked suffering great cost. 

“We might lose everything too, Bob,’ Clarence replied. 

“It’s different for you,” his brother said. 

“Why is it different?” Clarence pressed, undeterred, “ I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I seem to recall that when we came forward for baptism the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as Lord?” And I said, “Yes.” What did you say, Bob?””

The distinction drawn by Clarence Jordan between admirer and follower is a contrast in citizenship. 

In order to succeed as a citizen of America, particularly the America of the Jim Crow South, Robert Jordan balked at living into what his brother Clarence deemed a more determinative citizenship— namely, his citizenship in heaven. 

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s,” is our usual solution to this quandary. 

The trouble is Caesar wants it all. 

Moreover, what belongs to God? 

Everything.  

Jesus doesn’t want your heart. 

He says so to Nicodemus— he’s after the whole world. 

The political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom you may recall from your high school American History class and whose 1762 book The Social Contract informed the Founding Fathers, warned that the universal nature of the Church posed the greatest threat to the legitimacy of the nation-state precisely because the head of the Church, Jesus Christ, is every bit as imperial as the state in his claims over us. 

Rousseau went so far in his admonition about the dangers of the Church as to call the term “Christian citizen” an oxymoron. 

Rousseau, who was decidedly not a Christian, saw a tension in Christianity that many Christians no longer see. 

That Rousseau was a decisive influence on the Founding Fathers should leave us to wonder just who the separation of Church and State is meant to protect, and it should leave little wonder that only in America will you hear Christians utter a self-negating statement like, “I believe Jesus Christ is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion.” 

So long as our faith is relegated to a private affection of the heart, to a matter of personal choice and subjective belief, then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. 

And that’s no small problem, for as Paul argues in our text today, God has invaded our world in Jesus Christ to set us free to live as the offspring of Sarah not Hagar, to live, Paul writes, as children of the Jerusalem that is above.

To live, that is, as citizens of heaven. 

In order to appreciate how the churches in Galatia would have heard our text today about living in allegiance to the City of God, I think it important to understand what they would have seen everyday in the cities of Galatia. 

The historian Tom Holland, in his recent book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, writes, “To visit the cities of Galatia was to be reminded of the scale of Augustus Caesar’s achievements.” 

At the center of the triple-arched gateway into Galatia stood a massive statue of Augustus on horseback. 

The statue was labeled, Divii Filius. 

The Son of God. 

Five years after Augustus Caesar died it was decreed that a bronzed inscription of Augustus’s career be mounted on buildings and monuments all over Galatia. 

Augustus himself had written the inscription. 

He called it the Euangelion. 

From which we get the word evangelical. 

The Good News. 

This Gospel read as follows: “He brings war to an end; he orders peace; by manifesting himself, he surpasses the hopes of all who were looking for good news.” 

This Gospel was inscribed on nearly everything all over the cities of Galatia just as “Caesar Augustus, Son of God” was etched into every Roman coin in every Galatian pocket. 

Paul’s Gospel was bound to raise eyebrows, Holland observes, for the Son of God did not, neither the one who lived in Rome nor the one who had died in Jerusalem, share sovereignty. 

“To abandon the cult of the Caesars,” Holland writes, “was therefore not merely to court danger, but to risk the very stitching that held together the patchwork society of Galatia’s cities…for to repudiate the confession “Caesar is Lord” was to repudiate as well the rhythms of civic life. It was to imperil relations with family and friends.” It was to show disrespect to the empire and all who served it and sacrificed for it. It was to live at home as though in exile, as a pilgrim people no longer at ease in the very land in which they lived.” 

You have to understand, Holland points out, so extreme was the sense of dislocation experienced by converts to Paul’s Gospel, that some of them were desperate for an old, familiar way of belonging in the world; so much so, grown men countenanced circumcision. 

The false teacher’s message in Galatia, adding the Law back onto the Gospel, was appealing exactly to the extent it offered Christians a way to go on living as though there had not been “a convulsive upheaval in the affairs of heaven and earth.” 

The appeal of the false teachers’s Glawpsel message—it wasn’t simply about trying to earn God’s redemption; it was about trying to remain within the familiar parameters of the old age. 

In other words— think about it— it’s easier to get by in the empire by going under the moil’s knife than by refusing to take up the sword. 

It’s easier to get by in the kingdoms of this world by keeping kosher than by pledging in allegiance to Christ the King. 

———————-

A dozen years ago in my previous congregation, a worshipper about my age came up to me in the fellowship hall after the early service. 

He shook my hand and said, “We just wanted you to know this will be our last Sunday here.”

Great, I thought, what did I do this time to offend people. 

“Last Sunday? But why?”

“We’re moving— back to Michigan. I quit my job. I’m going to back and teach at my university instead.”

