Right relationships

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Galatians 2:15-21.  

I wonder if, as you listened to our reading from Galatians this morning, you felt that it was completely clear and you understood exactly what Paul was trying to say?

I often find Paul’s meaning difficult to follow, especially when he rambles on about abstract ideas, and I suspect I’m not alone; because this passage and others like it have been key in some of the biggest arguments Christian groups have had over the last six hundred years or so.

What is justification?  What does it mean to be justified?  Does it really change us, or is it more a change of God’s attitude towards us?  Can we make it happen, or is that entirely up to God?  Can we lose our justification?  And what difference does it all make anyway?

These were some of the big questions driving the Reformation, but for all the many different ways that people have approached these questions, I wonder whether you have a sense of confident understanding of them?

I don’t have time, in one sermon, to deal thoroughly with the whole topic.  What I’m really interested in exploring, this morning, is the question of whether being justified changes us.  But in order to get to that, I probably need to take a step back first and look at the question, what is justification?

It’s unfortunate for us that the tradition of translation here favours a legal understanding.  It has the same Latin root as justice, and that often leads us towards understanding what Paul is talking about here as if he meant it in a legal sense.

But while we might be able to use a legal analogy to understand aspects of his argument, I don’t think he was fundamentally expressing a legalistic idea.  The Greek word he uses has a different and broader base of meaning, and I think the best translation of it, where we might usually see “justify,” is actually something more like, “bring into right relationship.”

Well, if we’re talking about relationships, we’re immediately taking a different sort of approach than if we’re talking about law, aren’t we?

Let me re-read the passage for you, using that kind of idea instead of law-related language, and see if it strikes you differently:

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is brought into right relationship 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 brought into right relationship by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be brought into right relationship by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be brought into right relationship in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 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. 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.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if right relationship comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

So how – you might ask – does this bringing-into-right-relationship work?  God, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, holds out to us the offer of a right relationship; one in which all of the things which previously stood between us and God have been overcome by God, and we have complete freedom to respond in love.  And we, as we are able to recognise that, and respond, live in a way which makes that relationship a living reality.

And what are the consequences of being brought into this right relationship?  I’d suggest that these are the main things to think about.

  • We have peace with God (and, by extension, with each other). This is the profound theological truth behind the greeting of the peace in our worship.
  • Our sins are forgiven. Whatever our lack of love of God and of neighbour has led us to do, that is set aside as our relationships have a new beginning.
  • Any religious or spiritual punishment or penalty is set aside for us. This is where the legal aspect of this idea is useful; it is as if any guilty verdict against us, and its consequences, is removed.
  • We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is with the Spirit present and dwelling within us that our relationship with God is sustained and nourished.
  • We are able to order our lives to reflect our right relationship with God, so that it impacts on every aspect of how we live, and particularly our relationships with others.
  • And we have assurance that our right relationship with God has consequences beyond this life, and for eternity. We need not fear death or what comes after it but be confident the God who holds us in love in this life, will hold us in love in whatever comes after.

These are not small things!  A right relationship with God will impact us in profound ways.  You will all have heard that “You are what you eat;” but I’d suggest that it’s just as true that “You are your relationships.”  And a relationship with the one who created and sustained everything in existence is bound to make a big difference to how we experience life.

This is, incidentally, why for so many Christians going to confession is an important part of their life of faith.  I know that it isn’t a big feature of how people approach things in this parish, but I think it’s worth remembering that Anglicans still have confession – as an option, nobody is obliged to take it up – and that it is intended to be a useful tool in helping us recognise and respond to the offer of a right relationship which God always holds out to us.  It’s not that I expect everyone to want to use that tool, but I think it’s important that you know that it exists and it’s available to you.

There’s just one more point I want to make while we’re thinking together about this.  And that is that Christians, especially in the West, have tended to think about these issues of right relationship with God in a very individualistic way, where it’s all about me and God in our own little bubble, and the rest of the church is just a group of people all of whom are also each in their own little bubble with God, and those bubbles are barely adjoining, let alone interacting in any way.

But I’d suggest to you that – as I said before – being in right relationship with God is always complicated by the fact that it draws us into a community of all of those in that right relationship, and we are in relationship with one another as well.  An emphasis on relationships – with God and with others – as the key thing in Christian life might well be the most profoundly counter-cultural idea we have, in a world where individualism is very much the public doctrine of the day.

So where does that leave us?  Justification – being brought into right relationship with God – does change us, profoundly.  Its impacts should be felt in every part of our lives.  If we have any doubt about that right relationship being open to us, we have the Scriptures, we have prayer, and we have the community of believers in which to seek to reconnect to that most basic truth of our faith.  And our right relationship with God draws us into a community of believers, a network of wider relationships, which may be our greatest strength in contrast to a world of disconnected individuals.

That doesn’t begin to exhaust everything that could be said about all of this, but I hope it is enough to give you some useful ideas on which to reflect.

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