Do You Know Who You Are? (a sermon)

& The Politics of Jesus.

Do You Know Who You Are?

or

“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”

1 Kings 21.1-10, 15-21a; Psalm 5.1-8; Luke 7.36-50; Galatians 2.15-21 (6/16/’13)

 The following is a sermon I preached at the Early Church, a Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA, where I am one of the elders and on the preaching rotation. The sermon is one of my many attempts to connect Jesus and Paul, grace and discipleship–so that we don’t imagine that either is to be disconnected from the other.

I. The story of the centurion’s brother and his wife (backstory of Lk.7.36-50)

Those of you who know the Gospel of Luke may remember the story that opens chapter 7.  It is a remarkable story about Jesus healing the slave of a Roman centurion, a slave, who, the text tells us, “was near death.” We are told that this Roman officer loved the Jewish people, that he had built the local synagogue. Jesus was so impressed with this man’s trust in him that he said: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (7.9)

What if we knew the backstory of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet at the end of chapter 7?

Let’s suppose:

The story is told that this centurion had a brother who was much less admirable.  He too was a Roman centurion. He was stationed only a short journey to the south, in the territory of Northern Samaria. Unlike his brother, however, he used his power for his own gain. Because of his lust for wealth and unquenchable thirst for power, he had often stolen people’s property or killed those who stood in the way of his apparently limitless ambitions. His wife—who reveled in the pleasures of their luxurious lifestyle—passively and sometimes actively colluded in her husband’s abuse of his role as a Roman officer. Many Jews saw this couple as latter-day incarnations of Ahab and Jezebel. That is to say, the abuses of this wife and her husband did not go unnoticed by the surrounding communities.  They came to be hated.  In fact, one of the violent Zealots of lower Galilee assassinated this man, making his wife a widow. Because she and her husband were so despised, she was quickly reduced to poverty. And before long, in desperation, she became a prostitute. [PAUSE]  Someone has suggested that it may have been this woman who appears in the story at the end of the chapter, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, a woman whose sins “were many,” so Jesus informs us. (7.47)

So, let’s imagine for the moment that the woman who is portrayed as anointing the feet of Jesus is this woman—or someone very much like her. It is not at all unlikely that many Jews, including Pharisees, would have had disdain for her. That she had participated in stealing land from peasants, murdering landowners and now earning her living as a prostitute—just to mention a few of her “many sins”—would understandably have earned her a reputation as “a sinner.” And those schooled on the story of Ahab and Jezebel, along with Psalms such as the one read this morning—including Jesus, it should be said—would know that the LORD hates the sins committed by this woman and her deceased husband. Such behaviors are wrong, worthy of serious judgment by the LORD—and are not to be engaged in by those who know the LORD.

So, why is this woman here? What do her behaviors as portrayed in vv. 37-38 of chapter 7 indicate?  We can’t really know any full answers to these questions. However, we could make guesses. She had lived in luxury. Then she was not only consigned to a life of poverty, but was reduced to eking out a living selling her body to men who simply wanted to use her.  Thus, as she approaches Jesus she is desperate.

She had, so we are to assume, perhaps initially heard of this Jesus from her brother-in-law. For it is not unlikely that he had told his brother and sister-in-law of this extraordinary Jew. Even though her brother-in-law had attempted to relate as positively as he could to the Jews he, as a Roman officer, was still viewed by many with suspicion.  But not by Jesus. He had nothing but good things to say about this man named Jesus who had healed his slave—and commended his faith in the God of Abraham! But it was not only from her brother-in-law that she had heard of this man. She had heard of other incidents wherein Jesus had cured people of diseases, given sight to the blind and made the lame to walk. Not long ago she had heard that this Jesus was even considered to be a friend not only to Romans like her brother-in-law but even to sinners, like herself. [Jn. 7.18-35] Just yesterday she had spoken with a woman, not unlike herself, who had encountered Jesus and not only had been healed of “female problems” but also had had her sins forgiven by this man. Overjoyed—and beginning a new life—this woman said that she was sure that when she heard the voice and saw the eyes of Jesus, she was seeing the face and hearing the compassionate words of God Himself.  As a result she had become a follower of Jesus.  [PAUSE]

Now, as we turn again to our text at the end of Luke 7, we see this widow in the presence of Jesus. She is herself convinced that she can be healed, her life can be made whole, if she can know the God expressed in the words, in the compassionate touch of this man named Jesus—a man that some are saying is uniquely the Son of God!  Then follows the scene depicted in our passage: this woman appears, lavishing the feet of Jesus with an ointment she has brought and tears she can’t control. For she simultaneously experiences profound sadness—regret—for her sinful past and the overwhelming joy of the love of God—the forgiveness—made flesh in Jesus. As Jesus experiences her acts of devotion, he indeed pronounces her sins forgiven, for her “faith has saved her.” (Just before I shift to focusing on Galatians I should add a footnote: In case it’s not obvious: I made up the backstory for the woman who anoints Jesus feet in Luke 7. After all, there does have to be some backstory for this woman who is known and whose “sins are many.” I do think the one I made up is a plausible one.)

