Galatians 3:23-29
How Wide Is Your Circle?

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

How wide is your circle … your circle of inclusion … your circle of influence? That’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning.

How inclusive are you of people of other beliefs and values … of other races, nationalities and lifestyles? How inclusive ought you to be?

The starting point is Paul’s great statement to the Galatians, where he says,

But now that faith has come,
we are no longer under a tutor.
For you are all children of God,
through faith in Christ Jesus.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ
have put on Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free man,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus
(Galatians 3:25-28)

We all have our circles of inclusion, some more exclusive than others. Here’s one example. It comes from the Broadway musical, Shenandoah. A rugged mountaineer and his wife and their son and daughter-in-law sit down to eat in their small Appalachian home. The father returns thanks: “God, bless me and my wife, John and his wife, us four, no more. Amen.” Now, that’s a small circle.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the little children’s song we sang two weeks ago:

I am the church, you are the church,
we are the church together;
All who follow Jesus, all around the world,
yes, we’re the church together.

How wide is your circle? That’s the question. Here’s a little test. I’ll start small and gradually expand the circumference. When you get to the edge of your circle, shuffle your feet.

I assume your family of faith includes members of Minden Presbyterian Church; otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. I don’t hear any feet shuffling, so let’s move on.

Does your circle also include other Presbyterians … those who are more liberal than you … more conservative … those who belong to other Presbyterian denominations? Does it include the whole family of Reformed Faith; for example, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed? If you’re shuffling your feet, I don’t hear you.

Let’s push farther: Does your circle include all Protestant denominations? I’m guessing that Methodists and Baptists are a no-brainer. What about Pentecostals, those who wave their hands and speak in tongues and emphasize the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?

You know the old story … a man walks into a Presbyterian church and sits on the front pew. When the congregation stands to sing, he lifts his hands high into the air. When the pastor prays, he mumbles incoherently. During the sermon, he shouts, “Amen, brother! Praise the Lord!” No one knows what to think. Finally, one of the elders walks down the aisle and says, “Mister, what is your problem?” “Problem?” he says, “I don’t have a problem; I’ve just got the Spirit, that’s all.” The elder looks at him and says, “Well, you certainly didn’t get it here!”

I hear a few feet shuffling. Let’s move on. Does your circle include Seventh Day Adventists?

Several years ago, the pastor of a Seventh Day Adventist Church asked the Session of Trinity Presbyterian Church to share their facilities. It seemed like a workable plan – the Adventists met on Saturday, the Presbyterians on Sunday. Both were small congregations with limited resources.

So, the elders agreed. It didn’t last long. In no time, the Adventists were canvassing the neighborhood passing out flyers with vivid pictures of fire and brimstone and Satanic figures depicting Judgment Day and the end of the world. At the bottom of the flyer in bold face type was the name and address of Trinity Presbyterian Church.

The elders called a meeting with the Adventist pastor and told him they’d have to find another place to meet. He took it graciously. He said his members weren’t too happy about the arrangement either. He said, “It’s hard to make a case for the future when the host congregation is so comfortable with the present.”

There’s another denomination of the Christian faith a lot of folks have a hard time with. I won’t divulge the name, except to say they think they’re the only ones going to heaven. How do you include them in your circle of faith? One way is to apply the Edwin Markham rule. He’s the poet who wrote,

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win –
We drew a circle that took him in.

Then there are the Catholics.

I had an eye-opening experience early on in ministry. I was serving a small Methodist congregation in North Texas when a Catholic priest approached me about using our sanctuary just long enough to start a new parish. I thought it was a great idea, so I took it to the Administrative Council, our ruling junta. Not only did they say no, they said … well, they said some unsavory things. I was shocked. I had no idea Protestants felt that way toward Catholics. I called the priest and gave him the bad news. He told me not to worry about it, that many of his parishioners felt the same way toward Protestants.

How wide is your circle? Does it include Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox branches of the Christian faith? Does it include these huge mega-churches not affiliated with any denomination, storefront ministries and so-called Bible Fellowships? Should it? O.K., you can stop shuffling your feet now. I hear you, loud and clear.

How wide is your circle? How wide should it be?

The message on the front of your 2011 pictorial directory states: “There Are No Strangers in Christ.” Does that hold true for you as a congregation? Does it hold true for you personally? Does your circle include all who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

Several years ago, I visited the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. In the lobby there was a walk-through display of life-size photographs depicting Christians all over the world. Picture this:

• A tribal church in central Africa where scantily dressed villagers gathered more or less informally under a brush arbor.

