Galatians 2:15-end / Luke 7:36 – 8:3
I’ve been spending some time recently with the Sea Cadets in my new role as their chaplain, and what an amazing unit it is! The volunteer staff are so dedicated to serving the young people who attend – fuelled by a deep belief that what they are doing benefits these young people immensely. And for many cadets, especially those who are from disadvantaged or disorderly backgrounds, being in the Sea Cadets is a real life-changer. Their belief in themselves grows through the skills and disciplines learned.
Believing in ourselves and in others, learning to trust ourselves and other people is a very healthy thing. But it’s not the whole thing. You’ve probably heard the phrase that there’s a ‘God-shaped hole’ in every human heart. And we do seem to have a need to believe in something. It’s that natural inclination of human believing that the Holy Spirit uses when people respond to the gospel. The Holy Spirit takes the power of human love and transforms it into a godly love. The same is true of hope. God takes the human hope which is found in every person and transforms it into the hope for ‘life in all its fullness’ – into the hope for eternal life. Likewise, God takes the natural faith or believing that is deep within all human hearts and transforms that human believing into belief and trust in Jesus.
A famous quote from the Bible is: “I believe; Lord,help my unbelief.” God wants to cure our unbelief. What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ - belief in Jesus Christ; trust in Jesus Christ. Not just to believe in positive thinking. Not just to believe in the power of believing or have faith in the power of faith. God wants more than that. We are invited to put our faith in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the core of the Christian faith. God wants to transform the power of human belief in all of us into a personal faith in Jesus Christ, so that we trust the promises that he has made to us through Jesus.
Our first reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, ch. 2: Let’s think about the churches in Galatia, in ancient Turkey, in Paul’s time. There were deeply religious people there in Galatia who couldn’t grasp that God raised Jesus from the dead, that all our sins are fully forgiven by his death on the cross, and that his followers, his disciples, are to live a life of love. Those Galatians didn’t understand the gospel.
They also didn’t understand what God wanted from them and wants from us. The very core of Jewish morality was to obey hundreds of laws that said, “don’t’ do this and don’t do that.” When Jesus came, that changed. What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ. The essence of Christianity isn’t to obey rules and regulations but to have faith in Jesus Christ.
Surrounded by evil and suffering, our faith demands that we trust in God's ultimate judgment and protection. No matter what happens to us in this life, we trust in Jesus as ultimate judge and our saving grace. Faith trusts the promise of God that we will live forever with Jesus, who suffered and died at the hands of evil, for our sake.
And faith involves a leap, a letting go, because there is no proof that God exists. It’s a risk. There is no proof that there is a God or that God will catch us when we fall. So there is a leap of faith, a letting go of the need for proof. Even with everything we see in nature – or in human courage, kindness, and love – ultimately we believe in that which is not seen.
And we are justified in the eyes of God, not by adherence to any Law or Doctrine or Dogma, but by faith in Jesus. The Law by which we are justified is the law of grace – it’s the law of love, laid down by the life of Jesus. And What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ.
The other day, I was approached by a man who was what we might call a ‘down and out’. He saw my clerical collar and held out his hand to me and told me his name is Tony, that he is a believer, and that he prays every day. He said he no longer goes to church. I told him that the most important thing to God is that we have faith in him. And Tony told me that he does have faith.
And even though he was a ‘down and out’, Tony had a quality about him. A resilient and open quality about him. Even though things might not be going so well for him in the material context, maybe Tony has found that no matter how far he’s fallen, somehow his basic needs have been met – out of the goodness of others, or out of an inner strength that he’s been able to draw upon. Maybe I’m a soft old fool, but I believe him when he says he has faith – I could see it in his eyes. Tony asked me to pray for him, and he told me he would pray for me, too.
I pondered this encounter the next day. I wondered what our reaction would be if someone like Tony came in here to worship with us. Would we welcome him in with open arms? Or would his presence in this congregation disturb us? Would the smell of beer on his breath and his unkempt appearance make us want to avoid him?
I wondered whether we subconsciously make judgements that the sin of people like Tony is somehow greater than our sin, and therefore he shouldn’t be in here with us. Remembering our second reading this morning from Luke 7, that is just the kind of thing that Simon the Pharisee thought of the woman ‘sinner’ who came into his house and anointed Jesus’ feet.
Martin Luther wrote that ‘Christ is a Lover of poor sinners, and such a Lover that He gave Himself for us. Now if this is true, and it is true, then we are never justified by our own righteousness’.
The Pharisees were self righteous people with an inflated sense of moral and spiritual superiority. They maximized everybody else’s sins and minimized their own. They felt they were two or three cuts above everybody else in the world.
But Jesus says, ‘Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. Whoever is forgiven little, loves little.’
It’s easier to extend forgiveness to other people when a person has personally experienced a deep forgiveness himself or herself. When a person realizes the number of stupid mistakes they’ve made in their own life, then that person is more willing to forgive others who also make stupid mistakes in their life.
When we realize our own sinfulness, and the gift of forgiveness, we’re set free to show compassion to others – compassion for all people - even our imperfect family members. We’re set free to show compassion to marginalised people – like those with mental health issues - and for every other kind of group that we’re sometimes prejudiced against. We’re set free to show compassion for down and out’s like Tony. Jesus says that there’s a connection when we realize our own sinfulness and the measure of his forgiveness; there’s a connection between that realisation and our degree of compassion for others.
There are many people out there who have faith in God but don’t feel ‘good enough’ to belong in here. We have to ask ourselves why. And we have to make sure that we aren’t the kind of church that holds up a measuring stick, only allowing those who ‘fit in’ to have a place here to belong. As Christians we must have faith that God can release us from our fear of the other.
What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and gave himself for us. We need to trust that Jesus now lives in us by his Spirit, who will release us from the desire to condemn others who we think are somehow beneath us in righteousness. Faith believes that the only way any of us are righteous in God’s eyes is by the gracious love of Jesus, and not through anything we try to do. Amen.