Friday, June 14, 2013

Justification by Faith (Galatians part 3, June 16 2013)

Homily:  Yr C Proper 11, June 16 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  1 Kings 21:1-21a; Ps 5:1-8; Gal 2:15-21; Luke 7.36-8.3

Justification by Faith

Justification by faith.  It is perhaps the key theological doctrine of Christianity.  In Paul’s era, these three words propelled the Jesus movement from a small Jewish sect to a racially and ethnically inclusive faith that spread to the ends of the earth.  In Martin Luther’s era in the 16th century, these are the words that launched the Protestant Reformation and radically reshaped the configuration of the Christian church as we know it in our time and place.

With today’s reading we have reached the heart of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, his thesis statement for the gospel of grace.  Some of you will remember that two weeks ago we talked about the various gospels on offer.  We talked about the gospel of exchange, the one that the other guys were proclaiming to the Galatians, the one that says “if you do this, then you’ll be good with God.”  And then there’s the gospel that Paul proclaimed, the one that says “You’re already good with God, now, just as you are.  Everything that needed to be done has already been done by Jesus.” And you’ll remember just how adamant and excited Paul was about leaving the gospel of exchange behind and learning to trust in the gospel of grace, about getting out of that rental car lot and out onto the open highway without going backwards.  Last week we talked about what it takes to trust in something or someone, and how Paul told his story, and appealed to experience, both his and ours in order to make his case.

And this week, in the portion of the letter we read today, just in case we’ve forgotten what’s at stake, Paul lays out once more the gospel of grace which he proclaims:

“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 trust 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.”

Let’s unpack this a little.  First of all, let’s notice that Paul’s gospel is Christ-Centred.  Christ is mentioned eight times in six verses.  Christ is the pivot about which this whole justification thing turns.  And what is justification?  Justification means to be made right with God.  It is about the gift of, the restoration of, our relationship with God.  Or, as I’ve put it more colloquially, to be justified is to be good with God.  And what does it take to be good with God?  It takes faith, the faith of Christ.  Not works of the law.  Not circumcision.  Not following dietary rules.  Not indulgences.  Not good behavior or moral living.  Not being part of the in group.  Not going to church or being baptized or inviting Jesus into our hearts.  No says Paul, we are justified by faith.  

Some of you may know that my daughter Michelle is finishing Grade Twelve this year, and so in a couple of weeks Guylaine and I will be attending her High School Commencement.  Last week Michelle brought home the tickets that we’ll need to attend.  And as she handed them to me she asked a good question.  Why is it called a Commencement anyways?  Commencement means, after all, “the beginning”.  And from the perspective of a high school student, high school graduation looks much more like an ending than a beginning.  So I tried to explain in my fatherly way that while it may look like an ending, graduating from high school is really a new beginning.  It’s the beginning of life as an adult, it’s the beginning of a new phase in life where you get to make choices about what you will do next, work, travel, college, university, where you’re going to live, what courses and profession you’ll pursue.  In all these ways, your commencement really is a new beginning.  And after patiently listening to what I thought was my thoughtful and inspirational response, Michelle said, “They should just call it graduation.”

We could ask a similar question about “justification”.  In a lot of Christian discourse, especially in times and places which seem to favour a “ticket to heaven” theology, justification is seen as the end game, the point of the whole Christian thing. It’s what we’re working towards.  We want to be justified, made right with God, so that we get to go to heaven.  It’s kind of like a graduation.

But for Paul, justification is much more like a Commencement.  It’s a new creation, the start of a new life.  We can see this from the images and metaphors that he uses.  Justification, Paul tells us, is being born, or adopted, as a child of God.  And birth is a new beginning, not an end in itself.  Being justified, Paul tells us, is like being released from slavery or being let out of jail.  It’s a chance to live a new life, a life of freedom.

But as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, this freedom thing that Paul is proclaiming, well that makes people nervous.  It especially makes people in positions of power or authority kind of nervous, and it makes people who like to control their own destiny and earn their own way in life a bit uncomfortable.  And so there is always the temptation to go back to the gospel of exchange, back to a conditional system in which we take back a little control, back to the familiar ways of our world.

And here’s one way we do it.

Paul says that we are justified by faith.  By whose faith?  Well by my faith I suppose.  I am justified by my faith.  My faith in what?  Well, my faith in Jesus.  And what does that mean?  Well it means that I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is God incarnate, fully human and fully God, the second person of the Trinity, and that he was crucified for my sins and was raised again and ascended to God’s right hand and he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.  And that I try to follow his teachings, and when I fail I confess my sins and . . .

Did you see what just happened there?  All of a sudden we went from Paul’s gospel of grace to some sort of understanding that says I will be justified if I give intellectual assent to the creeds and doctrines of the church and follow the prescribed practices.  My being good with God all of a sudden is made conditional on something that I do or don’t do.  Kind of like “If you do this, then you’ll be good with God.”  Which is exactly the gospel of exchange that Paul is fighting against in Galatia isn’t it?

You see there’s nothing wrong with doctrines and creeds and intellectual assent to theological propositions, there’s nothing wrong with ethical living or following certain practices.  These are good things, they are helpful things, in many ways.  But they can never be made conditions for our justification.  Because as Paul puts it, if justification comes through these things, then Christ died for nothing!

No, says Paul, we know that we are justified by the faith of Christ.  Now the Greek phrase that Paul uses is actually “pisteos Christou” which can be translated in two different ways.  The first translation is that we are justified by the faith of Christ.  The second is that we are justified by faith in Christ.  Both translations are equally plausible, and as you can imagine, this has been a subject of debate for theologians for centuries.  But I think that both translations are helpful and therefore it is likely that Paul actually intended the double meaning.

First, we are justified by the faith of Christ.  It was Christ’s faith, his absolute trust in God that led to the cross and in so doing opened relationship with God to all people.  It is because of Christ’s faith, not ours, that we are good with God, justified, reborn as children of God.  But this is just the beginning of our new life, and in order to start living the life that has been given to us, we have to trust it, we have to trust this gospel of grace and that is why our faith in Christ matters.  You see, Paul doesn’t just want to teach the gospel of grace, he actually wants to usher people into living it.  Justification is just the beginning.  We have been born as children of God.  So how then do we live?

Paul puts it this way:  “I now live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

What does it look like when we live that way?  That’s where we’ll start next week.


During our open space, you may want to start reflecting on what life looks like when you trust in the gospel of exchange, and, conversely, what life looks like when you trust in the gospel of grace.  A good place to start would be with the story that we heard from Luke in today’s gospel reading with its contrasting portraits of Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus feet.

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