Love Above the Law
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Galatians 3:23-29
The Apostle Paul spent a lot of time in prison. From Acts to Timothy, all through our Christian Testament he was either behind bars or under house arrest for quite a bit of his ministry. I think that’s why we have so many letters from him. When you’re on lockdown, writing is the only way to keep your ministry going.
The Romans in charge clearly weren’t big fans of Paul and his small but growing band of Christ-followers. And why? Because he wrote things like this: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In the Roman Empire, these were fighting words. The Romans of Paul’s time held up Greek culture as an ideal, as elite. (Side note: the Romans still brutally conquered the Greeks, but the Romans gave them more independence than other conquered folks and admired and adopted much of their culture.) Jews, on the other hand, were an inferior people who were oppressed to various degrees. Slaves were generally culled from foreign lands, particularly from populations that the Roman army had defeated. Legally, they had no personhood, though their labor drove the Roman economy. And women during this time were essentially owned by either their father or their husband.
Paul is taking on the power structures of his time. But here’s the interesting thing: Paul actually wasn’t that interested in taking on the power structures. We all know this. “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour,” he writes to Timothy. And then there’s the whole “women should not speak in church” thing. Paul was a man of his time, a Roman citizen inculcated with the same cultural blinders as anyone else. What he said about the obedience of wives and slaves wouldn’t have caused anyone to bat an eye.
Paul had his shortcomings. He had his limitations. But at the end of the day, every single day, in every single letter he wrote, Paul longed for everyone, no matter who they were, to experience the joy and liberation of following Christ. Above all other things, he longed for for us all to be one in Christ. He was adamant about it.
What Paul possessed in conviction, he lacked, I think, in vision. He lacked the belief that God’s kingdom could be made manifest in this life, in this world. That we could be one in Christ now, no matter who we are. That we don’t have to wait for some second coming of Christ to realize it.
So he wasn’t interested in politics. But even so, his ministry was inherently political—if it wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been in prison so much of the time. It just so happened that his longing for people to experience the joy and liberation that he experienced in his own faith often put him in opposition to the powers of the world.
There is no longer documented or undocumented, there is no longer citizen or immigrant, there is no longer deserving or not deserving. For all of you are one in Jesus Christ.
Last week, the authorities in our country promised an enormous effort to arrest and deport millions of undocumented immigrants (the plan was put on hold at the last minute). This included more than 2,000 families. Many of these people have been in this country for a long time. They work at Home Depot, they harvest our fruits and vegetables, they care for our elderly and disabled. Their children go to school with our children and our grandchildren.
And why is this happening? Because our country has created a specific narrative of who belongs and who doesn’t belong. Of whose lives we should value and whose we shouldn’t. Of who deserves to enjoy the abundance of our land and who doesn’t. Our laws are constructed around this narrative.
Paul also writes “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.” Now let’s be real, I have a lot of problems with this as a statement of Jewish faith versus Christian faith—of the Jewish law now being surpassed by Christian belief. As far as I’m concerned, Christian faith branched out of the same trunk as Judaism, and Judaism kept growing in its own right, and we’re each living the faith that makes us come alive. One does not supersede the other.
But let’s read that a different way. Let’s read it through the lens of the way Paul lived—the way Jesus lived. When laws grew to imprison their faith, they broke them. Not because that’s what they were trying to do. It’s just that their faith called them beyond the law to love. To grace. To God’s kingdom.
When Jesus healed on the Sabbath and invited scandalous women to his table, he wasn’t trying to anger the authorities. He was living his faith. Nonetheless, the authorities didn’t like it.
When Paul preached that there was a belonging in Christ that was greater than one’s citizenship in the Roman Empire, he wasn’t trying to anger the authorities. After all, he was a Roman citizen himself. He was just living his faith. And the authorities didn’t like it.
What happens when our faith calls us beyond the law to Christ’s love?
This is a scary thought. We were brought up to believe that the laws exist to protect us. To provide structure for a civil society. And for the most part they do. But 200 years ago, the law said it was okay for one human to own another human. 100 years ago, the law said that women couldn’t vote. 75 years ago, the law allowed for demanding that black people sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains. Ten years ago, the law said that same-sex couples couldn’t be married.
And now, the law allows for the forcible separation of families because of their immigration status. It allows for Customs and Border Patrol to imprison people in a place they call the “Dog Pound,” which is comprised of cages, outside and on dirt, with no protection from the elements. From there, migrants are moved into a facility called “The Freezer.” The Freezer is kept at 55 degrees. It has either dirt or cement floors. There are no beds. Critically ill people, disabled people, children, babies—fellow human beings—are forced to stay in this place for days or sometimes over a week, often with only a mylar blanket to stay warm.
I’m not trying to be political. Immigration policy is hard and complicated and worthy of thoughtful conversation. What I’m talking about is loving our neighbor. Demanding that human beings are treated with love and respect and dignity, no matter where they came from, no matter who they are, is not political. It’s what our faith calls us to. For all of us are one in Christ.
We are called to live as if the Kingdom of God has come. As if love wins. As if grace is our foundation. As if we see Christ in every single person, documented or undocumented, citizen or immigrant, deserving or not deserving.
What will we do? How will we stand for Christ’s love right now?