A couple years ago a well-meaning friend said to me – I wonder when your children will stop coming to church? They’re both here today, so not yet, I guess. Look around this place and well… you’ve got to admit it’s a justifiable question. Where are the teens? Is it something we said? Or maybe something we didn’t do? Is it just to be expected in the developmental process, that teens will rebel? Maybe my kids are still here because of some failure on my part? Maybe my kids are developmentally “off” because they come to church every week without persuasion, guilt, bribe or threat. I don’t know why they’re here but just promise me, you won’t ask, I don’t want to mess with a good thing.
Why are any of us here, what makes us stay, why does this Jesus following continue to thrive all these years later? I mean I suppose my kids are here for much the same reason I never stopped going to church, it’s a place first and foremost where I have always felt I belonged. But we can belong to lots of people and places. Some of you belong to the tennis club or the yoga studio, or your book club or knitting group. Surely church is different in some way.
People will talk about church being the place where they have felt held or welcomed when other places weren’t so much that way. But it can’t just be that we feel we belong here, there has to be more. And besides, let’s face it, church can be a place where people let you down. When no one ever thinks to ask you to read scripture, or you’re never thanked for coming in on a Wednesday to clean the kitchen, without even being asked, or every time you speak up in a small group it’s like no one’s listening to you, or the ramp is blocked and you can’t participate. Here’s a motto for you: Church, the place where you are fully welcomed and included except when you aren’t.
We’re receiving five new members in this church today. All five were baptized at some point in their lives and now they’ll stand before you saying I really mean it, I really want to be identified as a Christian, I really want to live my life in the way of Jesus. Hopefully none of them are here because they think they’ve found a perfect, loving community that will never let them down. Shhh, don’t share that secret!
I want to propose today that this sort of action, being baptized, reaffirming your baptism and becoming a member of a church is intrinsically different from paying your dues at a club. To be a Christian is for this identity to actually lay claim on your life. I’m open to being challenged but it seems to me that being a Christian has to be more or deeper than showing up on Sunday morning, like it lays claim on your life and you can’t shake it. It actually changes you. Not just when the water hits your forehead but all through your life, it calls you back to something deeper, something different than you can find elsewhere.
I want to tell you about Paul, one of the first Christians, someone whose life was changed forever the day he was baptized. I’ll admit, I rarely preach from Paul, his words often sound too preachy, if you will. I like stories better than letters, feels like you have more creative liberty. With Paul I often stumble into some rabbit hole or other. I get caught up in his implicit First Century bigotries or patriarchal tendencies and it’s like I start wrestling him to the ground. It’s difficult with Paul to push aside the manure to find the marvellous seed of truth in what he’s trying to say.
But Paul has a story, just like you have a story and I have a story. If ever you’re reading a letter of Paul’s and you find your pulling your hair out, turn for a moment to Acts 9 and read his story again. Before we get to Paul’s story, just take a moment to consider the part of your story that led you here, either to this particular church or to curiosity or faith in the first place. Like the words in Amazing Grace “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed?
Paul’s life changed, he became justified by faith one day on the way to Damascus when the risen Lord appeared to him a light so bright he was left blind for three days. Until that day Paul was a ruthless persecutor of Christians. He was doing everything he could to uphold the place of his Jewish faith as he squashed these followers of Jesus. And do you know what happened, when the risen Jesus appeared? He was told “I want you.”
This is how the powerful storyteller Frederick Buechner describes it:
It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn’t an ax that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them. Join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world (Acts 9:1-6; 22:4-16; 26:9-18).
So Paul dedicates his life to spreading the good news of Jesus the Christ. And he travels everywhere and in each town he stops he plants a church and then when he’s sitting in jail or when he comes up for air between all of this church planting he writes letters. Letters like you used to receive from your grandma or your great uncle. Ink to paper letters that those floundering followers all over Palestine could hold in their hands.
