Last December, after a Fort Worth, Texas, policeman was killed in the line of duty, his family spent a gut-wrenching week, planning and attending the funeral and having many conversations with those whose lives had crossed that of their loved one. When all was said and done, this young officerâs mother realized that one story moved her more than any other. Two days after his death, one of her sonâs colleagues working his old beat arrested a crack-using, trouble-making, small-time crook who was well-known by all of the police who patrolled there. Cuffed and standing in front of a patrol car, the arrested man said he had heard that one of them had been killed and asked who it was. After learning his name, the man fell to his knees sobbing. After he finally regained control of himself and was in the car, the officer asked what was wrong with him. He cried, âThat cop was the only one who ever showed me any respect.â
The character of this police officer mirrors the value of respect for all others to which St. Paul points in todayâs Epistle reading. âThere is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.â
We are saved and freed by Godâs love, graciously poured out to us, despite our being sinful and undeserving. It is Godâs gracious love that unites us with Christ. It is our union with Christ that unites us to all other human beings. It is this union that dissolves the potential divisiveness of human distinctions. It is this union with Christ that breaks down whatever walls of separation we arbitrarily create among people.
The young police officer knew that the distinction between law enforcers and law breakers did not prevent the power of God from uniting them as human beings, each with respect one for the other. He knew what Paul teaches us â that living in Christ, united with Christ, makes us a different kind of people, joined in an understanding of humanity that can destroy the natural tendency to separate.
The early church was not exempt from distinctions. That is why Paul addressed the Christians in Galatia so forcefully. He knew that divisions had to stop if Christ were truly to be followed. He illustrated our union with and through Christ by playing off a common prayer of Jewish men of his day: âThank you Lord, for not making me a foreigner, a slave, or a woman.â Paul rejected and reversed this view by declaring that these distinctions amounted to nothing in the eyes of God and those who would follow Jesus.
Paulâs words surely affronted first-century Jews steeped in a religion that fostered exclusion as a way of maintaining purity of faith and protection from outsiders. Looking at their history, it is no wonder they feared those who were different. But Jesus had something more expansive in mind. And Paul followed him by undercutting natural tendencies, cultural prejudices, inherited temptations â forces that divide people.
We suffer these tendencies still. Too often we separate from others out of fear. Superficial comfort can result from surrounding ourselves with the familiar, from disdaining and avoiding those who are unfamiliar and different. In our confusing and complicated world, it is tempting to try to define ourselves by what we are not, rather than what we are, and to attempt to remain separate from those who are different. But such behavior leaves us diminished and fails to fulfill our potential.
The young police officer knew what we avow in confessing that the âmission of the church is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.â What is at work in understanding and applying the principles of todayâs Epistle is this task of reconciling. It is the work we have inherited as ones united with Christ and one another through Christ.
The meaning of todayâs Epistle is not that there can be or should be no distinctions among us, but that there can be no superiority of one over another or exclusion of one by the other. We do not submit to others, but only to God.
Differences bear no ultimate significance in the values of God. Male or female; rich or poor; young or old; married or single; educated or unschooled; leader or follower; black, white, brown, red, or yellow; white-collar or blue-collar worker; gay or straight -- racism, culturalism, sexism, and nationalism have no place among the values of God.
The power of Godâs love, freely given, when used by us is sufficient to overcome the human tendency to separate as a result of our distinctions and differences. Through this love we can have a collective unity â a single identity as children of God. It is the power of Godâs love that can give us courage to move beyond fear and separation into integration, cooperation, interdependence, and mutual respect.
This truth is rooted in the fact that each individual has been restored to unity with God by the loving, self-giving action of Christ. In so being restored to God, we can be restored to unity with one another in Christ.
It is this truth that the young police officer lived out as he respected the dignity of every human being. He knew, as did St. Paul, that respect does not begin with a conclusion that the other is worthy or deserving or similar enough to get the respect. His life helps us remember that respect begins with each of us who does the respecting. We treat others with respect because this is how our Lord teaches us to behave toward others, simply because they are human beings and because we are united to them through Godâs love.