Friday, June 18, 2010

Helping Ourselves?

Helping Ourselves?
Gal 2:15-21; Lk 7:26-50[1]
Through the ages, people have been enslaved by a variety of means. Though simple brute force and fear have been widely used, I would suggest that ideas have been the most effective means of enslaving people. Sadly, faith has been one of the most powerful ideas to enslave people. In Paul’s day and time, many people believed that their lives were under the control of the planets or simply an impersonal and uncaring ultimate principle in this world. Though they were basically enslaved to this belief, they devised elaborate means to get around their “destiny.”
The good news of the gospel is that Christ has set us free from everything that would enslave us. For example, one of the key points Paul calls attention to regarding Jesus was that he had demonstrated those “powers” that enslaved so many people to be powerless (cf. Galatians 4:8-10; Colossians 2:15). Basically, the point of much of what Paul was trying to do in his ministry was to help people find freedom from everything that could make them feel trapped.
Although we have progressed in many ways beyond the average person living in Paul’s day, we still have ideas that can bind us. We don’t believe the planets rule our lives, but there are other “myths” that determine how we live. For example, the belief that loyalty to my own kind supersedes all other concerns. Or the idea that you have to step on others to climb the ladder of success. Or the notion that you only live once, so you have to make the most of it.
In our lesson from the letter to the Galatians for today, it seems to me that the “myth” that Paul was addressing is the idea that “God helps those who help themselves.” I think many people view the Christian faith from this perspective—as if it were some kind of barter system, where we exchange going to church and helping the less fortunate and giving our income so that God will in the end give us eternal life in paradise. It is the idea that we have to justify ourselves somehow—in this case what we do.[2]
But that really is not consistent with the way in which the Bible presents the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the God and father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. From beginning to end, God acts out of mercy and love and grace and compassion. Everything that God does on our behalf comes solely out of that steadfast love that endures forever; not as a reward for anything that even the most pious people do—not even Abraham!
Look at the story in our Gospel reading. Is Jesus’ encounter with the woman who washed his feet really an example of “God helps those who help themselves”? Of course Jesus does say to her, “your faith has saved you.” But would we really describe this as an instance where a woman “helped herself” to salvation? I think not! I think we would have to say that it was Jesus who saved her. But then that’s the way the Bible describes salvation from beginning to end—it’s wholly and completely something God does.
That’s what Paul is dealing with in our text from the letter to the Galatians for today. He’s actually addressing the idea that somehow your relationship with God is based on how well you live up to the stipulations of the Torah. Paul insists that the whole purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to set us free from that kind of thinking. He insists that the Gospel is about what God has done through Jesus, not what we do to “help ourselves.”[3]
This issue is actually the subject of a great deal of debate among biblical scholars and theologians. The question is whether we should translate passages like Gal. 2:16 to say that we are “justified by faith in Jesus” or “justified by the faithfulness of Jesus.”[4] It may seem like theological “trivial pursuit,” but there is actually more to it. The first version emphasizes that it is our faith that saves us. The alternate one, “justified by the faithfulness of Jesus,” emphasizes that it is what God has done through Jesus Christ that saves us. I think it is the latter, which is why I chose to read the lesson from the NET Bible.[5]
While we do not want to downplay the importance of responding in faith and obedience, we would not say that we are “helping ourselves” regarding salvation. In fact, Paul says that if our eternal destiny depends on anything we have to do, then “Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21)! For Paul, for the biblical witness, and for the Reformed branch of the Christian faith, our eternal destiny is secured solely by what Jesus did, and nothing else. Our fate ultimately rests not on our faith, which can come and go like the tides ebb and flow, but on the faithfulness of our God and of our Savior Jesus the Christ![6]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/13/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 186-87.
[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 187; cf. The Book of Order 2010-2011, G-3.300a., where we say that we are called to “tell the good news of salvation” that the “God who creates life, frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, [and] makes all things new, is still at work in the world,” placing the emphasis on salvation as something God does.
[4] For the former, see J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 166-67; for the latter, Richard Longenecker, Galatians, 87-88. The issue revolves around the question whether Paul is speaking of the work of Christ as the “objective” basis for our salvation (i.e., “grace alone”), or the human response of faith as its “subjective” basis (i.e., “faith alone”). Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 447-49. I like the way the language of the Heidelberg Catechism (question 61) balances “grace alone” and “faith alone”: “Q. 61. Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone? A. Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God, and because I can accept it and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone.” Cf. also the Study Catechism (question 80): “Christ alone is my righteousness and my life; Christ is my only hope. Grace alone is the basis on which God has forgiven me in Christ. Faith alone is the means by which I receive Christ into my heart, and with him the forgiveness that makes me whole.”
[5] The KJV also adopts this translation for Gal 2:16!
[6] Cf. Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics 2.2.559, where he says that his faith in Christ “has its basis in the fact that He Himself, the Son of God, first believed for me.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116-120, 143-48, where he discusses the God who is revealed as the one who is faithful to the promise.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Breath of God