And this particular letter to the Galatians it is arguably his harshest ever. He’d planted that church, taught them about God’s gracious gift of love revealed through Jesus of Nazareth and left them to it. And then, after he moved on to the next town he got word that things were falling apart. You see this Jesus movement began as a sect within the Jewish faith but there Paul was in Galatia, a non-Jewish, Gentile region and he baptized them into the faith. And no sooner had he left town than some group of thugs show up and say, you can’t follow Jesus unless you follow Jewish law, in particular the law of circumcision.
Let me pause and say this is Pauline rabbit hole. He is not being anti semitic.
This is about Christian identity. This is not about Jewish identity. To use this as a scripture to dismiss the validity of those in the Jewish tradition is to misuse this text.
So Paul writes and says, much more harshly than I’ll say here: you have it all completely wrong! Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. (Galatians 3:24-26)
What in the world does it mean to be justified by faith? Paul says we are justified by faith, not the law. But what in the world does it mean to be justified by faith? Justified is one of those church words that we could really reclaim. Justified. Our most common use is in defence of some action or stance. What does it mean to be justified by faith. It’s not really language we use much. I’m justified by faith. Think of that word, justified, we are so much more likely to use it as justified in my opinion. I was justified in telling your secret. I can justify my point of view with the facts
Or like this week the Federal government might have said we were justified in giving the permission for a pipeline to be built, for the sake of the economy. Likewise they might say we were justified in declaring a climate emergency because of science. Or Donald trump may say I’d be justified in bombing Iran as retaliation, or I’m justified in acting illegally for the greater good. We can justify almost anything.
Our continued attempts to categorize and label one another in the church, and to diminish one another on the basis of those categories and labels, are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism into Christ, we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God’s promises and in the mission to which God has called us.
I suppose the best thing about religion, about being part of a community like this is honestly, the humanity of it all. I rather love the idea that people were making a mess of what it meant to follow Jesus pretty much within hours of the resurrection. We are in very good human company. We are in a long tradition of people who make a royal mess of it all! Might this perspective help us deal with contentious issues, which often have to do with interpretation of the law? Paul reminds us that the law is provisional and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ who frees us from the curse of the law and makes us children and heirs of God. But justified in this bible sort of way is about God’s grace it’s about how the division we use to sort people out and keep them in their place don’t fit anymore.
This is not some glazed over utopia; no it’s more elemental than that. It’s not that we are to dismiss law or follow it. It’s a call to faith, a call to live every moment as if you have a faith that you are part of Christ’s body, you are Christ’s body. And so it’s not a call to stop noticing difference, to stop calling our injustice, it’s a call to stop forcing the world to fit into your categories or follow rules before Christ. It’s rather like letting go of all security and leaning into the trust that being Christ’s body is all you can trust. Not something you cling onto but something you live into. It’s a whole lot more difficult than learning the rules, following them and sitting in your smugness knowing with all certainty that you are justified, justified in your rigidity, in your persecution of those more conservative than you or more liberal.
A life justified by faith is a life where you every action is guided by love, by deep curiosity, by a willingness to be thrown off course for the sake of love, a deep awareness that if you are beloved so is your neighbour, even the neighbour you’d never be caught dead working alongside.
Rachel Held Evans died not many weeks ago at the age of 37, she’d fallen into a life’s path of challenging the rules of the churches of her fundamentalist upbringing. She never hated the conservative church that shaped her and raised her. She never spoke of them disparagingly. She just kept coming back to the story of her justification by faith and it drew her toward a faith that was active and alive and deeply rooted in love. She once said: “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”
I don’t know when my kids will stop
coming to church, nor when you might stop coming, I don’t know why these five
people will stand up before you today and say yes I affirm the faith of my
baptism, I accept that I am justified by faith. I accept that I am a beloved
child of God and I dare to allow that truth to lay claim to my life. When you
make that sort of commitment, it can turn your life upside down, it can mean
that you keep finding all of your rigidness challenged and you keep seeing the
light of Christ in your neighbour and it can really mess with your life. True
faith doesn’t need justification because it is in itself justified, it is a
saving power, not to make your life easy or all better but it justifies your
life by laying claim to your soul and drawing you into Christ’s body.