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Pentecost 4C Sermon
Galatians 2: 15-21

June 12, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

We come to the place in Paul’s letter to the Galatians where the rubber hits the road. Already we have heard Paul’s usual greetings, sensed his anger, and heard him testify about how his life had a moment where it changed focus from his own efforts and accomplishments, to building his relationship with God and helping others to know that this merciful God desires a relationship with them as well. It has not been without conflict – Paul has had to go to the center of the Christian faith at the time, to Jerusalem, to debate and argue with Peter and the other leaders, many of which actually knew Jesus when he was alive. And now, Paul is getting into the heart of the matter which for us requires a little lesson in the language of Paul and of the Bible itself, that being Koine Greek.

In the second half of verse 16, Paul says that we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified (or made right in God’s eyes) 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. It is the Greek phrase, “pisteos Christou” – found a couple of times in these verses - which present the problem here. It is a very ambiguous phrase which can either mean faith IN Christ, or the faith OF Christ. Knowing the context of Paul’s letter – proclaiming the free gift of justification by the grace of God – it makes sense if we actually translate this passage as, “a person is justified not by works of the law, but by the (faith or the) faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and we have come to believe in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ …” It is not that Paul doesn’t see the merit or the worth of a life which reflects the love of Jesus to those around us; it’s just that ultimately, the accomplishment of our salvation – of being children of God now and for eternity – belongs solely to the work of God in Christ.
In his mission to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to non-Jews, Paul confronted the large questions of ethnic and religious practices and requirements for Christians of different backgrounds and traditions. It was not necessary for people to adhere to laws or customs of one tradition in order to be welcomed - not only by this new religious following, but also to be welcomed by God! We are welcomed and made children of God because Jesus was faithful in his life and ministry in the world, even to the point of giving his own life out of love for those who couldn’t follow the laws well enough to satisfy the religious leaders of his time either.

So we should read the phrase, “pisteo Christou” not in a works-righteous way – that your faith in Christ saves you - but in a grace-filled way – that the Faithfulness of Christ saves us all. But what does that mean for us now? Don’t we have to do anything? Does this make any kind of difference in our lives, or can we continue to disregard any kind of law knowing that God has already loved us and welcomed us into his family? In order that we do not adhere to a spirit of licentiousness, of free license to do whatever we want knowing that we will all be forgiven in the end, Paul goes on to share the words that are printed on the fronts of your bulletins: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” According to Paul, the right response to this free gift of justification is to allow the Christ who was so faithful in his earthly, human life to live in and through our words and actions. This free gift wasn’t totally free – it came at great cost! And it not only cost Jesus his life, but it also costs us our old lives as well. In verse 19 of this passage we hear about our own deaths: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It is free, but it isn’t cheap! Allowing our old, greedy, selfish, sinful lives to perish, that is our daily response to this gift of welcome and justification. And welcoming others who, by God’s free gift, have been made our brothers and sisters is also our good and right response as well.

I was reminded yesterday at our Men’s Bible Study of a modern day parable about heaven and hell, which I believe illustrates the new life that we live in Christ as a result of the free gift of justification. We were discussing the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and somehow (as these discussions do) we digressed a bit, until we found ourselves telling jokes about heaven and hell, St. Peter, and what all of that is like. I was reminded of this story which I shared with them, and which I think illustrates what it means that what we do is really a reflection of Christ’s resurrected body in each of us.

One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.” God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. Strapped to their arms were spoons with very long handles, and while it was possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, because the long handle prevented their elbows from bending, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons strapped to their arms, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The man said, “I don’t understand.” God smiled. It is simple, he said, these people learned early on to share and feed one another. While both groups have received this free gift of a bounteous feast, the people in hell reflect the greed of their old selves; these people are grateful and understand the nature of this gift. They are free to share their feast, feeding each other, knowing that their brothers and sisters will do the same with them.

Because of the faithfulness of Christ, we are made right with God. Our good and proper response is to surrender ourselves over to the Christ who now lives in all of us. Thanks be to God for this free gift of new life! Amen.