Saturday, May 31, 2008

Living By Faith

Romans 1:16-17, 3:21-28

Down through the ages, parents have been tempted to use the threat of divine judgement to keep order in the house. Parents tell their kids: You know, God is watching – so what would God think? Or, something to that effect. Of course, the kids can always throw that back at their parents! Whatever the case may be, such questions assume that God not only looks over our shoulders, but when God doesn’t like something, we’re going to suffer the consequences.

Now, I do believe that God has high expectations for us – like any good parent has for his or her children. But the flip side to this idea can be troubling. If we start from the idea that our relationship with God is one of parent and child, then the question is: Must a child earn the love of his or her parent? If not, and if God is our parent, then does God expect us to earn God’s love and affection?

St. Paul, like many of us, believed that if he was good enough, zealous enough, observant enough, then God would love and accept him. So, he worked hard at his religion, and he became rather proud of his accomplishments. Now, by all rights, he was a good man, but ultimately he discovered that no matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t measure up. Indeed, he came to see himself as chief among sinners. In his words, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." And if that’s true, then even Mother Teresa is a sinner and has fallen short of God’s expectations. If they don’t measure up, then what hope do I have?

In these two passages from Romans, Paul addresses the question of sin, of righteousness, of law, grace, and faith. His proposal offers us a word of hope for a new life and a new opportunity to serve.

As we see in chapter 3 the biggest stumbling block to the Christian faith is the Law. Paul has a high regard for the Law. He sees it as a signpost of God’s high expectations and as a tutor. As our teacher, it not only reminds us that God has high standards, but that God also expects us to live together in a way that is peaceful and just, generous and gracious. Paul also recognizes that without the Spirit, the Law is a means of death. It offers no hope of transformation.

Recognition of this fact can lead to despair. Because if we’re fated to fail, what hope is there for us? The answer is this: What is impossible for us, is possible for God. The key is God’s offer of forgiveness and God’s willingness to see us in a new way. In Christ we who are unrighteous become righteous – not of our own power, but through God’s grace. We may choose to rebel against God’s will, but God is willing to embrace us and enable us to become new creatures. This is a message of freedom and of healing. It takes sin seriously, but it doesn’t lead to death.
To make his point Paul points us to the cross. He suggests that Jesus’ act of dying on the cross serves as an atonement for sin. Although this could mean that Jesus’ death either placates the wrath of an angry God or satisfies the honor of an offended tyrant, neither of these common interpretations proves satisfactory. In fact, if we believe that God requires that his son be brutalized so his honor can be satisfied, then what does that say about God’s parental instincts? But if we see the cross in the light of the resurrection, then the cross is God’s means of identifying with our death, so that in his death we die, but in his resurrection we are raised, then the point is: In death there is new life. And with new life comes transformation.
And all of this comes to us through God’s grace. Forgiveness and the power to live a new life comes to us as a free gift of God. Therefore, in Christ we who are unrighteous in our thoughts, words, and deeds, become righteous.

Once we recognize that we can’t earn God’s love and that our place at God’s table is a free gift, then we realize that there’s no room for boasting. There’s no place for self-righteousness. We are, by grace, made one in Christ. That understanding of grace frees us to serve. It means that we live our lives by faith.

Knowing that my time with you is short, I want to again remind you that God is calling you, like he’s calling me, to be part of God’s missional people. God is calling us to live by faith in the power of the Resurrection so that we might serve our community out of love and not duty. And then the question is: How do we do this?

To live by faith is to live by the Law of love, which means that we don’t give in to the temptation of self-righteousness. From there, we begin to look outward. It might start with a handshake, a hug, or maybe simply a word of welcome, but in doing so we follow Jesus’ example of putting others first. From there our service takes hold. , It might involve a prayer or a gift of money. It might involve standing up for the person living on the margins of society, by giving voice to their concerns, even if that means putting you at a disadvantage.
The story of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador aptly illustrates this point. Romero started out as a conservative Catholic bishop. He was friends with the elite, supported the status quo, and took little interest in the lives of ordinary Salvadorans. But, then in 1977, after the military rigged national elections and fired on a peaceful group of demonstrators, he began to have his doubts. When government-sponsored assassins murdered a priest who was working for justice, Romero had a conversion experience. He began to see the connection between the persecution of the church and the oppression of the people, the connections between the sufferings of the people and those of God in Christ. As a result, he decided that if he was going to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus, he had to work to end injustice and oppression in his nation. Because of that conversion, government-sponsored assassins murdered him while he celebrated Mass in the cathedral. A true martyr, Romero took up the path of suffering, a path that Jesus himself trod.

Having been justified by God’s grace, we are empowered to live faithfully, and to live faithfully means living in such a way that God’s grace and love transform our world. El Salvador changed because of Romero’s witness. The same can be true for us. It likely doesn’t involve our death, but it does mean dying to self, so we can live for God by living for our neighbor.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 1, 2008

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