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Faith That Saves

Sermon 5/29/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 3:21-31

First let me begin this morning with a small confession, or really a concession.  Since I began preaching some 21 years ago on a full-time basis, I have given 16 sermons out of Paul's letter to the Romans.  By comparison I've preached 61 times just from the gospel of Mark, which of course is the shortest of the four gospels.  Which is just a way of noting that Romans is probably not one of my favorite texts from which to preach.  And if you know anything about church history you might find that as a little odd, because it was this letter to the Romans that really, in many ways, was responsible for the protestant reformation.  It was when Martin Luther was working on Romans, his commentary on Romans, that he developed his doctrine of justification by faith and separated, ironically, from the Roman Catholic Church.  And it was this particular passage that is the text for this morning that is the basis for that notion of justification by faith.  That is, the idea that it is faith and not works that makes us "right" with God, or justifies us, or saves us, or whatever language you want to use.

It's not a passage I've ever preached on before.  To be perfectly honest, I much prefer the stories of Jesus to the sometimes rather heavy, theological, obtuse language of Paul.  And Romans is by far the weightiest, and the densest of all his letters.  But for all its heavy theological language, the message of Paul in Romans is really quite simple, and he sums it up in the first chapter in verse 16 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."

And then Paul launches into a long description of the sinfulness of the world that has caused people all kinds of problems.  But it's simply his way of saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world.  And it's not about any one individual's wrong-doing, it's rather what is wrong with the entire world, with all of humanity, with the human condition.  And he blames it on human nature itself -- it's simply unavoidable.  And then he offers the solution to this condition.  I want to read the text simply as it appears in the New Revised Standard Version (which is the version you have in your pew), and a little bit later I'm going to make one slight change to the text.  So you may want to follow along because it's not often you get to hear the Bible corrected J.

So, reading then from chapter 3, verses 21 through 31:

21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.  27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

So let's talk just a little bit about this human condition which Paul describes as "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God".  There are two ways, I think, to read this.  One is healthy and one is unhealthy.

The unhealthy way views sin as bad deeds or bad thoughts, and then emphasizes how sinful we all are.  How bad we all are.  How in terrible need of some kind of redemption to overcome this terrible condition we all need.  And therefore that we deserve, you see, punishment by God for our badness.

There's one thing that I hear over and over again from new people who come to our church and that is how refreshing and how wonderful it is to come to a place where they are not beat up all the time.  Not told over & over again about how bad and awful and sinful that they are.

And I think it was that understanding of sin and human nature that was clearly reflected in Mel Gibson's movie the Passion of the Christ.  And I have to be honest and share with you that I do not understand how convincing anyone about how sinful they are that Jesus had to so terribly, terribly suffer in order to take away their sin is going to make anyone a healthier person.  We have enough neurosis in the world, we don't need to take on that kind of guilt of what we caused the Son of God to suffer.

Is there another way, a healthier way, to envision how we have all sinned?  Yes, I think there is.  And that is to describe sin as the separation from God, rather than to focus on just bad deeds and bad thoughts.  Child psychologists tell us that when we are born we have no individual identity or self-awareness.  For those first 9 months or so of our existence, our experience of the world is filtered through the protection of our mother's womb.  After birth we slowly become more aware of the world around us.  Unlike in the womb, where everything is connected, now we are aware of how everything is separate.  And so for self-awareness to mature into a healthy consciousness, we necessarily must separate ourselves from our parents, from our family, from all others in order to become the unique individual that we are fully self-aware.  

And only when we become most fully aware of how separate we really are do we become aware then of how separate we are from God.  And such separation is not anything bad, it's simply human nature.  However, it is the continued living in that state of separation that then results in those things in the world that bring us to where we are and the situation of so many problems that we face.

And faith is that which offers a way to overcome that separation.  To be connected to God once again.  And this is the basic message of Paul that's very simple to understand.  That the solution to what is wrong in the world is found through faith in the one God who is the God of all.

But what does it really mean to have such faith?  Imagine you're at the Eugene airport and you're about ready to board a flight, but you are given the choice of two planes.  You can take plane #1 or plane #2.  And you're told that both planes have pilots freshly graduated out of school.  The first pilot is a graduate of the Tuskegee Aeronautics Flight School.  You've never heard of this flight school, you have no idea how good it is, but you're told he was a top student, received A's in all his courses, passed with flying colors.  The second student is a graduate of Northwest Christian College.  You know NCC, he was a bible student.  Top student -- got A's in all of his Bible classes.  Now which one are you going to fly with?  Do you have faith?

Now here's my point:  Paul is not an advocate of blind faith.  He is not suggesting you put your faith in Jesus just because Jesus is a really nice guy who got good grades at NCC -- The Nazareth College of Carpenters!  Rather, he advocates for faith in Jesus as the one who has walked the talk, who put his life on the line for us.

Now I want to call your attention to one of those obscure ambiguities of translation which sheds new light on this text and I think makes it easier to understand.  It's not really a correction, but just a difference in translation that makes all the difference in how we read this text.  

Look at page 916 in your pew Bible, and if you read very carefully there in verse 22, you read ". . the righteousness for God through faith in Jesus ChristOr through the faith of Jesus Christa" and then what follows immediately after that?  Not more words, but a letter.  You see that little letter?  You may need magnifying glasses or borrow the glasses of someone next to you so you can read that little letter, and you look down in the footnote.  And in the footnote it says:

"or through the faith of Jesus Christ"

You see the difference?  Instead of faith in Jesus Christ, it's faith of Jesus Christ.  And in verse 26, the same thing -- at the end of that verse, ". . . one who has faith in Jesus b", another little tiny letter, another little footnote, bottom of the page:

"or who has faith of Jesus"

I love seeing so many people reading their Bibles at church!  It's a good thing to see!  And it's amazing what you learn when you read it seriously and carefully.

