Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Righteousness By Faith (Romans 10:5-8)

Sometimes what “everyone knows” turns out to be wrong. George Washington didn’t really chop down a cherry tree. Ben Franklin didn’t really tie a key to a kite string and fly the kite in a thunderstorm, touching it to discover that lightning was electricity. He would have died.

And whenever Paul talks about “the law,” everyone knows he means the Law of Moses – the group of teachings and instructions that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai that include the ten commandments. So they contrast “righteousness by the law” with righteousness by faith by saying that Christ replaces the Mosaic law.

But, John Wesley said, that view runs into some problems – not the least of which is that God chose the Hebrews as his people long before they camped at Mt. Sinai. He made a covenant with Abraham, not Moses, at least five hundred years before Moses was born.

No, the covenant of the law, which Paul says boils down to, “Do this, and live,” goes back much further. It was the covenant God established with Adam and Eve. They were created without sin, and were in that way holy, as God was holy. The covenant had an “assumed” part and a “spelled out” part.

The assumed part was that Adam and Eve, as well as any other human beings who might live after them, would completely and fully love and obey God. Every action, every word, every thought would be in service to God, and each service would be done with all the strength and power they had. Love of God and of God’s creation would be their only motivation, from their first breath to their last.

The spelled out part was God’s spoken command to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This was the righteousness of the law. By “righteousness,” he meant “rightness in relationship with God.”

Fulfilling this covenant meant life. Breaking it meant death. And only perfect obedience to it could fulfill it, which meant even one mistake broke it.

Why then, Wesley asked, would anyone trust in the righteousness of the law? After all, it was designed for perfect people as their way of maintaining an already-existing relationship with God. None of us are perfect, and our relationships with God are broken.

It’s the same as changing a tire with a hammer – even if you manage to do it… heck, I don’t even think it’s possible, so I don’t have any idea what it would look like.

Righteousness by faith, though, comes from a covenant that’s designed to allow fallen people to re-establish a broken relationship with God. That’s what it was made for. It doesn’t ask us to do what we can’t.

We don’t have to say, “Well, first I need to stop this sin, and then I need to begin this good work, and then I’ll probably be OK.” No sale, Bubba (Wesley didn’t say that). There are way more sins to stop than we can count and way more good works than we have time to do. If I seek righteousness by faith, I have to realize three things: 1)I ain’t good enough. 2)I ain’t never gonna be good enough. 3)God will take me anyway.

Again, we can see where faith has to play its role. If we could somehow manage to be good enough, we would know there was a minimum requirement we could reach. We could know we were this close, or we were above the line and we could coast, or whatever. And we would probably turn our achievement into a source of pride or a stick to beat on other folks with.

But the righteousness by faith doesn’t let us brag on what we’ve done, because we’ve done nothing. And it doesn’t trust to some set of standards or reaching a hash-mark of salvation, because it can trust only in God’s love. God is merciful, and God loves us, so we are made right in relationship to him by the work of his Son.

And you know, in the end, when it comes down to relying on me, or relying on God, I think I’d rather rely on God. I know my track record.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Justification by Faith (Rom 4:1-5)

Although this is the fifth sermon in his list, Wesley began preaching “Justification by Faith” soon after his experience at Aldersgate. He calls it one of the doctrines on which “the Church stands or falls.”

Others disagreed – the first time he preached it, people called him an “enthusiast, a seducer and a setter-forth of new doctrines.” Those words meant different things in Wesley’s day, as we know. At the very least, I’ve never heard of a sermon being seductive.

Later, when the Methodist movement was in full swing, Wesley visited Epworth, the parish where he grew up and where his father had preached. The church refused him the pulpit, so he went to the cemetery and stood on his father’s tomb and preached there to whomever would gather. He said he did more good preaching three days from his father’s tomb than he might have in three years preaching from his pulpit.

“Justification by faith” continues the effort to properly define the different roles of works, faith and grace in salvation. Justification was the name given to someone who was in a right relationship with God, and in Wesley’s day, many people thought it happened only after what they called sanctification, or becoming holy.

Wesley thought that was kind of silly – the Bible seemed pretty clear to him that “justification” was the pardoning of sin. The justified were free from the accusations of Satan and from the punishment they’d earned for disobeying God’s law. God didn’t pretend the justified had never sinned; he pardoned them so that in the final judgment they would be treated as if they had never sinned. If God had just wanted to pretend, then Christ would not have given his life.

