SJF • Lent 2a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift, but as something due. But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
We come now to the second Sunday in Lent, and I want to continue where I left off last week in exploring Saint Paul’s version of the gospel, as he put it forth in his Letter to the Romans. Last week I spoke about Paul’s view of sin as a kind of inherited disease that runs through the human family faster than pink-eye through a nursery school. You just can’t get away from it: there is none righteous, no not one!
That sounds like bad news until you get to the good part of Paul’s message: there is healing for this disease. Health and salvation come through Jesus Christ, who has come like a great physician, to heal all of us in our sickness, to mend what was broken, and to set us on the path from which we had strayed.
We here are all Christians, so we are used to this message and we give thanks for it. But because we know and believe the message, we are apt to miss just how strange it seemed to the people to whom Jesus and Paul first brought it. To them this word of healing was a strange message indeed. Why? Because many of them didn’t think they were sick! For most Jews and many Gentiles of that time, goodness or righteousness didn’t come from God, but from one’s own virtue — indeed that is what virtue means: some quality or characteristic of yourself. For instance, we say it is a virtue of lead to be heavy, or of steel to be strong. For many of the Gentile philosophers, what was good was evident in nature — you could rationally deduce what was right or wrong. Goodness consisted in doing what was right, and by doing right you became better and better at doing it and so became a better and better person.
Many of the Jews, who were quite a bit less trustful of nature — to say nothing of the“nature gods” that the pagan Gentiles worshiped — were also more aware, through their own history of past failures, of the human tendency not to get better and better if left to our own devices. So they believed instead that God had given Moses a legal code, a rule book which, if you followed every rule, colored within all the lines, kept your place, and minded your business, God would reward you and account you righteous.
And this is in large part why Nicodemus, who came to see Jesus one night, is so confused. He is a good Jew who has followed the rules to the best of his ability. He’s been brought up to understand salvation exactly in those terms: the righteous inherit God’s kingdom, and the ungodly are doomed; and righteousness is earned by following the law, avoiding the sins that are forbidden, and doing the good works that are required. So when Jesus comes along and instead of talking about following rules he talks about following him, believing in him — being so bold as to say “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” — well, this just turns Nicodemus’ world upside-down! And Jesus doesn’t let the poor old guy off the hook easy. When Nicodemus comes to him with his questions, Jesus tells it like it is and says, Yes, it is a whole new world I’m talking about here. It is as if you were to be born all over again, born from above, with a heavenly view instead of an earthly one. A new wind is blowing, and though you hear it, you haven’t got a clue as to where it is coming from or where it is going. The world is upside down, for the Son of Man has descended from heaven, and will be lifted up so that all may believe in him — and be saved!
So says Jesus. And what about Paul? How shocking must his words have been to the devout Jewish believers who heard him. “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” You can hear the grumbling: God justify the ungodly! This is unheard of! Surely God only justifies the righteous, only rewards those who have earned salvation by avoiding the sins God forbids and doing the works God demands. So to meet the Jewish challenge to his teaching, Paul reaches back to the patriarch Abraham, the ancestor to whom the Jews looked as their “founder” so to speak, much as Americans might look back to George Washington.
We heard some of Abraham’s story — or Abram as he was called at first — in our Old Testament reading, how upon God’s command to leave everything he knows and trusts, he does so. What is crucial to Paul’s argument is why Abram obeys God: it is because he has faith in God’s promise. Saint Paul is at pains to show that Abrahams’ faith comes first, prior to his action: for if he didn’t believe in God’s power to deliver on his promise, he would not have acted in response to God’s command. So it isn’t that his obedience to the commandment wins God’s approval; rather it is his underlying faith in God that leads him to do what God commands. Faith comes first, and Abram is reckoned righteous on account of it.
Now it is true that works do follow: but what Paul is trying to clarify is that if the good works we do flow not from our faith in God, but rather as a kind of commercial transaction to get something out of God, or as merely following the law to avoid punishment, then we have missed the point and are likely to end up either as self-righteous Pharisees who think they’ve earned their passage to heaven, or into despairing sinners who fear the wrath of God and give up because they know they cannot possibly keep all of the law. Saint Paul — following the teaching of Jesus — sweeps away these alternative lifestyles of pride or despair, and offers the true life that lies in God and comes from God and leads to God.
Martin Luther once wrote, “The ‘works of the law’ are works done without faith and grace, because of the law, which forces them to be done through fear or the enticing promise of temporal advantages.” As Saint Paul wrote elsewhere, the Law is like a strict schoolmaster whom you obey either out of fear or in order to please. But our good works done in faith and through faith and by means of faith, that is another story altogether. For these are the result, not the cause, of God’s love, which was so great that he gave his only Son to the end that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life. We will explore this wonderful gift next week, as we continue to study Paul’s good news that God has opened the way to salvation through Christ, who was lifted high upon the cross that all the world — Jew and Gentile — might see him and believe in him, and be saved through faith in him: not out of fear, or only for the prize, but because God so loved the world.
This sentiment is summed up beautifully in a poem which I shared with you some years ago, but which bears repeating. So I will close with this poem in the form of a prayer. It is by the great English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins.
O God, I love thee, I love thee—
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marrèd countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat, and care and cumber,
Yea, and death, and this for me.
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should I not love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for heaven’s sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my King and God. Amen.