So what's the point here?  This is one of those cases where the Greek has two possible meanings, both are equally valid.  And Bible translators, the responsible ones anyway, put both translations in there so that you can read that and understand that there is an ambiguity in the Greek that does not translate well into the English.  It's not "of" or "in", but it's really both 'of' and 'in'.

And the difference between having faith "in" Jesus and having the faith "of" Jesus is like the difference of having money in the bank and having the money of the bank.  Which would you prefer?  I know which one I'd choose!

My contention is that in this change is the heart of Paul's meaning and the essence of his teaching about Christian faith.  That it's not just about having faith in Jesus, it's about having the faith of Jesus.  Of living the way that Jesus lived in radical obedience to the way of God, challenging the politics of Pilate with the justice of Jesus.  The Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God.  To love God not just with heart, body and soul but to love your neighbor as yourself.  And even, even!, to love your enemies.  Which as that popular bumper sticker now going around says -- that probably means not to kill them.

It is thus not just faith in this Jesus, as Lord and savior of the world, that saves us, but it is the faith of Jesus that saves us.  When we too trust in God's might, not in our own, when we love one another as Jesus loved us, when our giving comes out of our desire not just out of our surplus, when we follow God with our heart, not just with our head.  

There is, I believe, in every time and place those who have demonstrated such faith and what it means in concrete terms.  Mother Teresa, whose faith turned love into compassion for the dying.  The Dalai Lama, whose faith has made peace a righteous devotion of highest order.  Nelson Mandela, whose faith forged forgiveness into a political reality and a social policy in South Africa.  

Five summers ago, some of you went with me on the walk for Farm-worker justice sponsored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, in the northern Willamette valley through the fields visiting farm-workers, going to see the places where they lived, discussing the conditions of their work with them, and the efforts to build a more just and equitable system that will protect the rights and dignity of farm workers while still providing for a stable, affordable workforce for the agricultural industry and for our growers.  And we concluded with a rally in Salem at the end of that week.  After the rally we held a worship service for all of the walkers, to give thanks for that experience.  As luck would have it, it was raining pretty good that particular Sunday afternoon.  So we threw ourselves at the mercy of the keepers of the capital and asked if we couldn't move our service inside.  They said, well it's a public space, as long as you obey the law and don't do anything illegal and don't use the sound system, you can do whatever you want inside the capital, in the rotunda.  So we held our worship service right there in the rotunda, around the seal of Oregon.  Some people don't believe in the separation of church and state, I don't know J.

One of the participants in the leaders of that service read from a letter by Cesar Chavez, written in 1969 on the first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  It was a letter he was writing from jail in the midst of the struggle with the United Farm Workers and grape growers in California.  And Chavez, very much in the tradition of King's non-violent resistance, and he was, after 25 days of a fast, responding to an accusation by one of the growers that they had resorted to acts of violence (unsupported allegations).  So this woman stood up and she read this letter, which I'm only going to read in part, from the steps there in the capital inside the rotunda:

Today, on Good Friday 1969, we remember the life and sacrifice of Martin Luther King, who gave himself totally to the non-violent struggle for peace and justice.  In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King describes better than I could our hopes for the strike and a boycott.  Quote:  "injustice must be exposed with all the tension its exposure creates.  To the light of human conscience, and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured."  For our part, I admit, that we have seized upon every tactic and strategy consistent with the morality of our cause to expose that injustice and thus to heighten the sensitivity of the American conscience, so that farm workers will have, without bloodshed, their own union and the dignity of bargaining with their employers.  I must make you understand that our membership, and the hopes and aspirations of hundreds and thousands of the poor and dispossessed, that have been raised on our account, are above all human beings.  No better, no worse, than any other cross-section of human society.  We are not saints because we are poor.  But by the same measure, neither are we immoral.  We are men and women who have suffered and endured much not only because of our abject poverty, but because we have been kept poor.  The color of our skins, the language of our culture and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our slain in recent wars, all these burdens, generation after generation, have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit.  But God knows we are not beasts of burden.  We are not agriculture implements, or rented slaves.  We are men and women.  Our strikers and those who represent us throughout the world are well-trained for the struggle.  They have been taught not to lie down and die, or to flee in shame.  But to resist with every ounce of human endurance and spirit.  To resist not with retaliation in kind, but to overcome with love and compassion.  With ingenuity and creativity.  With hard work and longer hours.  With stamina and patient tenacity.  With truth and public appeal.  With politics and law.  And with prayer and fasting.  I repeat to you the principle enunciated to the membership at the start of this fast -- if to build our union required the deliberate taking of life, either the life of a grower or his child or the life of a farm worker or her child, that I choose not to see the union built.  This letter does not express all that is in my heart, but it says, if nothing else, that we do not hate you, or rejoice to see your industry destroyed.  We hate the agri-business system that seeks to keep us enslaved and we shall overcome and change it not by retaliation or bloodshed, but by a determined non-violent struggle, carried on by those masses of farm workers who intend to be free and human.  

Sincerely yours, Cesar Chavez.


And then the young woman did something that took my breath away.  Something some people may consider sacrilegious.  She held the letter up and she said "the word of the Lord".  Those properly, liturgically trained, replied:  "Thanks be to God".  And a chill went down my spine.  And I realized, that the sacrifice of Christ has given people like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez faith to put their lives on the line for the sake of others struggling for God's justice here on earth.  

This is the faith of Jesus.  It is the faith that saves us.


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