In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There 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. (Galatians 3:26-28)
When I was a kid, my Lego was pretty simple. The bricks were all the good old-fashioned boxy types: lots of red two-by-four bricks, some white, some yellow, some black and green and blue. But mostly red two-by-fours, a few two-by-twos, other sizes more rare still.
In my Lego world, all the castles and spaceships were red and square, red with a bit of white or yellow trim. The coolest, and most coveted, pieces were the sloped bricks—you know, the ones that you used for the roof? All of them were red.
If I wanted to organize my Lego, it was pretty easy. Whether I sorted by colour or by type, either way I would only need maybe five or six different containers to put them in. Life was simple back then.
I still remember when my friend Garth got a spaceship Lego set. I think it was a Beta-1 Command Base. Soon after that I got my own, and my Lego world would never be the same.
Lego minifigures, with space helmets! Translucent yellow one-by-fours! Two-by-two round pieces! Plates of all sizes! And grey—so much grey.
Everything was suddenly much more complicated. But oh, the worlds we could create! The stories we could play! Satellite dishes became interstellar laser cannons to protect the base from monstrous aliens. Oxygen tanks were taken off and used as double-barrelled water cannons for firefighters to battle a sudden blaze. It didn’t take long for the moon buggy to be converted into a tiny Corvette.
The Lego universe has only become more complex since then. Now, if you want to sort your Lego you you’ve got 55 different colours and about 2,400 different types. Not kidding.
It’s not just the Lego universe that is complex and difficult to sort out. The real universe is like that too, only more so. And it’s human nature to try to make sense of our complicated world by sorting things into categories, putting things into boxes, naming things. It helps us make sense of our world if we have some basic hooks to hang our experiences on.
We are constantly sorting out the Lego of our lives, both consciously and subconsciously.
And part of that complexity that we sort out is the complexity of other people. Whether we realize it or not, we categorize people. We sort them into boxes from the moment we first meet them, to simplify things for us, to help us make sense of our experience of meeting a new person. Our first impressions—formed in as little as a tenth of a second—can stick for a lifetime.
Red two-by-four Lego brick—normal, safe.
Orange inverted two-by-two slope—strange, not sure what to do with them.
Categorized. Sorted. Slotted away.
All this is natural. It’s part of how we as human beings have survived in a complicated and potentially dangerous world for many thousands of years.
Filter out extraneous information. Simplify our options. Stick with what we know.
The problem is, the world isn’t that simple. It’s incredibly complex. And that includes the world’s people, all 7.4 billion of them.
So it may be natural to create rough first impressions and stick to them, to categorize people into “safe” or “dangerous” or “proceed with caution,” or simply “one of us” or “one of them”—but is it right? In the long run, is this a good thing for us to do?
Put another way, is this the way of Jesus?
In Galatians Paul mentions some of the categories that folks in the ancient world used to sort people out.
The first one is “Jew or Greek.” This, of course, was from a Jewish perspective. A Jew meeting someone new would ask themselves, “Is this person a Jew, one of us? Or are they a ‘Greek,’ a Gentile who has soaked themselves in Greek ways of thinking and living?”
A Mennonite not that long ago would have said “Mennonite or English.” Same thing: it’s a quick and easy way to slot people into “one of us” or “one of them,” someone who is from our culture and speaks our language and knows our ways, or someone who doesn’t.
Then there’s “slave or free.” This was about distinguishing along basic lines of social status and value. A slave was merely a living tool, valuable to their owner for the service they could provide. A slave had no intrinsic value, no inherent worth, and so was given no honour in wider society.
Finally, there’s “male and female”: a basic distinction along gender lines. Ancient societies, like all societies, had particular expectations of “males” and “females,” about what it meant to be a “real man” or what it meant to be “feminine.”
All three of these pairs reflect common categories we use to sort people out in our minds. By ethnic background, culture, language, or religion. By social status or gender, however those are defined in our society. These are part of the first impression we form when we meet someone, that initial assessment we make, the box we sort them into so we know what to expect from them and how we should interact with them.
A white, straight, middle-aged male, well-groomed, no unusual ticks or quirks. A red two-by-four Lego brick—normal, safe.
A Métis young woman with streaks in her hair and tattoos on her arm, holding hands with her lesbian partner. An orange inverted two-by-two slope—strange, not sure if they’re safe.
Again, it may be natural to create rough first impressions and stick to them, to categorize people into “good” or “bad” or “one of us” or “one of them”—but is it right? In the long run, is this a good thing for us to do?
Once again, is this the way of Jesus?
Anyone who spends time reading the Gospels knows the answer. Every one of those boxes we build to sort people out—ethnicity, culture, language, religion, status, gender—Jesus crossed all of those social boundaries, and got himself in trouble for doing so.
Speaking with respect to a Samaritan woman with questionable background. Healing a Roman centurion’s beloved servant. Touching a non-Jewish leper to restore him and cleanse him. Forgiving the sins of an adulterous woman caught in the act. Just pick one of these stories and you’ve got Jesus shattering multiple categories.
In fact, the way Jesus acted you’d think he deliberately shattered those categories—and you’d be right. This was the very pulse of Jesus’ mission in the world. Finding the lines we draw among ourselves and erasing them. Locating the walls we build between us and tearing them down. Opening up the boxes we sort people into and letting them out, to be who they are, who God created them to be.
This is what Paul taps into when he says, “There 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.” These distinctions may still exist, evident in the DNA or experience or backstory of each individual person. But in Jesus these distinctions are no longer lines in the sand, boxes to be slotted into, boundaries between “one of us” and “one of them.”
Take a look at the picture of assorted Lego to the right. It’s hard to find any two pieces exactly the same. Many different colours, all different types. This is almost complete and total diversity.
Yet there is one thing all those pieces hold in common: they are all Lego. It’s just like us: under all those distinguishing features that we use to categorize other people—ethnicity, culture, language, religion, social status, gender—under all this we are all human, persons created in God’s image and loved relentlessly by Jesus.
And just like this pile of Lego, in spite of all that diversity, we are created to fit together, to build new worlds together out of our imagination, to tell new stories together filled with beauty and goodness and truth—worlds and stories that are far richer, far more meaningful, than if we were all exactly the same, a simple, safe pile of red two-by-four boxy bricks.
We who are “in Christ,” we who claim Jesus as our primary identity marker, we are to be a different kind of society, a new humanity, a humanity without borders, without divisions, without walls that distinguish between “us” and “them.” In Christ Jesus we are all children of God; we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is what the church is supposed to be like.
But this also means that we who are “in Christ,” we who claim to follow Jesus by the energy of the Spirit, we are to work toward a world in which people are no longer divided by ethnicity, culture, language, religion, status, or gender. We are the body of Christ in the world, continuing the mission of Jesus. This is what the church is called to do.
May we follow in the boundary-breaking footsteps of our crucified and risen Lord, and may God’s kingdom come on earth, God’s reign of justice and peace for all, as it is in heaven.
This post is modified from a sermon delivered on June 19, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church.