“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person
is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified
by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law,
because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
Sermon for Communion Sunday, July 3, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA
Rev. Dr. Stephen Simmons
Acouple of summers ago, when my wife Cindy and I were visiting our home turf back in Chicago, I had the wonderful experience of riding a Cubs troop train into the city from the suburbs. Of course, it wasn’t officially a troop train, but it might as well have been, since most of the passengers were wearing Cubs caps and T-shirts, carrying Cubs water bottles and coolers and makeshift banners and all kinds of doo-dads, heading off to invade a friendly city and see their team win, maybe.
It was all pretty silly, but boy, was it fun. If there were any Dodgers fans, or Mets fans, or (sorry) Phillies or Pirates fans on board, you couldn’t tell, because they were keeping a really low profile. Ah, the happy harmony of an afternoon at Wrigley Field with a multitude of kindred souls.
I’m sure one reason that all felt so good is that the world we live in the rest of the time isn’t like that. We live in a day-to-day world in which all kinds of fans root for their home team, in which the stakes are often higher and the outcome far more uncertain than they are in the world of baseball, and in which there seem to be no umpires, or too many umpires, calling balls and strikes, saying who’s safe and who’s out. And all those other fans of other teams show no signs of going away or keeping still.
I think that’s a helpful introduction to our passage from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia this morning. Paul is writing to a group of Jewish Christians in a Gentile part of the Roman Empire, a place of many ethnicities and religions where Jews were quite certain which one was the true one. One thing Paul’s audience had always known was that, as Jews, they stood out from their neighbors. There were definite indicators that told them and everybody else who they were. Every boy baby was circumcised when he was eight days old, and that would mark him for life. Everyone basically knew what to eat, what not to eat, what was permitted on the Sabbath, what not, whom you could associate with, whom to steer clear of, and, generally, how to live a life pleasing to God as one of his chosen people. This was not a “lifestyle choice”; it was bred in the bone. It was a matter of who you were at the most elemental level. People had died over these things within the living memory of most Jews.
This is Paul’s audience, and he gets off to a good start: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” You can see heads nodding around the room. Tell, ‘em, Paul. Preaching to the choir. Playing for the home team.
But then it gets a little sketchy. Paul goes on, “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.”
Wait. What? This Paul, a Pharisee trained in the Law of Moses, until recently a standard bearer for the most exacting adherence to the Jewish way of life, dotter of I’s and crosser of T’s, persecutor of heretics, this Paul now says that it’s all Jesus, all the time. Paul now says that a non-Jew, a plain old generic person, literally anybody, can be a perfectly good Jesus follower. You don’t have to be Jewish to be chosen. Those outside the old covenant that has held Judaism together for more than a thousand years, through persecution and occupation and exile, those people, those pagans, are now family. He’s saying that the only thing they have to do to “get right with God” is to join us on the Way with Jesus, the one in whom God has made it all right.
Now, remember that Paul’s audience in the Galatian church consists of people who live on a boundary. They have one foot planted in a Judaism that increasingly doesn’t recognize them because of their allegiance to the crucified Jesus; and they have another foot planted in a pagan world to whom they are trying to bring the good news that this Jewish Jesus came for them, too. They must have felt suspended in thin air between the Jewish world and the Gentile one, and it’s easy to see why they would be more than a little worried about finding a solid place on which to stand.
For us who read these words here and now, this isn’t just a question for Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. It’s a human question. How do we know who we are? How will we know we’re different, special? What’s our brand? What’s our tribe? What side will we be on, especially when the sides are being chosen up, and especially when we know that those who stand in the middle so often get run over by the traffic running both ways? The players may be different in the 21st century than they were in the first, but the questions are in many ways the same
* * *
Paul had to wrestle with dietary laws and circumcision and Sabbath regulations. We have to wrestle with logos and lawn signs, branding and boosting – I get fifty emails a day trying to enlist me for this cause or that, and I’ll bet you do too. I’m bombarded with slogans and sound bites and text messages, all saying “Pick your niche, find your groove, hunker down in your bunker – and, by the way, here’s a banner for you to wave.” But, as Christians, we are constantly faced with the nagging question: What side is the Lord on? What are the colors for Team Jesus? What’s our checklist? You’ve been there. This congregation has struggled mightily with that question in recent days.
