Proper 6c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Today we continue our journey through the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians, and I find once again that I have a slight bone to pick with the translators of the New Revised Standard version of the Bible, the version that we use in our readings, because they make a translation choice in common with many of the modern translations, thought not all of them. The bone I have to pick may at first strike you as trivial, but it is an example of how one small, simple word can change the whole meaning of a passage. And I find that in this regard I prefer the translation of what’s know as the Authorized Version. It is probably better known as the King James Bible because King James I was the one who commissioned its translation — which celebrated its 400th anniversary two years ago. Some things stand the test of time.
The word at issue here is the little two-letter word “in” used throughout Galatians as part of the phrase, “faith in Jesus Christ.” Wherever the modern translations, such as the New Revised Version say it that way, say, “in Jesus Christ,” the Authorized Version says, “faith of Jesus Christ.” Yes, I’m giving you prepositions this morning; it’s the difference between two little two-letter words — of and in — but what a difference they make, including how best to make sense of Saint Paul’s theology of grace. I will also add that I also find this translation to be a bit more accurate. The King James translators are closer to the original meaning of the Greek in which Paul wrote — so their reading not only makes better sense, it is more accurate. And when sense and accuracy combine, I have to say I am convinced! Are you? Let me say more about both.
First of all, Galatians is concerned with the contrast between rival sources of justification, different approaches to righteousness: the grace of God versus the works of the law. Make no mistake, Paul comes down squarely on the grace of God — that is, the justification that starts with God and comes from God. We cannot save ourselves — for after all, if we could have we would have, and Christ would have had no need to be born, baptized, suffer, die, and be raised from the dead for our salvation. As Paul says in his punch-line: “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
So justification is not our work — it is Christ’s work, work done for us, on our behalf, work that involved his suffering and death in the full faith that God would raise him from the dead in the ultimate act of justification, the ultimate declaration of his righteousness. So it is that the faith of Christ — his faith in God — that God would vindicate him — vindicates us as well, because we have, through our baptism, shared in his death so that we can share in his life. It is not that we simply have faith in Christ — in the sense that we believe in him — but that through the mystery of God’s grace we have become part of his body the church; we are in him and so are saved by his faith. As Paul argues, just as the faith of Abraham made him the father of many nations, so too the faith of Christ has led to the justification of many — through his life and death — and life again.
Paul often uses analogies of life and death . Here he says he has died to the law: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And as the Authorized Version will continue, “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” In his Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the analogy of widowhood, portraying the law as a husband. A woman who has an affair with another man while her husband is alive is an adulterer, but once she is a widow she is free to marry again — and since Christ has come the old law has passed away and we, the church, the bride of Christ, have a new husband.
Later in Galatians he will use yet another image of life and death, that of inheritance: the point being that you don’t earn an inheritance — it comes to you by virtue of what someone else has done. This is precisely what makes it grace, a gift — not something that you earned.
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Our gospel passage today shows us one of the most beautiful examples of grace in all of Scripture. In its own way it presents a vivid contrast between the kind of life that trusts in righteousness through the law, and the kind that trusts not in its own righteousness but in the forgiveness and grace that is a free gift to all who turn their hearts and souls towards the source of all that is good.
There is no doubt that Simon the Pharisee is a righteous man — he has worked hard at it, he has followed the rules laid down by Moses, as his sect has interpreted them, taking care above all that he has observed everything. And there is also no doubt that the woman of the city is a sinner — the text clearly says so right at the beginning, and Jesus says “her sins were many,” and so Simon judges rightly that she is a sinner, even if he judges wrongly concerning how Jesus ought to have reacted to her. From his standpoint, he would have pulled back in horror that this sinful woman had touched him; he would have thrown her out of the house. Jesus doesn’t do that, and the Pharisee is scandalized.
Now we would be as mistaken as Simon the Pharisee if we were to think that Jesus has forgiven this woman because of what she did — that is, because she bathed his feet with her tears and anointed them with costly ointment. Note the explanation that Jesus gives to Simon: he does not describe her actions — contrasted with those of Simon himself, or rather his inactions — he does not describe her actions as the reason her sins have been forgiven, but as her response to the fact that her sins have been forgiven. To use Jesus’ own parable — both the Pharisee and the woman have been forgiven their debts, but the one who owed more is more grateful. The gratitude does not earn the grace, but flows from it, like tears and precious ointment.
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In spite of the clarity of this Jesus’ teaching — here and in many other parables that he taught, and many further explanations from Saint Paul in his other Epistles — there are even still today some who would insist that it is doing good things that makes you a righteous person; that the works of the law are the way to salvation and justification. But as Saint Paul bluntly puts it, if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. What need is there for grace if we can make it on our own? Referring back to that ancient story from Genesis: who needs God to bring us to heaven, if we can build our own tower that will take us there?
The answer, of course, is that even our best efforts cannot and will not bring us to that goal — for there is none righteous, no not one. Any and all righteousness that any of us have does not come from us but from God, Christ working in us, as we live in him, and the life we live in the flesh is lived by the faith of the Son of God — who died and was raised. We live because he died — and rose. It is on his coat-tails, my friends, that we ride, we and the whole saved world. As our Presiding Bishop once said, “Jesus is our vehicle” to salvation — and it is by being in him that we share in that journey, and in the benefit of his faith. His cross is the vehicle on which we get a free ride, for through our baptism, like Paul, we can say that we have been crucified with Christ, and the life we live is no longer our own, but life in him.
The good works that we may be able to do are not the way we earn salvation, but they are signs of gratitude that we have been saved. Like the tears and the ointment of that woman of the city, any good works we do are testimony to the grace we have already received. It is as if we have all received a huge inheritance — and I will tell you we have, even if we don’t know it — we have received an inheritance and been invited to move into the mansion prepared for us, and invited to the banquet set before us. And it is all a gift from a generous God who has forgiven us all of our trespasses just as we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Our debts have been forgiven and canceled, nailed to the cross, and there is no estate tax on this inheritance. God is gracious; God is generous: and everything good comes to us as a gift, a justification in righteousness transmitted to us by that incredible act of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ our Lord. And who would not show gratitude for that?+