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Faith Works

Sermon - 6/13/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 2:15-21

We began a couple weeks ago a study of Paul's letter to the Galatians, and are continuing in that this morning. And as I noted two weeks ago, Paul's letter contains more autobiographical information than any other source that we have about Paul.

In chapter 1, he describes his conversion from a life of violence and persecuting the followers of Jesus, to Christ, as the result of that direct revelation that he had from God on his way to Damascus. And that's a critical point because Paul is responding to critics who evidently have charged that he is out of step with the apostles in Jerusalem. And who, therefore, do not recognize his claim to apostleship.

Then in chapter 2, he goes on to describe his meeting with those very same apostles in Jerusalem, an event that is also described in the 15th chapter of Acts, where it is agreed that Peter has been entrusted with the gospel to be circumcised (that is, the Jews), where Paul has been entrusted to the gospel to the uncircumcised (the Gentiles). With no preconditions, other than that they remember the poor in Jerusalem. Bible scholars will recall that in acts 15 there's a slightly different recollection that they're also to keep a kosher diet, but that's another story we won't go into this morning.

Paul then describes a run-in he has with Peter in Antioch over that very issue, where Peter is eating with the Gentiles (presumably an un-kosher meal), until certain folks come from Jerusalem and he suddenly changes his tune and he goes to eat at their table (a kosher table), and Paul lashes out at Peter for his hypocrisy in verse 14 of chapter 2, quoting himself to Peter, he says: ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’.

And the text that follows is our text for this morning, but first I want to to note one little secret that Bible scholars are very aware of. And that is, there are not quotations in Greek -- they hadn't invented quotation marks yet. So the only way you can tell when something is a quotation is by the context. And that leads to some interesting variations in interpretation. Bible scholars are pretty evenly divided over whether or not this text that follows is a continuation of that quotation of Paul speaking to Peter (and sort of dressing Peter down for his hypocrisy), or, if it is now Paul's summation of the situation as he addresses the church in Galatia.

So, that means that we really can't know for sure who the "we" is in this text, with which it begins. When Paul says 'we' is he referring to himself and Peter in Antioch, or is he referring to himself and his opponents who are also Jewish Christians in Galatia. Minor little point, but leads to some interesting variations of interpretation. You'll notice in the pew Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, that it follows the reasoning of the latter case, so this is not a quotation then of Paul's address to Peter. Some other Bibles go the other direction.

So at at any rate, the text for this morning, from chapter 2, verses 15 through 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 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. 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 faith in 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.

 

The word "justify" here has been laden with all kinds of theological meetings over the centuries. But it's really a very simple concept. It simply means "to be made right".

How many here know how to justify a column? Seriously? :) Could you do it on a typewriter? How many know how to do it on a typewriter? Remember in typing class, for me it was in 7th grade, you get to the end of a line, and what do you do? You put in slash marks, until you come to the end of your margin and your typewriter won't type any more, right? And the you count the number of slash marks, and your spread out the spaces in the sentence. And there are rules abot how many spaces in-between the letters, according to the height of the letter. You remember all of that? Of course not! In this day and age you push the button on the computer :). Where wuold you be without your elders teaching you these essential things that you need to know? Life without computers, right.

Well, it's the same concept -- to "make right", make straight, to justify. To be made right with God. And by the way, the Greek word for 'justification' is the same word that we also translate as 'righteousness'. It's the same word. That's not a 'holier than thou' attitude that we often associate with the word 'righteousness', it's simply someone who is right with God.

So the question Paul is addressing is how do we get right with God? It's not about how we get into heaven, although one might safely assume if one is right with God then presumably then you're going to be OK in the next life. But that's not Paul's primary concern.  Getting right with God is about so much more than anything do with the next life.

And there's a second misconception many have about this text (and about Paul in general) that Judaism is all about law and works, and Christianity is all about faith and grace. And it's simply not true. You've heard me about that before. And I've said it before and will say it again, Paul is not seeking to refute Judaism, his argument is with his fellow Christians who also happen to be Jewish. He contends that to be a good follower of Jesus you also need to be Jewish as Jesus was Jewish, and abide by the Torah, the Jewish law, in order to be made right with God. And that's the notion that Paul is addressing, and he rejects one has to be both.

And so to that, Paul says 'no', faith in Christ alone is sufficient, just as the Jew might say faith in the Torah alone is sufficient. For both Jew and Christian, it is still a matter of faith. And therefore we should see Judaism and Christianity not as in competition with one another, but rather complementary to one another.

