Justification by Faith

 Proper 11                                June 18, 2017

Romans 5:1-8                        Matthew 9:35-10:8

This year, 2017, is a big anniversary year in church history.  It is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  To be precise, the end of October will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in his small town of Wittenberg, thus setting into motion the events that would lead to the splitting up of the Western church and the founding of the various Protestant denominations.

At the centre of Luther’s teaching, and so at the centre of the Reformation, was one key idea, which is usually called “justification by faith”. Luther, like many people in his day, was preoccupied with a sense of his own sinfulness, and with the burning question: what can I do to turn away God’s judgement and make God merciful to me?  The answer he found was simple: I can do nothing . . . and I don’t need to do anything.  God’s favour is there already, because that is who God is.  I don’t need to earn it, any more than a child needs to earn its parent’s favour.  God loves me.  The proof of that is Jesus – that he came to us and died for us. It is my job to accept this love, and then to begin to live up to it.  It is a simple idea to understand; but it is so difficult to keep in mind, because it seems that everything inside us tells us we need to earn God’s favour.

Luther found this insight by reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and finding there passages like the one we heard this morning: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, (there’s that phrase) we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” . . . “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  It is the order that is important.  It’s not the case that because we are at least half-way decent people, or at least are trying real hard, that Jesus comes to us with his grace to top up when we fall short.  God’s love is unconditional.  It is the foundation on which our relationship with God is built.  It is not the case that God loves the righteous and the pious and hates the sinner.  God loves us equally, just as a parent does not love a good child more than a troubled child.  If anything, God’s heart bleeds more for those of us who are on the wrong path.

This is the core of the gospel.  We know this.  So why is it that this is still so little understood by people in general?  Outside of the church, I suspect that most people in our society really do believe that Christians worship a God who cares for Christians, who is pleased with good church-goers and angry with anyone who doesn’t fit the profile, including gays, atheists, feminists, most teenagers, and the poor.  And, frankly, there would appear to be plenty of Christians who seem to believe that, and plenty of churches where that is preached.  
But even with ourselves, who know better – how often do we find ourselves falling back into that old way of thinking: assuming almost unconsciously that God is angry with us when we mess up, that we have to straighten ourselves out to get God’s love back, that God must care for the real saints more than he cares for me.  Somehow that old mentality that God’s love needs to be earned never quite leaves us altogether.  Paul calls it the old Adam; Luther calls it the essence of sin.

Now, there is one big potential misunderstanding built into the phrase “justification by faith” – and since it is a potential pitfall, we often fall into it.  That is, it makes faith sound like the thing we have to do to earn God’s favour.  We don’t have to do good deeds, that would be works righteousness; but what we do have to do is believe strongly, without a shadow of a doubt, and when we do that we will be pleasing to God.  And suddenly we have turned the whole thing on its head: we are back to earning God’s favour, we have just turned faith itself into a work.
And so we end up with the phenomenon in North American Protestantism especially, of thinking that believing something in the face of the evidence is a virtue that God admires.  Never mind all the science that has helped us understand the origin of the universe: if I can believe that the seven days of Genesis are literally true, then God is pleased with me.  It is a wonderfully dangerous principle: if ignoring science is itself virtuous, then I never need to worry about climate change, or any other reality I find inconvenient.  And so we end up with a church, indeed an entire society, that has loosed itself from any responsibility to reality – and we see the consequences daily in the headlines about US politics. The saddest part is that this mentality is not only scientifically and politically wrong, but also theologically wrong.  It is just another way of trying to earn God’s favour and feeling good about our accomplishments. It misses the one essential thing: knowing that we are loved by God, with empty hands and no accomplishments – alongside all those other people we despise.

At the root of this disease is a misunderstanding of what faith or belief is.  We looked at this question in the Lenten book study. Marcus Borg had a chapter on this very question.  We misunderstand belief, and think it means intellectually accepting something as fact.  And so when we say the creed, for example, we are listing all the things you have to accept as fact, swallowing your doubt, in order to be a real Christian. No wonder so many people have trouble with the creed!