Mark and his wife, veterans of Young Life and Intervarsity, had volunteered in our youth program, and so I knew both of them a little. 

She was a musician and Mark, I knew, was a nuclear physicist, an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist with a well paid job with a defense contractor. 

“Why’d you quit your job?” I asked. 

And he gestured to me with his coffee cup like I was complicit in some way. 

“Ever since I finished my post-graduate studies,” he said, “I’ve been making bombs. I concluded one Sunday, about six months ago, that I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing and still call myself a follower of Christ. Actually, you were the preacher that day.”

And I took a step back from him and stammered a little. 

Honestly, I felt…embarrassed…I mean, I’m a United Methodist pastor. We don’t often encounter people who take Jesus so seriously. 

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not saying you’re responsible. I don’t even remember your sermon that Sunday.”

“Well, how’d you make a decision like that?” 

He looked like he’d already thought about it and knew the answer.

“It feels like the decision was sort of made for me.”

“Your wife?” 

“No, it was in worship,” he said, “I was standing there and saying the creed like we do every single Sunday. But that Sunday I said the line, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord…” and all of sudden it just sort of struck me that that’s like a pledge of allegiance to Jesus. And, before we’d even finished the creed, I thought to myself, “Well, how can I pledge allegiance to him here on Sunday and then on Monday morning…”

His voice trailed off, and I didn’t need him to complete his sentence. 

Then he started a new one. 

“I’ve recited the creed probably every Sunday for my whole life. Maybe it’s crazy, but it feels like God was using it that whole time to bring me to now.”

“Sounds like it was a pretty easy decision for you then,” I said. 

He shook his head. 

“Easy? No, it’s not been easy at all,” he said. “My Dad said I’d become a religious zealot and that he was ashamed of me for making my decision. My brother accused me of betraying my country and won’t talk to me.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, secretly glad to steer our conversation towards less threatening, pastoral territory. 

“Sorry?” he said, like he was genuinely surprised by response. “Why are you sorry? Who ever said following Jesus was supposed to be easy?” 

———————-

In 1940, after the fall of France, Jewish refugees began arriving by the hundreds in to the Protestant village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. 

Many of the refugees were children. 

Without so much as a discussion or debate, the village pastor, Andre Trocme,  and his parishioners began taking the refugees  into their homes and barns and, whenever German soldiers showed up, hiding them up in the mountains. 

Still more refugees arrived as word among the Jews spread that this was a community whose only Fuhrer was Jesus Christ. 

Here’s the thing—

The villagers of Le Chambon never decided that their home would become a haven for refugees. 

They never held a vote. 

They never convened a city council or scheduled a church meeting. 

Neither the pastor nor anyone else in the community of Christians suggested that this was their cross to bear. 

In the process of following Jesus Christ, they simply now found themselves with refugees in their homes.

Once, in February 1943, Nazi police arrived to arrest the pastor and some of his parishioners. 

The police officers sat in a villager’s living room waiting for the would-be prisoners to go fetch their suitcases. 

The woman in whose house they waited invited the policemen to join her at her dinner table— despite the fact that Jews were hiding upstairs in her bedroom. 

When asked how she could be so hospitable to enemies who were there to take her husband away, perhaps to his death, the woman, Magda, replied: 

“It was dinner time…the food was ready…how could I not invite them to eat with me? Don’t use such foolish words as “forgiving” and “good” with me. Inviting strangers and enemies to supper is just the normal thing to do if Jesus is Lord.”

Villagers later told a biographer they did not believe their actions were heroic. In fact, they did not believe they were even ultimately responsible for their actions. 

“All this time,” one woman explained, “Christ had been forming us— hearing his Word, praying his prayer, receiving his body and blood— to be his people for this time, here in this place. What else could we do?” 

———————-

“I think you ought to go back to the church where you belong,” Clarence Jordan told his brother, Robert, “let them know you’re not really a follower of Jesus, you’re an admirer.”

Most of us are admirers of Jesus. 

Thank God, then, that being Christ’s followers is Gospel not Law. 

It’s a promise. 

“I will be your God,” the Lord promises, “And you will be my people.”

Most of us— certainly myself included— are only admirers of Jesus. 

Yet the promise today is that Christ Jesus has redeemed us to be so much more than we would be. 

And because Jesus is not dead, we should expect to be made more than we would otherwise dare. 

You see—

It’s not just our forgiveness that we must take on faith alone. 

We’ve got to take it on faith that God is using means as mundane as bread and wine— and words— to make us into a people capable of working with the grain of the universe. 

21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. 23One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia* and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. 27For it is written,
‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
than the children of the one who is married.’
28Now you,* my friends,* are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ 31So then, friends,* we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

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