Our epistle reading for today—Galatians 2.15-21—is one of the key texts in Paul’s writings where he reflects theologically on the sort of narrative presented in Luke 7.36-50. So, let’s turn to Galatians.

 

II. Justification is “not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”: a first glance at Galatians 2.15-21. [READ GAL. 2.15-21, NRSV]

Let’s take an initial glance at this passage, a passage that, by most accounts can serve as a summary of the letter as a whole. It will help if we focus on a couple of the key verses, verses 15 and 16: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 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.”

Crucial to understanding the meaning of these verses is to understand the concern—the central concern—that shapes them. What is often thought to be the presenting issue in this passage is what is sometimes called “works-righteousness.”  Here is the way well-known New Testament scholar N. T. Wright names this typical understanding:  “People are always trying to pull themselves up by their own moral bootstraps.  They try to save themselves by their own efforts; to make themselves good enough for God, or for heaven.  This doesn’t work; one can only be saved by the sheer unmerited grace of God, appropriated not by good works but by faith.”[1]  [PAUSE] With this in mind we note that what Paul is helping us to see is that the Jews were wrong. Salvation cannot be earned. It is a gift of God. It is not by anything righteous we do; it is not “by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Moreover, as sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther has helped us to see, salvation is by faith alone, not faith plus our righteous works.  Once we’ve seen this, then we can also see what is going on in the narrative we looked at in Luke 7. The self-righteous Pharisees believe that one has to earn one’s salvation. They are being shown a lesson in this story—as are all of us who read it (especially in light of Paul).  This sinful woman is being saved by grace, not by anything she has done or can do. She—like each of us—is a sinner saved by grace. This profound insight is in fact what makes the Christian faith unique.

There is an instinct here—regarding the extraordinary saving grace of God—that is exactly right. Then there is a way of elaborating on this instinct that can—and too often does—go profoundly wrong, legitimating what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  Is there an alternative that takes the instinct on board while not creating this problem? Is there an alternative to saying that after we become Christians we are still “sinners saved by grace?”—a phrase, by the way, that Paul never uses for Christians.

 

III. Galatians, a second glance: “Do You Know Who You Are?”

One of the problems with the standard interpretation of Galatians 2.15-21 we just gave is that it doesn’t contextualize these verses within the letter. [PAUSE] As we begin Galatians we see almost immediately that there is a vital issue is at stake here. Paul’s language is urgent: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel.” (1.6-7a) Because Paul is claiming so much is at stake, he feels compelled to defend his authority and provide background. So, it takes him a while to get to the point of naming directly what is profoundly wrong. But by verses 11-14 of chapter two, the paragraph immediately preceding our passage, Paul names the problem. It relates to Cephas. And when we read this paragraph, it’s clear that it’s not that Cephas imagines that he, as a Jew, needs to earn his salvation, it is rather that he is refusing to eat with Gentiles, a refusal that is traditional with Jews, and rooted in the law. However, Paul, a Jew, but called as an apostle to the Gentiles, has passionately articulated the view that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek [3.28]; Christ has broken down such dividing walls. [Ephesians] And yet Cephas is re-erecting such walls by refusing to eat with non-Jews (which is probably what Paul is alluding to in verses 17-19 in chapter two). This, says Paul, is a violation of “the truth of the gospel.” [2.14] The rest of the letter offers theological reflections to show why this is so. Our passage, verses 15-21 in chapter two, offers a quick summary of what is to come.

I’ve come to believe that it is very important to see that identity is the crucial issue being named in this passage in Galatians.

“A well-known story is told of Margaret Thatcher during the time she was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was visiting an old people’s home, going from room to room and meeting senior citizens who had lived there a long time. One old lady showed no sign of realizing that she was shaking hands with a world-famous politician. ‘Do you know who I am?’ asked Mrs. Thatcher. ‘No, dear,’ replied the old lady, ‘but I should ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.’”[2]

Do you know who you are? That is the key question in this passage (and also in our story in Luke). Our passage in Galatians begins: “We ourselves [i.e., you and I, Cephas] are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” Contrast this with the way Paul ends the passage: “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.”

