Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Paul and Faith
June 20, 2010, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 20th June 2010

This morning, I would like to look for once at the Epistle rather than the Gospel, in which St Paul has important things to say about faith. A little background information first. The Galatians were a Celtic people, living in what is now northern Turkey. Ethnically and linguistically, they were quite different from the Greeks and the Jews. Paul had founded churches among them on one of his missionary journeys, and they had accepted the Gospel enthusiastically.

However, as you may recall, there was a considerable difference of opinion in the Jewish-Christian church as to how far the Jewish Law still applied, and in particular whether it applied to Christian converts from paganism. Paul thought that, whether or not Jewish believers were still bound by Torah, it had no application to Gentile converts (in its ceremonial aspects- of course the moral law applied to everyone). Paul had been sent out by the church at Antioch, and many there had been convinced by a delegation from Jerusalem that Paul was wrong on this point. Regarding Paul’s foundations as, as it were, colonies of Antioch, they sent their own representatives to the communities evangelised by Paul, to put them right.

Paul was probably in Ephesus when he heard what was going on. He was furious! He wrote to the Galatians in strong terms, implying that in listening to the pro-Torah party they were deserting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were subjecting themselves to Law, when what they were justified by was faith. He used some very sophisticated Rabbinic arguments that were probably aimed at the trouble-makers, who would have heard the letter read out at public worship. These arguments would have been over the heads of the Galatian converts themselves.

So what was the issue? It was certainly important at the time, and one consequence of Paul winning the argument is that you and I can enjoy our bacon and eggs for breakfast. But it still defines the heart of Christian spirituality, and misunderstanding it has been at the root of much Christian division.

Paul was a Jew, a strict Jew. He regarded the Law, the Torah, as a gift from God, with divine authority. What changed when he became a follower of Jesus is that he came to see this divine gift as essentially a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Now that the Messiah had come, its role needed to be re-defined. In his letter to the Galatians he makes a first attempt at that re-definition. He writes with passion, he is perhaps not altogether fair to his opponents, but that is the mark of how important he sees the matter to be. In his letter to the Romans, some time later, he makes a calmer and fuller statement of his belief.

Paul’s Gospel was shaped by his life-changing experience on the road to Damascus. Previously, he had thought of Jesus as a fraud, a fake Messiah whose deluded followers should be suppressed. Suddenly, he encountered the Living Jesus himself, and realised that he was the true Messiah, among whose followers he must from then on count himself. Furthermore, he understood that he himself had a mission to God, to take the news of Jesus beyond his own people, to the nations of the earth.

Paul asked himself a question we all need to ask ourselves. How are to be in a right relationship with God our Creator? God is the supreme Initiator, the Origin, the Beginning. What should our response to him be? For some, the answer is “obedience”. For Paul, the answer is “faith”. In fact, the two answers are fundamentally the same. When Paul speaks of faith, he means a total trust in God. It is not just an intellectual acceptance of doctrines, it is a self-surrender to God without reserve. God Himself is faithful: that is, he is utterly truthful and reliable. He is the Rock on which we can safely build our lives. We are “saved”- that is, we are completely safe- when we rely on him. Obedience, in its root meaning, is an attentive and willing listening or hearing, issuing in action appropriate to what we hear. This attentive listening and willing response is again what we mean by faith.

As I said just now, for Paul the Torah was undoubtedly the word of God. As such, the good Jew would receive it by faith, by an attentive listening and by conforming one’s life to its commands. But Paul as a Christian believed that the Torah was (we might say) only a first draft of God’s word. The definitive Word of God was not a written text, but the living Messiah, Jesus Christ risen and ascended. Whereas the Law had been given to one nation, one People, Christ was for every nation, for all people. “The Law,” he writes, “was our guardian until Christ came.” Our faith must always be in God’s word; but now we have a greater understanding of that Word. By acknowledging Jesus as Christ- as God’s Anointed- through the formal act of baptism, we have all “put on Christ”, we have committed ourselves to being his representatives, showing him to the world in our own persons. The Church and Christ are profoundly One, one Body. He is the head and we are the members, living with a common life, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul was angry, because he believed the pro-Torah party were missing the point. What God wants of human beings is not an outward conformity to a list of rules and regulations, but an inner conformity of the heart to the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It makes no difference whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or a free person (social status), a man or a woman. Each of us without exception can be in a right relationship with God if we accept Christ as our Model and as our Life-giver. We can live in Christ, and Christ can live in us. Referring back to his earlier argument, Paul says that if we are in Christ, we are the true heirs of Abraham, who trusted in God’s promises centuries before God gave the Law to Moses.

Theological jargon creates difficulty and division when it is bandied about by those who forget that human language is always inadequate to express divine realities. Are we “justified by faith”? Yes- but what does that mean? It means that we are in a right relationship with God when we respond to him with total trust and commitment. Our faith is “in Christ” when we recognise Jesus as the Word of God, God’s full revelation of himself. Our faith, our ability to trust God without reserve, is not something we create in ourselves, or do by ourselves. It is always God’s gift to us. The ability to respond to God is itself part of his gift to us.

Without faith, or “before faith came” to us, we experience religion and morality simply as rules and regulations imposed from outside. It is a discipline, even a helpful discipline, that prepares us to be serious about our life and destiny. But with faith we are set free, not because the guidelines no longer apply, but because we embrace them joyfully as the will of a loving Father, who desires only our welfare. With faith, we come to appreciate and embrace also God’s gift of himself, in Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit of love. Like the poor pagan demoniac in the Gospel, when we recognise how much God has done for us we shall go out and proclaim it; but unlike that man, we shall be sure that he does not send us away from him, we remain always with Jesus, and he with us.

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