But what that faith means for one's daily life was pretty clear for the Jew in that ancient world. There were centuries of tradition. There's a book. Thre's all of that history. The Psalms and the rituals, and the stories -- guides for all kinds of situations. But these new Christians were like that 18-year-old headed off to college who no longer has to live under the rules of their parent. Pretty exciting, right? For the kids! Pretty scary for the parents. And so in some of the chaos and confusion that resulted in this new freedom, going back to the house rules of those parents was one of the options that made perfect sense. Jesus was a Jew, the apostles were all Jewish, the only scriptures they had at that point came from the Jewish tradition, so it just make sense to go back to that.

The challenge then, for Paul, in his mission to the Gentiles, is to explain how one can be right with God without having to be Jewish. And the answer that Paul gives, please note he does not contrast law versus faith as often is assumed, but rather the works of law versus the works of faith.

And we do de-emphasize works because of the negative connotation that we give to 'works righteousness', that idea that one can earn their way into heaven by good deeds. Paul does not have that concern, however. For Paul, there may be be works without faith, but faith without works is not conceivable. For faith that is true and in Christ always leads to good works.

And thus Paul emphasizes the importance of faith first, because it will lead to the right works.. Whereas the right works may not lead to the right faith. And in Galatians 5, he says the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

In his letter to the Philippians, he writes: 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work or his good pleasure'.

So the idea that Paul rejects works over faith is simply nonsensical--it's two sides of the same coin.

Now it is true that Paul casts the law here in a rather negative light, but that is simply the nature of polemics. Paul has to define his understanding of the gospel over against those who relied too much on the law, especially circumcision for men and Kosher diet for all. And therefore he responds in kind.

We, however, do not need to define ourselves in such ways anymore. And therefore do not need to be concerned with such.

What we do need to be concerned with is the way in which our faith is manifested, the works of faith. Or, as Paul calls it, the fruit of the Spirit. Remember Galatians 5:22, many people probably have that memorized or are at least familiar with it: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That last one is probably the tough one for many of us :).

In this text, he summarizes all of that by simply saying it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. To live in Christ is the primary work of faith. As our banners so beautifully say, from that quote from Teresa of Avila -- Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, and so forth.

Or, as St. Francis, in my favorite saying, has said: "Preach Christ at all times. If necessary, use words".

Now, just one more nuance to this text, that I would be remiss in my role as a teacher and Bible scholar wanna-be if I did not point it out. For years, I have admonished faithful Bible students to do what? Footnotes! Read the footnotes!

Get out your text people, and I'm not talking about the editorial comments that the publisher makes, that are often put at the bottom of the page in some Bibles. I'm talking about the footnotes that explain variations in the text, or variations in interpretation of the text. We struggle with that concept, we want our text to be black-and-white, crystal clear, but there's a lot of ambiguity in the text that is important for us to be aware of, because in that ambiguity often times, paradoxically, is the power of the gospel.

So let me show you what I'm talking about. Verse, 16, if you look in your pew Bible, and if you have a different Bible, compare and see, that's a good way to see how good your Bible is, or the publisher is, whether or not is has these footnotes. In verse 16, there are 3, actually, little footnotes. The first one I've already explained, you'll note after the word 'justify', there's a little tiny letter, and look down below it also says it can be translated as 'righteousness'.

But the next two, 'not by works of law, but through faith in Jesus Christ', little letter 'd', and 'we have come to believe in Jesus Christ so that we might be justified by faith in Christ', little letter 'e'. You look down below, what does it say? It says "faith of Jesus".

That's a different idea, how do you respond to that except to go "huh?". Rather than faith in Jesus, we are justified, made right with God, by the faith of Jesus. Huh. Or, maybe it's Huh?

The Greek preposition is ambiguous. It can be either. Which does Paul mean? Does he mean one, or the other, or both?

You see, when we say 'faith in Jesus', or to believe in Jesus, it's about what we do. And some charge that's just another form of works righteousness, earning our way into heaven. But when when we say we are justified, made right by God, not because of what we do but because of the faith of Jesus, then it's truly about what Jesus has done, not about what we do.

So, if you want to avoid making that act of believing another form of works, then speak of salvation not as faith in Jesus, but rather from the faith of Jesus. For Paul to live in Christ is not so much to believe in Jesus as it is to have the faith of Jesus. And what is that faith?

To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. To love your neighbor as yourself. To love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. To do unto others as they would do unto you. To proclaim the good news to the poor, and to set the oppressed free.

To have the faith of Jesus is not just to believe those things to be true (as Jesus says, even the demons do that), it is rather to show your works by your faith and your faith by your works. By such we are not only justified, made right with God, by such faith, the faith of Jesus, to live differently in this world, to follow the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of justice and peace, the world will be made right with God.

And so by and with our faith, we seek no less than to transform lives, to transform Christianity, to transform the world.

Huh.

 


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