It is a gift, all a gift

It is a gift, all a gift

Sermon – June 12
Galatians 2.15-21 and Luke 7:36-8:3

This is the second of five Sundays the lectionary will have us chipping our way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If you were here last Sunday, you might recall that I said that the great issue underlying this letter—the reason that Paul is writing to the Galatian communities—is that of the inclusion of Gentile believers in the Body of Christ. Specifically, must Gentile Christians also convert to Judaism and follow the practices set out in the torah? On this count Paul is firm; no, they do not. In this he is in line with the discernment of the Council of Jerusalem, which had asked only that Gentiles Christians “abstain from things polluted by idols, and from fornication, and from whatever has been strangled, and from blood.” As I noted last Sunday, this was a massive concession on the part of the Jewish Christians: one matter of sexual ethics, and three related to the dietary codes. Period.

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And yet others had begun to make their voices heard amongst the young Galatian Christian communities, insisting that the Christian movement was, by definition, a Jewish movement. Paul has gone into gear in the writing of this letter, determined to set out an alternative view. In last week’s reading he rehearsed parts of his own story, reminding his readers that as a young man he had “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age,” and that he was “far more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors.” In the name of those traditions, he had committed himself to “violently persecuting the church of God… trying to destroy it.” Yet God had other ideas, and had stopped the zealous defender of Judaism in his tracks, knocked him flat, turned him around, and called him to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.

Whereas it is pretty clear that others in the Jewish Christian community had stretched their thinking, their assumptions, their age-old prejudices to try to make room for the Gentiles, Paul’s embrace of this calling is more thoroughgoing, even radical. For instance, the Jerusalem Council’s request that the Gentile Christians “abstain from things polluted by idols” is actually relativized by Paul. In his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Paul argues that since “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one,’” the eating meat of animals offered to idols really isn’t a problem at all… unless by doing so you lead someone else to imagine that you’re actually partaking in the worship of other gods. Then, and only then, is it an issue.

Similarly, in the passage that comes right before this evening’s reading, we discover that even Peter had gone weak at the knees on the full inclusion of the Gentiles. Whereas Peter had once shared meals with Gentile Christians, he had ceased doing so out of a concern that he was going to offend the hard-line purists; the group Paul refers to as the “circumcision faction.” It’s a move that pushes Paul right to the edge. I mean there you are, Peter, afraid to offend that hard-line bunch, but what about offending those with whom you once shared meals, yet are now backing away from? Come on, Peter…

And that’s where tonight’s reading picks up. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners”—okay, that feels like a piece of judgment, doesn’t it?—“yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The law—even the most scrupulous and zealous observance of every letter of the torah—doesn’t justify us before God; that’s what he’s saying here. “[N]o one will be justified by the works of the law,” he writes, but instead “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” It is now Christ who lives in me, and that’s the source of justification. The best way to understand what Paul means when he writes of being “justified” is to think in terms of being declared just, in spite of the unjust and unjustifiable things in our lives. While Paul does care about the decisions people make—about the ethics that they live out—such things are a response to being declared justified. And so he writes, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Any time I’m even close to living graciously or righteously is nothing more than a response to the grace first given me. “I do not nullify the grace of God,” he writes, “for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Not that he entirely blows off the torah or dismisses the “traditions of his ancestors.” He just sees it all in a whole new light. Here the New Testament scholar Jaime Clark-Soles offers some important insight. “The works of the law,” she comments, “served as a distinctive ethnic and religious identity marker for God’s chosen people, the Jews. Now, Paul has no problem with the Law, but [he sees] salvation history [as divided] into three epochs.” The first is the epoch of Abraham and Sarah, in which God offers “promise” as the point of connection. The second is the epoch of Moses, in which it is Law that God gives as the connecting point. As so many of the prophets understood with such great clarity, God didn’t need the blood of bulls and goats, nor did God need people to abstain from eating certain foods or from blending fabric or from any of the other requirements of the torah. It was, though, basically in the doing of those things that the people could express their faithfulness.

And now Paul sees that a new epoch has come upon the world, that of Jesus Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me.” Now in Christ the point of connection is simply faith. “[B]y grace you have been saved, through faith,” he writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8)

It is a gift, all a gift. Whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile; whether you think you’ve done a heck of a good job of following the straight and narrow or are aware that your life is an utter mess; “whether you have tried to follow or are afraid you’ve failed;” it is gift.

What makes Paul mad at Peter, and at anyone else who has waffled about the status of the Gentile believers, is the presumption that some are more entitled to the gift than others. Tonight’s story from the Gospel according to Luke picks up on the problem of presumption in really substantial way. Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee, when a woman arrives. She’s described by Luke as “a sinner,” and the general assumption is that she was a prostitute. That may or may not be true, but she certainly acts in a way that a modern therapist would say is “lacking in boundaries”!  “She stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” She let down her hair, which in that world is something a reputable woman would never do in front of strangers, and with tears, kisses, and anointment she bathed Jesus’ feet. Simon the Pharisee is appalled, saying to himself, “If this Jesus were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” You all but see the look of revulsion on the Pharisee’s face.

Jesus’ response is to tell a little parable about forgiveness, and then to say, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” And then to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Typical of Jesus’ teaching style, he just lets it all hang there, with Simon left to further digest both the parable and the event. I can imagine, though, Paul meeting Simon the Pharisee twenty years later. “You know Simon, there was a time when I would have reacted in exactly the same way that you did. There was a time when the very presence of that woman would have been repulsive to me. But not now, because that same Christ has loved me and given himself for me, and by doing that he has shown me how my old presumptions were actually keeping me away from the God I thought I was serving. You know what you should have done, Simon, when Jesus said to her ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’? You should have said, ‘No, rabbi Jesus. Let her stay, and be filled at table with us.’ Because, Simon, we are in a new epoch—the epoch of grace by faith—and the old dividing lines have come down. There is but one table, and all should hear the invitation to sit down and eat.”

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