Paul is saying here, as well as elsewhere in his letters, that whether Jew or Gentile, if we have come to know the love of God through Jesus Christ and have come to trust Him, then we are being made new, given a new identity in Christ. Our old selves have been crucified; our new lives in the flesh are lived by “faith in the Son of God.”

You see, when it is put this way we still see salvation as a gift of God. Paul did not save himself! Neither did the woman in the story in Luke 7. No, both of them had their lives transformed because of their encounter with the wondrous and glorious love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. But it’s not as if once they are “in Christ” they are free to continue being sinners, but now “sinners saved by grace.” That is to say, it’s not as if the key difference for the woman in Luke 7  after she encounters Jesus is that now she has a warm relationship with Jesus joined to a boost in her self-esteem, but she can thoughtlessly go back to being a prostitute and if she can re-gain her power she can once again be involved in stealing people’s property and having them killed if they get in the way of her ambitions. And it’s not as if Paul can go back to “breathing murder” as he had done previously, but again, now with a warm relationship with Jesus and a daily devotional time.

No! Now, they have new identities. They live their lives in the flesh by trusting in the Son of God who loved them and gave himself for them. (Gal. 2.20) If the woman in Luke’s Gospel became a follower of Jesus then she, like his other followers, would hear him say things like: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” (Mtt. 22.37-39) “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14.15)  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Lk. 9.23)  And if anyone finished Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they would hear him say that “through love” we are as brothers and sisters in Christ to “become servants to one another.” (5.13) Moreover, they would hear him give detailed lists of moral behaviors that are consistent with living by the Spirit and an alternative list of behaviors that are forbidden because they are works of the flesh—prohibited behaviors that if regularly indulged in will keep someone from inheriting the kingdom of God. (5.16-26)

One of the reasons we have difficulty holding these things together is because of a long history—beginning with Martin Luther—of misunderstanding justification by grace through faith. Now I don’t want you to think that too much depends on what I am about to say. But it is helpful and clarifying to have an alternative translation of certain key words in our Galatians passage. Let me simply give verses 15 and 16 as an example. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is rectified[3] [i.e., being made or set right, including given right relationships] not by works of the law[4] but through the faithfulness[5] of Jesus Christ.[6]  And we have come to trust in Jesus Christ, so that we might be rectified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be rectified by the works of the law.” This being rectified, i.e. being set right—made righteous—moves toward verses 20-21 I’ve already quoted: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

So, the alternative to saying Christians are still “sinners saved by grace” is not to point to my or our own righteousness or justice; it is rather to say “the life I now live in the flesh I live by trust in the faithfulness of the Son of God.” In other words, our identity is “in Christ.” This new identity—clearly rooted in the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ—entails being rectified, being made righteous/just through living in Christ (including living in the body of Christ).

One of the reasons I’ve become convinced that this is at least on the right track is it helps us to strongly affirm that salvation is indeed a gift of God—not something we can do for ourselves while also affirming that we are crucified with Christ and then given a new way of life in him. [PAUSE] I close with some of my favorite quotes that communicate this well.

G. K. Chesterton: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Charles Simeon: “Truth is not in the middle, and not in the extremes, but in both extremes.”[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer connects such claims to grace and discipleship:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.

“It is costly, because it calls to discipleship, it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son—‘you were bought with a price’—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.”[8]


[1] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 113.

[2] N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 24.

[3] Dikaioutai: from dikaioo: justify/rectify (the former word being connected to English words related to justice; the latter word being connected to English words related to righteousness; the context helps us to know which word is most appropriate)

[4] Paul is speaking of the Mosaic law, the law given by God to Israel.

[5] Pisteos, from pistis: faith/trust/faithfulness/belief (contexts help determine which English word is better)

[6] It is legitimate to translate pisteoos Jesus Christou as faith in Jesus Christ or the faith or faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The translation “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” puts the primary emphasis on the act of God through Jesus Christ on our behalf (encapsulated in the cross and resurrection). The whole paragraph within which the phrase appears (i.e. 2.15-21, esp. 19b-20) makes it clear that this profoundly affects our identity and thus our way of life.

[7] Quoted in Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 92, 93.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4, trans. Martin Kuske and Ilse Tödt, ed, Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 45.

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