I think Paul’s message is this: we need to throw out our checklists – and that means whatever version of “the law” our particular tribe is wedded to. And Paul knows how hard that can be, but he believes it’s essential, because there’s a better way. Paul himself must have been tempted to fudge, to cherry pick some parts of the Law. And yet he writes:
“But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” That’s complicated, but is Paul is saying something like, if I try to rebuild something that I tore down, it’s as though I’m admitting that I vandalized something that had a right to be there in the first place? Friends, the whole thing needs to come down! The Law did what it was supposed to do. It showed us that, after all, we can only be “right” with God through faith; it’s an excellent diagnostic tool, and it can do a great job of showing us how well we fail to measure up to God’s intentions for us. But it’s not the cure for what ails us; only the love of God in Jesus Christ is.
We keep trying to tinker with the report card, and God says, “You’ve already passed the course. In fact, Jesus already aced it for you, and you got to copy off his paper.” That can’t be right! How do I prove myself worthy, which is pretty much the same as saying, how do I establish my position on the winning team? “You don’t have to prove anything. Go live your life, and tell everybody else that they don’t have to prove anything. All they have to do is love.” It can’t be that simple! It sounds like a Beatles tune, for Pete’s sake. But it is that simple. It’s we who complicate it.
One of the best examples I know of what I think Paul is talking about comes from the educator Vivian Paley, who for many years taught kindergartners at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. She noticed, as any teacher does who has been at it for any length of time, that during recess, some kids excluded other kids from their games. In an effort to remedy the situation (and there was a lot more to it than we can go into here), she made up one simple rule: “You can’t say you can’t play.” No one could be excluded from the game, whatever the game happened to be; even when Ms. Paley herself would put someone in the time out corner, the kids would remind her of the rule. “Ms. Paley, you can’t say he can’t play.” No more time out corner; imagine that! The revolution has arrived. When she asked the kids if they thought the rule was fair, they all said, “Yes.” When she asked the kids if they liked it, they all said, “No.” How come? As one little girl put it, “How will we know who our friends are?”
The trouble was that under the new rule they couldn’t be “particular” about who their friends were. The trouble with Jesus is that he isn’t particular about who his friends are. In a time when we’re more than a little inclined to peek over our back fences and ask, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus responds, “C’mon, let’s find out.” The only way to recognize your neighbor is to be one. And that’s a matter of putting our whole self in.
* * *
There is an interesting little phrase in Paul’s Greek in these verses: pisteos Christou, which can either mean, faith in Jesus or the faith of Jesus – not only believing in what he has done for us by getting us right with God, which would enable us to sit on the sidelines and cheer him on from a safe distance – but going with his kind of faith into risky and contested places, finding new discomfort zones in the confidence that God goes with us and that the Spirit still works to reconcile people and heal old hurts and lead us into the way of peace.
The only problem with following Jesus is that we have to die to ourselves.
That’s what baptism is about, after all – dying with Christ to the old self so that the new self can be born. And in baptism we are marked, not with a visible sign, but with water and the Spirit, because the only identifying mark that you’re part of Team Jesus is in the heart. As the old camp song has it, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Period. Jesus calls us out of our own stuff, to die to our own interests, to put our pet opinions on a short leash, to make ourselves available, and so to open up a space in which we can all hear, not our own voices, but God’s.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to take up our coolers and backpacks and follow him. He doesn’t ask us to put on our “Jesus” caps and be one more team taking the field to duke it out with everybody else. He asks us to take up our crosses, and follow him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, not to start Team Jesus, as though it were yet one more tribe, but to create a new humanity, to reconstitute the human race from the ground up.
And when we are tempted to go into default mode, to download the old stuff and go on the defensive, and to talk in glib and shopworn terms about “us” and “them,” Paul looks us right in the eye, as he looked at the Galatians, and he says, “Did Christ then die for nothing?” Let our answer be, Christ died for us, and for “them,” and for all.
And this table is the place where it all comes together. It’s the place where Jesus puts it all together, sometimes through us, often in spite of us. It’s not our table; it’s the Lord’s table. It’s the place where we recognize and lament the brokenness of our world, and of the church, and of our own hearts; but it’s also the place where we see Christ in the midst of the mess, and where we witness God’s power to begin a new creation, as we celebrate a foretaste of heaven, this wonderful mystery that the early church called an antepast of glory.
So come to the table, for all is ready.