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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Faith in or of Christ?

and at All Souls’, Augathella

1 Kings 21.1-21a
Psalm 5.1-7
Gal. 2.15-21


It could easily be lost in passing, but a furious debate goes on between those who specialize in the scholarly research into and reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as to whether the phrase we have read as “justified by faith in Jesus Christ” should be read in that way or as “justified by the faith of Jesus Christ.” The two wordings are identical in Greek, and it is in reality impossible to decide which was Paul’s intention. Certainly in the history of reformation- or protestant-influenced interpretation it has been almost always read that we are justified by our faith in Jesus Christ. Yet in recent years there has been an increasing recognition that we can, against all Paul’s best intentions, turn faith itself into a work – that outcome which Paul most loathed – if we develop in some ways from these famous words of Paul the sense that we can in some way bolster up our faith until we too can move mountains. That if we really believe hard, then we can be in some way more justified, more close to God, more able to be the person God would have us be.

Such a reading is fundamentally unchristian, but many of us have heard it. If you really believed your children would be better behaved. If you really believed your disease would be healed. If you really believed then your children would share your faith, your church would grow, your finances would blossom. The variations are endless, and they are an endless spit in the face of Paul and all he saw that was the heart of the gospel.

So was Paul referring to our faith in Christ or to the faith of Christ as being the basis of our journey into God? Certainly were it not for the faith of Jesus of Nazareth in the one he called Abba, and his obedience to his calling to the way of the Cross, we would be left Godforsaken, alienated from the home to which we are called and with no possibility of a passage back. It is by the faith and the fidelity of Jesus the Christ that our access to God is made possible, that we are “made righteous”, as the Greek word we translate as “justified” might equally be translated. It is by the faith of Christ that we are made to be at rights with the creator.

Yet there is also a degree to which our faith must respond, a degree to which we must breathe our “amen” to the opportunities made possible in Jesus. Do we want to be reconnected to the One who makes sense of existence? We can choose a no, or we can choose an amen – a yes, we which to be justified, made into right relationship with the one who awaits us, heals us, calls us.

The broken woman of Luke’s story (only Luke tells us this story in this form, though Matthew and Mark know of a similar situation) is drawn to Jesus of Nazareth by his obvious strength of compassion and justice. We might equally say she is drawn to Jesus by his holiness – I have spoken of him as the unravelling or the revelation of the heart of the Creator. In his actions, in his teaching, in his compassion she has seen the heart of the god for whom she longs, the giver of meaning to her broken and alienated existence. She has a sense of separation from what she wishes and senses she could be, and Jesus is the passport home.

Of course she knows her shortfallings. Those of us who have read the Philip Yancey book What’s so amazing about Grace? will recall the story of the prostitute who longs to find healing: why don’t you go to church, she is asked? Why would I, she answers: I already feel bad about myself, they’d just make me feel worse. It is a powerful indictment of the Christian community. We are not supposed to be a people who make those around us feel unworthy, but bearers of a message that in Christ we have been – Paul’s words – justified, made righteous, made worthy, made welcome in the presence of the healing cleansing, inviting Creator. We need from time to time to be made aware of our need of God, of our shortfallings, but not to dwell on them. We need a route home, to the place of our belonging. We need to hear the word of forgiveness: whether we leap across the chasm and miss the other side by a centimetre or a kilometre we all fall short – we need to have some assurance that at the closing of our days the words “come home, friend” await us. It is clear to Paul and Luke alike that those words await us only on the lips of Jesus the compassionate.

Forgiveness: as word reaches some of us of the forced resignation of Dr Ian George, Archbishop of Adelaide,[1] we could do worse than to remember that this is the most hated word in the Christian lexicon. We live is a society, it seems, that longs neither for forgiveness nor reconciliation, but for bloodlust and revenge. There is no suggestion in the story of the broken woman that Jesus offers a cheap pat on the back for the sinner – though enormous questions remain as to whether this so called sinner is more sinner or sinned against. Like all the women in the Jesus stories, there are strong indications that it is the stone-hurling men who have been in the first place, the abusers. While I would hate to push the comparison too far, we might remember that a media that sexualizes children in advertising, in programmes, in magazines and online, and politicians who fail to lift a finger at the devastation of children in refugee camps, are the same players who have cried for the blood of the archbishop of Adelaide.

We make no plea for cheap grace. If sins have been committed – sins of omission as well as sins of commission – then penalties should be paid. But Luke and Paul alike see clearly that there is no way any of us can claw our way across the chasm that divides us from perfection, from home, from God. The woman knows her brokenness. Ian George admits to his failings – though he will not be thanked for it. We can only start – each of us, each day, but quietly imploring of God that we too might know our need for help on the journey home.



 [1] Twelve years later I suspect I might be aware of parallels, albeit less significant, closer to home! 
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