Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Matter of Life and Death

Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7: 40-50
June 12, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Last week we began a look at the book of Galatians, one of the earliest letters from the Apostle Paul to the newly formed churches. In the verses that begin what we call chapter two (remember, Paul didn’t write his letters with chapters and verse numbers) Paul refers to an argument he’s had with other leaders. The argument concerned whether non – Jews -Gentiles – could follow in the Jesus way and if so, whether they needed to follow Jewish practice, tradition and law. There was a strong sense that if a Gentile wanted to join up, they needed to sign up for the whole covenant – circumcision, dietary restriction, and observance of the traditions. Let’s listen for what the Apostle Paul says about that, and for God’s word in Galatians 2:15-21

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet 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. 17 But 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! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our gospel reading is Luke’s account of a woman anointing Jesus. This woman has interrupted a dinner party at the house of Simon, a Pharisee. While they are eating, an unnamed woman comes in and anoints Jesus feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. In Luke’s story, this woman is a disreputable person, and her behavior is considered unacceptable by Simon, the host. So the grumbling starts – Simon says if Jesus were really the Messiah, he’d know what sort of person this is who is touching him. Let’s listen for Christ’s words in his response in Luke 7:40-50

40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." 41 "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" 43 Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, 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." 48 Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" 50 And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

One of my favorite scholars of the New Testament is a woman who is a professor at Vanderbilt divinity school – Amy Jill Levine. She is internationally known, smart, sassy, funny, incredibly knowledgeable. She is also Jewish. I know it – a Jewish professor of New Testament at a Christian seminary! She describes herself as a: "Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt" When I encounter scriptures like the two we have today, I turn first to the writings of Amy Jill Levine.

For these stories to make sense, we need to know something more about the Jewish people and practices of the 1st century. Too often, we Christians think we can lump all of that group together into one population, called in verbal shorthand “The JEWS,” by which we mean crafty and quarrelsome Pharisees who are always trying to set Jesus up for a fall; sneaky politicians who’ve sold out to the Roman empire; and beleaguered hyper-religious zealots who slavishly observe a plethora of excruciatingly detailed and meaningless laws trying to earn favor with the God of Israel.

But weirdly, we exclude the twelve disciples from that stereotype, even though they were Jewish; and we exclude Mary and Joseph, even though they were Jewish, and the women who came to the tomb, even though they were Jewish, and the people who came to hear Jesus, and to follow him, even though many, if not most of them, would have been Jewish.

And weirder still, we exclude Jesus from that stereotype, even though he was
– yes, you’ve got it – Jewish! As was the Apostle Paul.

So let’s not make this disagreement in Galatians about works righteousness or legalism, the idea that Jews thought they needed to work their way into God’s favor. It is important to keep in mind as we watch the early church sort this out that pretty much any faithful Jew knew that God’s covenant did not depend on obeying the law.

In Genesis, God claims Abraham in the covenant, long before the law was given to God’s people at Sinai. And Abraham was certainly not a model of perfect behavior, to say nothing of his grandson Jacob.

Moses was a murderer, but God called him, and even after God gave the law to the people, God’s favor and faithfulness continued in spite of their behavior, not because of it!

Faithful Jews, from Abraham on down, understood that law was a loving gift from God, and that they were saved and brought into the covenant through God’s grace.

We’ve seen that the earliest Jesus followers were Jewish, like Jesus. For them, the question of circumcision and the law was a given – of course they would follow Jewish tradition and practice, just like Jesus did! As much as it might suit us, we can’t make Jesus into a Christian. Professor Levine sums it up best: “the lingering view that Jesus dismissed basic Jewish practices, such as the Laws concerning Sabbath observance and ritual purity, turns Jesus away from his Jewish identity and makes him into a liberal Protestant.”[1]

But now here’s Paul, a traveling evangelist, not a local pastor, with a church full of Gentiles, former pagans, and apparently someone has told them they need to convert to Judaism. The dispute around this has come to some kind of resolution that the Jewish followers of Jesus would remain Jewish, and the Gentile followers of Jesus would remain Gentiles.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is trying to sort this out.
What are the rules for this new community of faith?

In our Gospel reading, long before this dispute about Jews and Gentiles, we encounter this Pharisee, Simon. We can’t make the man into a villain, no matter how we might try. He has invited Jesus to his home, to come to dinner. Clearly he wants to listen and know more. And Simon doesn’t throw the woman out, even though he considers her behavior inappropriate.

In typical Jewish debating style, Jesus turns the conversation to the big issues -- forgiveness, love, and faith. It is not about this woman, he says, not about her actions now or her unspecified sins up to now. What is at stake is this woman’s great love, in response to forgiveness, in response to God’s grace. “Your faith has saved you,” he says. “Go in peace.”

Your faith has saved you.
It’s the theme of Paul’s message to the Galatians.

While the newly formed church is sorting itself out, certain truths remain abundantly clear.
It is through God’s grace and faithfulness that we are made righteous. The law doesn’t justify us. Our good works don’t win God’s favor. We are not saved by our knowledge of the Bible, our sweet smiles, our winning personalities, our generosity, our denomination, our worship attendance, nor our strict adherence to the Book of Order. We are saved, made righteous, Paul stresses, through one thing: God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Our efforts to build walls that divide, to set up fences that keep some people out or others in, Paul identifies as sin. We can’t claim God’s grace and faithfulness as our own if at the same time we are exercising our own will and our own egos. Christ’s forgiveness, at the cost of his life, is a reiteration of God’s ongoing faithfulness throughout history. And it is for everyone – Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints, sinful women and proud pillars of the church.

What Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, Paul repeats in this beautiful and strong statement:“I have been crucified with Christ; and 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.”

Christ was crucified, with words of forgiveness on his lips. But he is not dead.
We have been crucified with Christ. But we are not dead.

We are being saved – not through our righteousness, but through God’s grace.
It is a hard and beautiful truth.

We have been crucified, but we are not dead.
The life we now live is by faith in the one who loved us, the one who gave himself for us.

So the church’s worship, our prayers and our songs, our sharing of our gifts, our mission and ministry, our personal acts of mercy, these are our outpouring of love to the savior – not ways to save ourselves, but to express our love and gratitude to the one who has forgiven much.

Perhaps we forget this, in our efforts to get church right. The church, this church, is not called to better marketing, or better budgeting, or even doing more of any of the things we already do so well. Those things are important, but Christ did not die for a better outreach plan.

Perhaps we need to crucify our focus on numbers – on indexes and counting, on administration and budgets. Perhaps we need to put to death our desire to force everything and everyone into a mold of our own fashioning. Perhaps we need to “crucify afresh”[2] our focus on who is in and who is out. Maybe we should nail to a cross our opinions about how other people ought to behave.

Most importantly, and most certainly, we are called to crucify afresh the old life of sin, and live into the new, transformed, life to which Christ has raised us. We have been crucified with Christ, but we are not dead!

We are alive, transformed for vital living,
for tearing down walls that separate us from those whom God loves,
alive to be open to Christ, who is at work in the world,
alive to be radically faithful,
alive to love so that we may be the living signs of grace
in a world that is aching to be forgiven, welcomed, and healed.

For through the law we died to the law, so that we might live to God. We have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives in us. And the life we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and gave himself for us.

It’s just Jesus, plus nothing. And that equals everything.

Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God! 

[1] Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew (p. 9). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[2] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Pastoral Perspective, Proper 6, Feasting on the Word commentary, p. 136

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