Borg points out that we need to go to the Old English roots of the word believe; it is related to the word “love”. Or the Latin word credo (I believe) from which we get the word creed; in its root it comes from “cor do”, “I give my heart”.  So belief or faith in the Christian sense is not something we do with our minds, it is something we do with our hearts.  It has to do with an attitude of love or trust we bring to God. How would it be, whenever we say the creed, if we said “I belove . . .” or “I give my heart to . . . God the father almighty”, and so on.  Let’s try that right after the sermon. We won’t sing it, we will recite it, but differently, just to see how it feels.

And again, it is not this attitude or love or trust that earns God’s favour.  God’s love is there first, like the love of a caring parent, unconditional and steady.  Disappointed and even hurt when we misbehave, perhaps, but still unchanged at its core, God’s attitude towards us is love.  We are not saved by our faith, but by God’s grace.  But our faith is the way we receive that salvation, the way in which we respond to God’s love and enter into that healthy and right relationship based on God’s love, rather than on our accomplishments.

I want to look quickly at the gospel reading, because I see this principle at work there as well.  We have just heard the story of Jesus’s sending out of the disciples – here called apostles for the first time.  But what struck me particularly this week was the verses at the beginning that give the reason for sending them out. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  At the root of Jesus’s mission project is a deep compassion for the harassed and helpless.

Now of course I could use this passage for a sermon about our calling to go out into the community and share the good news of the gospel.  It is a sermon you have heard before, and I could nag you about it again, because this is the challenge we face as a church today, to learn to be missional again. But today I just want to focus your attention on this one verse, and ask how we think about those in the community around us: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

Of course, we are hesitant to evangelize because we don’t want to come across as thinking we know what everyone has to believe.  That’s just the problem with so much evangelization, isn’t it, of the “Do you have time for a short conversation about Jesus Christ?” variety.  It is rooted in the same misunderstanding of justification by faith we were just talking about: in the idea that other people need to think the same things about God that we do in order to get right with God.  So when we don’t want to do that kind of evangelism, we are quite right.  God does not love those with the “right” theology more than those with the “wrong” theology, or no theology at all.
So if we don’t want to be that kind of evangelist, what are we left with?  Well, I suspect that we usually end up with the assumption that everyone is doing alright just where they are.  Religion is a private matter, it doesn’t really matter what you believe, and everyone is doing just fine.  It is, to be frank, a bit of a middle-class attitude.  Because the truth is, not everyone is doing alright.  Lots of people are struggling, not just financially but spiritually – struggling to maintain a sense of self worth, of believing that they are worthy of being loved; struggling with a sense of meaning for their lives, particularly in the face of illness or aging or bereavement; staggering from one bad life decision to another because they have no sense of principles to guide their choices; drifting at the mercy of whatever the advertisers and politicians tell them they need and want.  

There are plenty of people who need what we have been given here.  I don’t mean that we have all the answers, the right formula they have to memorize to be saved.  But rather we have been given here a place where we can come with our spiritual questions and needs and doubts, and find ourselves fed; where we can find a foundation in the gospel that we are beloved by God, and invited to love in return; where we are invited into a relationship with God and one another where we can continue to grow.  At least I hope that’s what we have when we are at our best.
We have been struggling with how to engage the challenge, which the bishop reiterated again at synod, to reach out to the community around us.  I wonder if this might be a clue.  Before we ask ourselves too much what we can do, what projects we can undertake, we need to spend some prayerful time as a community learning to see the people around us as Jesus did: with compassion for them, “because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  The people of Judea were desperate for the good news that religion was not just for the pious and comfortable and successful, but that God’s love was for them, the confused and struggling and sometimes failing.  And I believe there are still many people in our community here with exactly the same needs.  May God grant us the grace to see them with compassion.