So, if justification is pardoning those who have sinned – Wesley calls them “the ungodly” – then why in the world would those whose good works and sanctification had made them holy need to be justified? If God’s going to pardon a sin, it seems obvious there should be a sin there to pardon, and it also seems obvious that one finds sin in sinners.

When people face the reality that they are sinners, and that they have spent their lives turning their backs on God, then they will seek God’s help to be brought back. They hear God’s promise that they will be new creations in Christ, and they believe that promise comes to them as well.

The good works people do may be good in their impact on the lives of people around them – but until they flow from a heart that loves God first and foremost, they are not truly good works, Wesley said.

Think of the way words look printed on a page. When they’re all lined up on the left-hand side, they’re “left-justified.” If they’re lined up on the right, then they’re “right justified,” and when they’re even on both sides they’re “fully justified.” The same words, the same sentences, the exact same letters look different when they are justified and when they are not.

And that is why our works apart from God may not be good, even though the exact same charity and compassion shown after our relationship with God is restored can be called good.

Now, where does faith come in? We’re told it’s an evidence or conviction of things not seen, and when it comes to justification, it seems like that means we believe God justifies us even if the evidence isn’t there. Paul cites Abraham as an example. Eventually, Abraham believed that he would have a son, even though everything he could see about his wife and himself told him it was impossible.

Wesley says that as we keep depending on Christ’s sacrifice as the way our relationship with God will be healed, then our faith helps produce truly good works, and begins our sanctification. We are being made holy.

Even the faith itself is a gift from God. The ability to understand ourselves lost and admit it comes by God’s grace. I used to say that I was glad the New Jerusalem in the afterlife was so big, because there were probably plenty of people I thought didn’t deserve to live there. But none of us deserve it. Only God’s grace enables us to live like it’s true, and only God’s grace makes it true.

Wesley closes by asking anyone who’s listening who doesn’t yet have that faith to consider it. To realize that they are apart from God and that death apart from God is true death. And in their hopelessness, to cry out, “Abba, Father” to God with the full faith he will hear and respond.

To repent, in other words, and to believe the good news.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Almost Christian (Acts 26:19-29)

Sorry about the late post. A little under the weather this week)

By the time Wesley preached his “The Almost Christian” sermon, he’d become something of a celebrity in London. Establishment churches disliked his open-air preaching and his strong belief that people could know they were saved, and only four churches in all of London will let him speak in their pulpits.

So Oxford in 1741 was the perfect place and time to let the establishment have it – Wesley was stickin’ it to the man more than 200 years before anybody ever used the phrase.

He takes his line from King Agrippa’s statement to Paul. While defending himself against charges of sedition and rabble-rousing, Paul speaks so well Agrippa finds himself listening a lot closer than he thought he would. He scoffs nervously – in the King James translation Wesley used, he says, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian!”

So what, Wesley asked, would make someone “almost” a Christian? What made someone else “altogether” a Christian?

Getting to “almost” would take quite a bit of work, first of all. They practiced basic virtues of justice and fairness, like “even the heathen,” Wesley said. They did good works for people who were in need, and they didn’t expect fame or a reward. They regularly attended church, and not just to be seen, either. They were properly respectful of worship and they were fair, honest and faithful in all their dealings with people.

So, Wesley asked, how is it possible that someone could do all those things and still be “almost” a Christian? Surely such a person was altogether a Christian. Ah, no, he said. He knew, because he had done every one of those things for years and he knew that for a large part of his life, he was only an Almost Christian. Just like, perhaps, many of his listeners.

What was the difference? It wasn’t in what they did – an Altogether Christian would have the same virtues the Almost Christian did. It was in the why. An Almost Christian might do all those good works for worthy reasons, but the Altogether Christian did them because they flowed from his or her love of God and love of neighbor.

Almost Christians, if asked why they did these good works, might say “Because God told us to,” or “Because they’re in need,” or “Because they’re the right things to do.” Altogether Christians, Wesley said, would answer, “Because God loves me and God loves my neighbor. If I’m going to love God, then I’m going to live that out in my life.”

Wesley was starting to explore one his major themes, and it’s a theme that Christians have wrestled with for most of our history. We can do our best to be worthy of God’s love, and do our best to heal our relationship with God. But it won’t be good enough. We can’t reach God’s level, or even reach the level God has made us for. So God reached out to us and took us in, even though we couldn’t reach to him.

So we do our best, but it isn’t good enough, and God takes us anyway, no matter how far short we fall. But we should still do our best anyway.

