Listen to the sermon here.
How many of you went to see the film adaptation of Les Miserables that came out last year?
As a former teenage girl, I had been extremely familiar with Eponine’s plot—the poor rejected girl who has to suffer through watching the love of her life choose a soprano. Like many of you former and current teenage girls, I had sung “On My Own” in the shower about 500 times over the course of my life. Every time some cute boy I had a crush on chose another girl, out would come my double cassette recording of the London production.
So what a shock to watch the film adaptation as an adult and realize that poor Eponine is not the heart of the story at all! The real meat of the story is not Eponine’s broken heart, Marius and Cosette’s love story, or even Fantine’s extremely dramatic, extremely tuberculer death. The heart of Les Miserables is the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert.
For the two of you who are not familiar with the plot: Valjean in his youth stole some bread, was locked up for 19 years, released, stole some candlesticks, was forgiven by a bishop, which gave him faith and an inner drive to be a good man. He changed his identity and became the mayor of a town committed to serving those around him. Javert, on the other hand, was an upstanding police officer, absolutely committed to justice, who had it in for Valjean and relished the idea of re-arresting him. There are also revolutionaries and barricades and shifty innkeepers and an orphan girl, but you’ll have to see it to get those stories!
Javert does not care that Valjean has changed his life and is a contributing member of society. He can only see the former thief, former prisoner in front of him. They battle throughout the musical. At one point Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but does not. Javert is so distressed that Valjean has offered him this grace, that he ends up throwing himself off a bridge into the Seine. The heart of Les Miserables is a battle between grace and the law.
I don’t know whether God does screenings of movies in heaven, but if he does host a showing of Les Mis, I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul is in the front row with a bucket of popcorn, humming under his breath.
Paul spent a lot of time persuading people that grace was the new order after Jesus’ resurrection. For the last six weeks or so, our lectionary has led us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
To sum up: Paul is incredibly irritated with the Galatians. He skips his customary opening where he spends a paragraph thanking the community for how great it is and just dives in telling them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” Paul has visited the Galatians and taught them personally all about the grace that Jesus has given them.
Not long after Paul and his friends left Galatia, another group came in and told them that grace was fine, but the Galatians were still going to need to be circumcised if they wanted to be Christians.
Paul then spends five chapters outlining why this is a terrible idea. Namely that the whole point of Christ’s resurrection was to create a new way for human beings to be reconciled to God, so that human beings no longer had to follow the law perfectly.
Don’t worry, lest things get too crazy, Paul explains that without the law we don’t just go around doing whatever we want to do, but that we now live in tension between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit will give us the power to resist all the same yucky human behaviors from which the Law was designed to protect us. Instead of walking around stewing in anger, factions, sorcery and drunkness, the Spirit will transform us into people marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. (Not as exciting, I know. But in the long run, much better for us!)
So, after five chapters of going on and on about circumcision and what a bad idea it is and how unfaithful the Galatians are being by perpetuating circumcision among new believers, you would think that Paul would end with a really strong finish. After all, he is defending grace, the core of Christian theology!
Instead Paul writes this:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
In the Greek the second sentence is much shorter—“Neither circumcision or uncircumcision—but new creation!”
This is how crazy grace is. Even though Paul is theologically correct in being anti-circumcision, he knows ultimately it doesn’t matter. Circumcision, uncircumcision—Eh! Paul cares enough to want the Galatians to have a correct understanding of grace, but he loves Jesus enough to wish the Galatians on either side of the argument peace.
Christ’s resurrection changes the nature of the universe so completely, that our old categories do not apply. Circumcision and uncircumcision aren’t even relevant. We are in a new creation and we are a new creation.
Jean Valjean lives into this new creation by living a life based on the idea that he is loved and forgiven and called to do good in the world. But Javert cannot see the new creation, even when it is right in front of his face! He can only see the old creation, the old rules, the old categories. He can only see good or bad, criminal or upstanding citizen. He has no capacity for nuance. And his lack of imagination kills him.
As Christians we have done a terrible job living in the ambiguity of the new creation. We love labels! Are you baptized or not? Are you confirmed or not? Are you Catholic? Are you Protestant? Are you a progressive Christian or a conservative Christian? We love rules. We love to know who is in and who is out.
When I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college we had a problem. We were a pretty conservative group who spent a lot of time worrying about whether we were following the rules correctly. But even though we were conservative, there was another group on campus that was snatching our members because they thought they were the only denomination that was following Biblical rules correctly. The International Church of Christ recruited members on many college campuses and may still be operating. When they pursued our members they would make it clear that the student’s faith was not adequate. If they had not undergone a believer’s baptism, followed the doctrine of the ICoC, and actively recruited disciples, they were not real Christians.
Not many of our group left to join the ICoC, but a handful did. There was something compelling to them about having external rules to follow that let them know they were being faithful to God. There was a safety in law. With a strict law, their faith could be measured and found adequate.
As Episcopalians, we have the uncomfortable job of living in a lot of ambiguity. Because our church is rooted in how we worship, rather than what doctrine we believe, sometimes what we believe can feel rather loosey goosey. But I think the advantage to the way we do things, is that we are forced to actually turn to the Holy Spirit when we are making a decision, rather than following a universal set of rules. And the fifth chapter of Galatians is a fabulous way to check in about whether we are following the Spirit. Are our lives marked by enmity and jealousy and out of control behavior? Or are we slowly developing patience and love and joy?
And to be fair, Episcopalians do have hundreds of pages of Church Canons and we even pay church lawyers, so we probably don’t completely understand that we are living in a new creation, either!
What would our lives look like if we lived lives like Jean Vanjean’s, rooted in a deep knowledge of God’s grace? What risks might we take? What forgiveness might we offer others? What forgiveness might we offer ourselves? May God give us the gift of insight into his expansive, generous grace that welcomes all of us into a new creation. Amen.