Week of Sunday June 16 - Pentecost 4
Genesis 2:21 - 3:24
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 the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ;20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
I've never met a person who did not have some sense of inadequacy or failure. Most of us, including me, are distressed by how far we fall short of what we would like to be. They say Martin Luther climbed the steps allegedly used by Christ as he was taken before Pilate, kissing each one in an act of piety and discipleship, seeking peace with God. He was not obsessive. He was honest. He knew he had a problem and did not measure up to the goodness of God. And al the step kissing in the world didn't seem to help.
Those who would say there is no problem here are in denial, or lying, or simply not yet conscious enough to know their failings , or the damage they cause. We are a violent, unjust, and abusive species. The best and most saintly of us leave a trail of hurt. Our lives are a litany of shortcomings and failures—with times of enormous compassion and goodness perhaps, but always being compromised by failure... and worse.
If we are a decent person this is the last way we want to be! Paul said, "I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep doing." (Ro 7:19) "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Ro 7:24)
The first good news is this: when you and I agonise over our shortcomings and failures, our dis-ease is a sign of our growing towards holiness. If we did not worry, it would be a sign we were in a far deeper quicksand than that with which we struggle.
And we ought not to judge. Most people suffer times of silent and lonely agony and despair. We all hate what we sometimes are.
Any decent person tries to do better—don't we? We might not tell anyone how badly we feel about ourselves; how ashamed we are; how crippled we are. When we lose a day immobilised by distress, who wants to also advertise it to the world!? Apart from anything else, it scares people. It reminds them of their own fears and failings, and sometimes they respond by lashing out at us.
Be careful with whom you share your pain. Some people seek to deal with their own pain by inflicting more upon us in our time of weakness; it feels good—for a moment, anyway—to see someone hurting more than themselves.
So we try and do better. We determine to follow the rules for being a good person. We promise our God—whatever it is—that we will measure up, this time. Of course, we never do.
Paul says in one place that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Ro 3:23) Maybe he should have said it like this: "All people sin every day and fall short of the glory of God," because each time we try harder, we fail on the first day.
Paul calls this huge effort that God's belovéd people make to do better and measure up, an attempt to be "justified by the works of the law." (Galatians 2:16) What does he mean?
Like many of us here this morning he knows that the root cause of all our suffering and agony is to do with being separated from God. Our relationship with God is damaged.
Yes, we are finite; we do fail to live up to the way we imagine Jesus the Christ would live; we hurt people where God does not. That's because we are not God. Only God can have the kind of completeness of being that is always a blessing to others.
It's a sign of our godliness that we hurt over this; that we are ashamed! We are, after all, made in the image of God. We are made to be like God, just like those mythical figures Adam and Eve. They were finite and imperfect like us, but the grief and pain that we feel was not there for them, because they walked and talked in the garden with God in the cool of the evening.
The pain came... when the relationship was broken.
The pain came... after they ate the apple, and did not rush up to God and embrace Her like their mum when she came into the kitchen, and found that three year old them had mess and flour all over the floor from trying to be all grown up, and trying to bake a cake on their own.
The pain comes... because welearn they can do better, and can grow up, and somehow decide we have to do it as well as Mum can. So wetry and do better; we try and be like Mum when we can't yet be like her, but instead of holding onto Mum, we step back, afraid; scared Mum won't love us anymore.
If Adam and Even had run weeping to God that sad afternoon, instead of hiding, it would all have been different. You see, Genesis got it wrong, in a sense. God didn't kick them out. They only thought that. That's them telling the story. They pulled back instead of crying, "Mummy, what have we done? Help us!"
And ever since then, each Adam and Eve, each one of us, has held back and tried to fix the relationship by doing better, instead of asking for a hug. A three year old can't cook without making a mess! We just can't!
And it doesn't matter! Because the Mother God loves us anyway! All we need to do is ask for help and a hug!
This word justified means having our relationship with God healed. It means being able to talk with God, and soak up the love of God, instead of trying to hide behind fig leaves.
And justified by the works of the law was the Jewish and the early Christian way of saying, "We can heal our relationship with God by doing better. We can make ourselves feel better, and—get this—we can make God love us, by doing better; by keeping a set of rules.
Well, we can't. We're a three year old in the kitchen of life. We make a mess by definition! It's what we do! No one is justified by their works.
And it doesn't matter because God loves us anyway! God always did! God never stopped. If God didn't love us, the world would have stopped turning a million years ago. We'd be an empty Mars with the seas dried up—well, we wouldn't; we simply wouldn't be here at all!
What Paul understood when he looked at Jesus, and all that Jesus did, was that God simply loved Paul! There is something about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, that lets us walk back into the ever open arms of God. Something about Jesus lets us see that Jesus' life did whatever needs to be done to heal the relationship.
The Greek language used by Paul says our relationship is healed by the faith of Jesus. Jesus did it. We don't need to do anything. Stop worrying! Be like the three year old who suddenly realises they have made an awful mess in the kitchen, but doesn't run away but when they realise how they have messed up. Instead, they run crying into Mum's arms.
What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, I think, was that the realisation that God just loved him anyway burst into his consciousness so dramatically and vividly that it blinded him. He suddenly saw that he didn't have to do anything to make God love him. God did anyway, and always had.
The trouble is, sometimes, and I remember this vividly—I remember saying this to my minister—I... can't see it! How can I believe something I can't see? How can I trust something you're telling me is true, but which I can't see, and which everything in me tells me can't be true. People don't love sinners; how can God possibly love me?
Well in the Greek that Paul wrote there is a wonderful, life giving ambiguity in his letter. In the Greek it says pistis Christou Iêsou: Faith Christ Jesus.
In English, it is grammatically correct to translate this as
my relationship with God is restored by the faith of Christ Jesus,
or it could be translated by saying
my relationship with God is restored by my faith in Christ Jesus.
God help me if I can only be saved by... my faith, because I don't have enough. I can't believe like that. I am able to be restored in my relationship with God and run into her arms because of Jesus' faith and obedience. Thank God for that!
But on those days when I don't see this at all; on the days when I've had a melt down and can't even move enough to ring up Synod and tell them I'm so useless I'm resigning, maybe I can trust in Jesus; just a little bit.
Maybe I can just try and be like Jesus would be; just a bit. Maybe I could give the cat a pat instead of snarling at it. May I could just try and be polite, instead of walling myself off from Wendy. Just the beginning of living the way Jesus would live in my shoes, slowly brings it all back into focus, and I can see again.
This works on the big scale, as well. For years I did what I could to live the way Jesus would live, even though I often couldn't see, and slowly I began to feel the love of God that had seemed so far away, and yet had been there all the time.
Thanks be to God!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!