June 13, 2010

In Justified by faith in Christ

Passage: Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:1-21, Luke 7:36-8:3, Galatians 2:15-16

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.

Last month Central United had its tri-annual Pastoral Oversight visit by members of Presbytery; I had a questionnaire to fill out in advance of that visit.  I recall my journey into the ordered ministry in the United Church and it seemed a journey of endless questionnaires; not all questions seemed germane and I confess to being tempted on more than one occasion to write answers that expressed my frustration with the questions.  Answers such as:

“I believe empathy is overrated”.

“My extensive counselling of church members has proved a rich source of pointed sermon illustrations.”

“I’ve learned to cope with financial crisis at every church I’ve served.”

“My hobbies are pit bulls and automatic weapons.”

They seem a fact of our lives; questionnaires that is.  I think of people filling out applications to programmes of study, job applications, resumes, cover letters, proposals, estimates, and the like; the challenge is to present ourselves in the best possible light.  Like writing an exam, we endeavour to imagine what the person on the receiving end is anticipating.  What we know, for example, is the manager with the stack of resumes is first going to discard as many as possible; we try to figure out how to keep our resume in the consideration pile long enough to generate an interview.  In many education programmes grades are not enough; students have to write about their aspirations and objectives; what is it that those making the decisions need to see so that I am chosen.

Our lives are replete with requirements at every turn; perhaps this is one of the reasons the gospel is so counter-intuitive to us. “A person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”, writes Paul.  The sheer freedom of “through faith in Jesus Christ” is exhilarating and scary at the same time.  It is exhilarating because all that is required is provided by another; scary because we give up control to him.  It is exhilarating because I am accepted by God just as I am: it is scary because in Him I can never be the same again.

1. Justification by faith was the doctrine Martin Luther hugely magnified; it is bedrock in Calvin’s teaching; it became a defining theme of what we know as the Protestant Reformation.  In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul’s discussion of justification is the first time we encounter it in his letters; Galatians, written in 48 or 49 CE, is the earliest of the New Testament books; here we read Paul’s first published discussion of justification.
Given that we live after the Reformation it is hard for us to hear the meaning of a text in its first use that has come to mean so much to us; that is to hear it in the context of Paul’s conversation in Galatians without importing what it has come to mean to us back into the text.

Paul is writing against some agitators, as he calls them, who have infiltrated the Galatian churches and are perverting the gospel of Christ; in essence these are some Jewish Christians who teach that the Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to be real Christians.  Paul relates, for example, that on his second trip to Jerusalem when he related the Gospel he proclaimed to the leadership of the church there—Peter included—not even  Titus who was with him, a Gentile Christian, was compelled to be circumcised, that is become a Jew.  So, from the first, the gospel truth that a person is justified by faith, not by works of the law, was clear.

Paul then relates the story of Peter’s hypocrisy at Antioch; this is the same Peter who earlier went to Cornelius’ house and came to understand that the divisions between Jew and Gentile were dismantled in Christ.  At Antioch Peter had been eating with Gentiles, but when some Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem who were not as convinced Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles which had the effect of saying, among other things, you Gentiles are not real Christians.

This, Paul insisted, was “not acting consistently with the gospel”.  Paul is saying that the agitators among the Galatians are doing the same thing as Peter—something that Peter tacitly admits was wrong in the conclusions reached at the Jerusalem council (recorded in Acts 15), a decision Peter supported—thus these agitators need to be similarly opposed.

So let us look at Galatians 2:15-16 and re-read it in this context.  We (Jewish Christians, Peter and Paul, et. al.) ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; (Gentile sinners is a technical term, “lesser breeds” as it were, and represents what Paul knew to be a standard Jewish attitude.  Paul is talking about ethnic identity, and about the practices that go with that) yet we (Jewish Christians) know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

In whatever else Paul means by justification it here denotes status; it means membership in God’s true family.  Justification is a judicial term; it is the legal status of a person who has been declared in the right; it is when the judge declared in favour of the person charged.  God has declared in our favour through faith in Jesus Christ; ethnic identity is not relevant any longer.

In 1973 in Canada a Ministry of Multiculturalism was created to monitor the implementation of multicultural initiatives within government departments; in 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms declared that this Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians; today it is championed by the Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

I realize that this is sacred ground for some of our political class and others; I am aware that to be critical of multiculturalism is tantamount to blasphemy.  However, it always seemed to me that making multiculturalism an overarching goal had the effect of highlighting differences between people; its outworking is that we take special note of that which makes some person culturally distinct from me.  It is often the same with much modern “anti-racism” effort; embedded in the very act of being “anti-racist” is taking note of or paying particular attention to another person’s race.