“Breath of God”
Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:24-34[1]
It always amazes me when people try to breathe new life into the church by a greater emphasis on rules. To some extent, it is the debate that the PC (USA) has been arguing for over 25 years—do we encourage the sometimes surprising developments that can happen in church when we give people the freedom to be who they are, or do we keep things the way they are and always have been.
It’s not really a new debate, however. Almost from the birth of the Church, people have been arguing over whether the guiding principle should be one of “order” or “ardor.” The impulse to “order” is what says we need standards and accountability in religious institutions—at its best any way. At its worst it uses man-made rules and regulations to keep people boxed into a certain way of doing things and to keep whoever is doing the “boxing” firmly in control.
The impulse to “ardor” is what emphasizes the freedom and joy and freshness of life in the Spirit of God. At its best it encourages innovation and creativity—it leads us to be the church “reformed and always reforming.” Unfortunately at its worst it can become just another means of control, marking off a few specially endowed leaders who basically get to dictate to everybody else what their “new life in the Spirit” is supposed to look like!
The good news of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us all—indiscriminately, without any conditions, and essentially without constraint. This doesn’t mean that a life that draws its breath from the Spirit is free to go off the rails, for the very “fruit” that the Spirit produces in those who breathe this new life—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, self-control—defines the character of Jesus.
This experience of the Spirit brings us to an interesting paradox—the Spirit who breathes new life sets us free from all external constraints, but this new life is essentially one that constitutes “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). To some extent, you can understand why some people think that what we need in church is more rules. After all, if you cut people loose, you just don’t know what to expect. But the good news of Pentecost is that when the Holy Spirit breathes new life into people, although we may not be able to anticipate all that it will mean, we can expect that it will be consistent with the character of Christ.
According to the book of Genesis it is the way we were created to live. We are all just “lumps of clay” unless we are animated by the Spirit of God. In the original creation story, it says that “the Breath of God” (Gen. 2:7) brought life to humanity. Our Psalm text for today interprets that “breath of God” as the Spirit of God. In a very real sense, the Spirit is the “Breath of God” who brought humankind to life in the first place. And the Psalm text also extends that to all creation: the Spirit is the “Breath of God” who brings life to everything and everyone (Ps. 104:29-30)![2] And the good news of Pentecost is that the Spirit breathes the new life of God into us all.
I think the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost “on all flesh” means that no one can control the Spirit. After Pentecost, we all have full access to the very “Breath of God” that makes our lives rich and full and free and alive! When the fire and wind of the Spirit comes upon the disciples in Acts, it enables them all to proclaim the message—and to do so in a way that everybody there understood what was being proclaimed. No official priests were needed to convey the meaning of some arcane oracle. After Pentecost, the loving and life-giving presence of God in all things through the Spirit is freely accessible to everyone. No one can monitor it; no one can dole it out; it can’t be bought or sold or traded; no hierarchy can constrain it and no human rules can regulate it.
At Easter we celebrate the new life that came to light in the resurrection is in the process of renewing everything and everyone. [3] It is a celebration that continues with Pentecost as well because it is through the Spirit of God that we experience this new life. Everything that God offers us with the gift of new life—love, hope, joy, freedom—is the work of the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:11).[4] Like the wind that blows where it will, the Spirit is the “Breath of God” who breathes new life into everything and everyone!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/23/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-10, 96, 98-103.
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 220, 254, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87.
[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 204-5; Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 296; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:15; J. L. Mays, Psalms, 336-37.