In his sermon, Wesley asked his audience how many of them, if they took a good long look at themselves, would even make it to Almost Christian? Forget about scoring a hundred – how many of them would be “B” students, or even “C” students? Johnny Cash used to call himself a “C-minus Christian,” and I imagine he wouldn’t even lay claim to being an Almost Christian.

So why worry about how unfair it is to the Almost Christian that all their work only gets them to “Almost?” Why worry about that when I’ve got a long journey ahead of me to even get that far? Better worry about what happens to all the C and D Christians, all of us who fall waaaaaay short instead of just a little short.

But wait – why “worry” at all? God loves us and has opened his gates to us, inviting us all in regardless of how good or bad we might think we are. No need to worry – we made it! And now, having made it, we want to double our efforts, and reach as far as we can, as a gesture of thanks to God for the gift he gave us.

Ironic, if you think about it. The best way to become an Almost Christian is to start out by being an Altogether Christian.

Ironic, but good news nonetheless.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Salvation by Faith (Ephesians 2:1-10)

One of the first sermons John Wesley preached after his “strangely warmed heart” experience was called “Salvation by Faith,” and it focused on verse 8: “By grace are you saved through faith.” After a long spiritual dry spell, one night at a Bible study meeting, Wesley found himself absolutely certain that God had accepted him. It was the first time he’d ever felt that, and the experience fueled the preaching and piety movement that later became the Methodist church.

In the sermon, first he tackled grace. Here, it has its more general meaning and reminds us that God doesn’t owe us salvation. God chooses salvation, meaning that God chooses to heal the relationship that human sin damaged beyond human ability to repair.

Then he goes after the idea of faith in general, and compares it to “saving faith,” or salvation by faith. Saving faith is more than just the proper awareness of God, he says. Paul tells the Romans that since the beginning of time, people could learn what they needed to know about God by looking at his creation. They could know that the world had a Creator and that they should respect that Creator and treat what he had made with similar respect. Including each other. Saving faith is also more than just intellectual knowledge about God and who he is. At this level of faith, a person would know God was the creator. They would even know Jesus was the Son of God, somehow God made flesh in creation. The demons Jesus faced as well as the devil himself had this kind of “faith,” because they knew who Jesus was and they obeyed his commands. They accepted his power.

Saving faith takes all of these ideas about faith several steps further. Saving faith totals up all the knowledge about God we have and adds in real action, a real life change that orients us towards God instead of ourselves or the world around us.

Our lives are not ruled by fear of the unknown or our own desires for the things we think we need. They are ruled by God’s directions to love and care for one another, even as we praise and worship God.

Our lives are not even ruled by the sin that’s separated us from God. In Christ, God healed the broken relationship sin caused, allowing us to live lives connected to God. We may still make mistakes or even slip up now and again, but those are echoes of a broken power, one which no longer governs our lives.

Wesley addressed several objections to his idea, but I’ll cover just a few, since they are more likely to be a part of our modern world than some of the others.

If people had saving faith, could they decide things like charity and compassion for others were unnecessary? Wesley asked, in turn, how having a faith that didn’t produce a changed life differed from having no faith at all.

Could people with saving faith grow prideful and look down on people who they thought weren’t saved? Yes, Wesley said, they could. In our day, many of us probably wouldn’t insult someone with a direct put-down of their faith. But haven’t we make little jokes and things at their expense? I have and suddenly I have a hard time saying that doesn’t come from pride.

In the very verse Wesley uses, though, Paul shoots that down – “not because of works,” he says, “lest anyone should boast.” It’s the mirror image of Dizzy Dean – since you didn’t do it, you shouldn’t be braggin’.

And last, might the doctrine of saving faith – that we aren’t saved with works or with our own goodness, but only through God’s grace – bring people to despair? “I can’t ever get it right,” they might say. “It's no use.” Of course it might, Wesley said. That’s the point – to get us to understand that only God can save us and that he’s already done it.

Maybe it’s better to say that he’s already doing it. Salvation didn’t happen once and quit – it keeps on going. If saving faith means that we live our lives oriented towards God’s desires for us, then we should really say that we are being saved by God. Every day. Every hour. Every minute.

Thanks be to God for this good news.

(These next several sermons are my attempt to preach some of the "Standard Sermons" of John Wesley that are cornerstone explanations of a lot of basic Methodist doctrine. Thorough readers are invited to check out the many published editions of these sermons to get the real thing.)