• An Eastern Orthodox congregation where priests dressed in elegant robes and miter caps processed through a magnificent cathedral.

• Close-ups of Armenian Christians, Coptic Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics.

• Men and women, boys and girls, of every conceivable nationality, race and station in life caught by the camera in the process of praise, prayer and outreach to others in the name of Jesus Christ.

As I walked through the display, I tried to absorb the scope of it all. As I did, Paul’s words echoed in my mind:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Jesus once told his disciples, “The kingdom of God is like a net thrown into the sea that gathers in fish of every kind.” (Matthew 13:47)

The same could be said of the Church that bears his name. We are a people of every race and nation, language and custom; yet, we worship the same God, follow the same Lord and are led by the same Spirit of grace, forgiveness and love.

When I retired from full-time ministry at the end of 2011, Kathy and I began visiting churches in and around Hope. We visited a different church every Sunday. We attended large churches, small churches, black churches, white churches, the Catholic Church, as well as Protestant churches of various denominations.

I hasten to say we were cordially welcomed in every church we visited. Yet, in one church I was told that my baptism didn’t count, since I was baptized as an infant by sprinkling. In another we were not allowed to come to the table to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, since we did not belong to that denomination.

The most surprising experience came at the Cowboy Church, just south of town. One of the men told me after the service that if we’d join the Cowboy Church, he’d buy me a pair of blue jeans and a Stetson hat, so I could fit in with all the other men. I’m pretty sure he would have thrown in a pair of Tony Lama boots, if I’d asked.

Whether we mean to or not, we draw circles of who’s in and who’s out.

Have you been following the latest flap in the Southern Baptist Convention? It seems there are a number of Baptist theologians who’ve been teaching the tenets of John Calvin and the doctrine of predestination and divine election. Some hard-line Baptists don’t like that one bit. So, they’re calling for seminaries to dismiss professors who stray from tried-and-true evangelical theology.

We needn’t pick on the Baptists. We have problems of our own. So do the Methodists and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.

If we all profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, why is there so much division in the church? Ideally, the Church of Jesus Christ includes Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, rich and poor, English speaking and not; conservative and liberal, traditional and contemporary, congregational and connectional, pastoral and prophetic. Another little children’s song puts it this way:

Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world;
Red, brown, yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight;
Jesus loves the children of the world.

Yes, we have our particular beliefs and peculiar ways of doing things. That’s only natural. It speaks of our different temperaments and personal tastes – like whether you prefer to put on your Sunday best or come to church in blue jeans and cowboy boots. It’s just that our differences need not divide us.

Here’s what I think: If you’re having a hard time accepting and affirming other Christians – even other Presbyterians – because they think, dress and worship differently than you, chances are your circle is too small. John Oxenham said it best:

“In Christ there is no East or West,
in him no South or North,
but one great fellowship of love
around the whole wide earth.”

But what about other faiths? What about Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all the others? This is where it gets sticky. Paul makes it clear:

“You are all sons (and daughters) of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Let’s be clear: We do not share the same faith as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and the like. For them, Jesus may have been a great teacher, miracle worker and prophet, but he was not the Savior of the world.

That puts us in a different circle, and we need not apologize. We firmly believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the only begotten Son of God, who gave his life for the sins of the world in order to redeem us from sin and reconcile us to God. He was resurrected from the dead that we might have the promise of eternal life through faith in him.

There’s a paradox here:

• The clearer we articulate our beliefs, and the sharper we draw our lines of distinction, the more seriously others will take us;

• The more seriously others take us, the more our circle of influence will grow;

• The more our circle of influence grows, the better our chances will be of finding common ground and leading others to Christ.

In the meantime, please understand: We are not at war with Jews, Muslims and other religions of the world. We are at war with the forces of evil that threaten to exploit us and divide us and, ultimately, destroy us. We’d do well to learn as much as we can about other religions in order to understand how others think, if, for no other reason than to live and work together in peace.

But there’s more to it than that, and this is where I’ll end. If you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and look beyond your circle, you may be able to see the big circle God intends for all creation and do your part to make it so. Here’s how John described this big circle God intends:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:9-10)

Until that day when Christ reigns as Lord of all creation, let this be our song:

We’ve a story to tell to the nations,
That shall turn their hearts to the right,
A story of truth and mercy,
A story of peace and light,

For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.