The Apostle Paul’s understanding of reality is shaped by the older Testament; he believes that sin enters the world in the garden (Genesis 3) and eventuates in the ethnic divisions of the world (Genesis 11).  God promised in Abraham to bless all the nations of the world through his family, Israel; Jesus the Messiah is the fulfilment of that promise, the promise to set us free from sin. The effect of faith in Jesus Christ is that while a person’s ethnicity or race is important, it is to disappear as we regard everyone we meet as a person for whom Christ died.  Jesus Christ frees us from all boasting that my race makes me superior to another; and from the injustice that someone should be given advantage over another because of their race.

2. A news story last week asked; “Has high-speed Internet made you impatient with slow-speed children?”  ... Some experts believe that excessive use of the Internet, cell phones, and other technologies can cause us to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic.”  I also read another story that reported on a psychological study; “Just 20 minutes outdoors can have the same pick-me-up as a cup of coffee because of the instantly energizing powers of nature... a simple stroll in the open air is as revitalizing as a caffeine-fuelled injection, a new study claims.”  Of course I found both those stories holed up in my office surfing the high-speed internet with a coffee in at hand.

Technology has influenced our expectation about how much time things take; in John Wesley’s day a sermon was about an hour long; mine would be between 17 and 20 minutes.  I point this out because an idea like justification by faith cannot be packaged up in a neat sentence or two, or an hour long sermon for that matter, as if that is all that needs to be said.  Its depth is immense and reflecting on it over time produces ever expanding application.  The drilling down into our text today may seem laborious; however such labour will produce a rich harvest for this life and the life to come.  (So while we may be tempted to move on to another website let us return to the text again)

3. This phrase in Gal 2:16 “through faith in Jesus Christ” can also be translated through “the faith of Jesus Christ”. Thus we could read: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”  Both readings are correct and imply the theological point or emphasis of the other reading or translation.  Sometimes when we read “faith in Jesus Christ” our focus is turned to our faith.  When we read “faith of Jesus Christ” the glorious gift of God’s open declaration that he has provided all that is needed to rule in our favour –“justified” or “acquitted”—is the focus.

The truth of the gospel is that Christ’s grip on us is always stronger that our grip on him; there is more grace in Christ than sin in us; however we articulate this reality that we are justified—found to be God’s—through believing in the faith of Jesus Christ, that faithfulness of another sets us free from all pretence that our justification rests with us.  Our discipleship is ever riddled with flaws—our belonging to God rests with Jesus Christ.  You do not have to go out into the world and find significance; in Christ your significance is not in doubt.  It is as Paul concluded: the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God; this is true freedom, even freedom from the burden of making yourself matter.

It is hard to find an analogy that adequately expresses the freedom of trusting in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ; of the glorious mystery Jesus uttered when he said if you lose your life for my sake you find it. British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge spoke about it when he said, “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die.  For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.

I had spilled some bird seed on the garage floor and needed to clean it up; my three-year-old grandson was there when I said I was heading out to clean up this mess and his excited response was, “I want to help you, Papa.”  So we found two brooms and a dust pan and out we went; of course you know that as we worked together the seed was not always swept in the most helpful direction, but he worked with energy and enthusiasm until we had it finished.  What motivates a young child to want to work alongside a parent or grandparent in this way?  Principally it is their love and admiration for their parent—they find great joy, accomplishment, and even significance in the freedom to help a parent in her or his task.

Notwithstanding the inadequacies of the analogy, it is akin to this with our love for Jesus; there is great freedom in living for him.

4. In a story submitted to Readers’ Digest, a lawyer named Bryan Davies related an amusing incident from early in his legal career.  He wrote: “New to the legal profession, I was defence counsel on a particularly difficult case and was determined to do my best. The prosecution's case appeared to have no weaknesses. In desperation I figured a flowery oration might mask an otherwise hopeless defence. I rose before the court and said, "Your honour, it may be that my submissions in this case will take us into a well-tilled judicial field..."
The judge stopped me with a smile. "Mr. Davies, you need not apologize," he said. "It's a rare field that couldn't stand a little extra fertilizer."

As already pointed out justification is a judicial term; one of the responses to the idea of justification through the faith of Jesus Christ is that we think, wait a minute, we have some things to say in our own defense.  The Pharisee, in today’s gospel lesson, who invited Jesus to his home, typified this attitude.  He didn’t think he had much to be forgiven for.  In essence this is tantamount to trying to mount a defense in the face of a case, from the prosecution standpoint, which is not in doubt—we are sinners. At the risk of bluntness, such defense is, like the judge said to Mr Davies, akin to the spreading of fertilizer.

I noted with you in an earlier sermon Paul’s tone in this letter is rather strident; one of the reasons is, I think, expressed here in the last verse of the second chapter—“if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” Paul considered the agitators’ teaching to pervert the gospel of Christ precisely because it was to stand at the cross, look Jesus in the eye, and say you really didn’t need to do this for me, it is an utter misunderstanding of the seriousness of the charges against us.

... we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  May this truth of the gospel of Christ so permeate our lives as to produce a great harvest for the sake of the one who gave himself for our sins to set us free, even our Saviour Jesus Christ.