Justification by faith

This is my sermon for this coming Sunday, based on the Lectionary epistle, published in advance in case any other preacher wants to pinch bits.

It is planned for the Open Table service for the LGBT+ community, on its ninth birthday.

It just happens that the lectionary for today provides one of the biblical texts that has been argued over for 500 years. Is it inclusive or exclusive? Paul in his Epistle to the Romans:

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

What does justification by faith mean? Martin Luther made it the basis of his attack on Catholic practices. I shall try to untangle it.

It can mean ‘if you want to go to heaven when you die, you have to believe the right things’. This is what it has come to mean in many churches, and I can tell you why. I was a vicar. If you are running a church and preaching sermons, you want to look successful. One way to become successful is to frighten people. Make them think they will go to hell if they don’t turn up to your church services. This is very cynical of me, and most ministers wouldn’t do it deliberately, but subconsciously the message still sometimes gets across.

Carracci, An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, c.1610

Carracci, An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, c.1610

When Luther began the Reformation by arguing for justification by faith alone, that isn’t what he meant at all. It’s difficult for us today to appreciate his point, because our culture is so different from theirs.

What was happening was absolutely awful. For over a century Europe had suffered massive plagues. Standards of hygiene were appalling. There were no public toilets and people would defecate on the street.

A book of etiquette, published in 1558, advises people that when they are walking down the street and see some excrement, they should not pick it up, show it to somebody else and invite them to smell it. There must have been people who did that. The book disapproves not for health reasons, but only because it is not a ‘very fine habit’.

They didn’t know about the health implications. They found it easier to attribute the plagues to God’s anger. They thought God must have been very very angry.

Catholic preachers played on the fears. They told people that after they died, they would almost certainly go to either Hell or Purgatory. In either case they would suffer intensely, but Hell was eternal. Purgatory was for a limited time. How long would each person spend in Purgatory? It depended on how many sins they had committed.

Purgatory turned into a good way to raise money. Catholic priests sold indulgences. To buy an indulgence meant that, after you died, you would spend less time in purgatory before going on to heaven.

It was of course a complete scam. It only worked because people believed it. Luther denounced it. Luther didn’t believe in purgatory at all. So when he argued for justification by faith alone, at least initially he meant something like this: forget about indulgences, forget about Purgatory. Your eternal salvation is between you and God. Nobody else. Have faith in God. You are justified by faith. And don’t waste your money.

Luther defended his teaching by appealing to Paul’s epistles, like the passage we’ve just heard about justification by faith.

Paul was writing 1500 years before Luther. In Paul’s day there were no indulgences. There was no purgatory. Some people did believe their enemies would be punished after death, but the idea was yet to become big business. The issues were completely different.

Christianity began as a Jewish movement. Paul wrote his epistle as a Jew arguing in favour of the Christian version of the Jewish tradition.

In his day Jews were well known for a number of things. The most significant was that they believed in only one god. This made a big difference to how they thought the world operated. Believing in different gods meant expecting the world was unpredictable, especially when the gods fell out with each other.

Believing in only one god meant that the world and human life had been designed consistently, to work in particular ways. So it made sense to follow the maker’s instructions. This way of thinking of the world was very attractive. A lot of pagans were converted and became Jews.

The trouble was, according to the Jewish tradition at the time, those maker’s instructions were the laws in the Old Testament. By Paul’s time those laws were already hundreds of years out of date. Many of them were impractical or seemed barbaric. In practice, most Jews simply focused on a few. They refused to work on the Sabbath. They stuck to the food laws, about what you can eat and how you have to cook it. And, most painful of all, in the days before anaesthetics, ladies you may laugh, but men who became Jews had to be circumcised.

Put all these together, and in a typical cosmopolitan city at the time of Jesus and Paul, to be a Jew was to stick out like a sore thumb. Because of the Sabbath there were kinds of work you couldn’t do and because of the food laws your children couldn’t go to their friends’ parties. Jews also often considered themselves God’s chosen race.

So from a typical pagan perspective, what was attractive about Jews was their belief that the world was not chaotic. It had been made as a coherent whole by a single god who knew what to do and got it right.

What was unattractive about Jews was the way they separated themselves off from other people as a chosen race, with their petty rules about what you could eat and what you could do on the Sabbath.

It didn’t make sense. If one god was the creator of all human beings, all over the world, why would God single out a few favourites and impose a load of pointless irritating rules on them?

So Jesus, while defending the principle of one god of love, openly disobeyed the food laws and the Sabbath laws. This is what Paul meant when he wrote:

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

Other writings of Paul tell a different story. There is a huge industry of New Testament scholars picking over his epistles, trying to work out which passages were really by him and which were added by one of his successors. But there it is: Jesus leads us to peace with God, not by extra rules for chosen favourites, but by faith that the one and only god created everybody as an act of love.

Today there are no Christians insisting that we have to obey the Old Testament food laws. There are no Christians who refuse to work on Saturdays. But there are Christians who divide the population into the good guys and the bad guys, by appealing to their favourite biblical passages. The focus today is on male headship and sexual ethics. There are still plenty of people who want to identify themselves with a superior minority and look down on everybody else. They can always find reasons for doing so.

But what if Jesus was right? I think he was. One god of supreme power and goodness has provided us all with different bodies, different minds, different parents, different abilities. Each of us has potential, each of us has limits. When we are at our best, we flourish in different ways. When we help other people to flourish, we do it in different ways.

God gives us freedom to perform good or evil actions, but what it means to do good or evil varies from one person to another and from one time to another. There is no set of moral rules that applies to everybody always. Instead we are given consciences. We are given the ability to love other people and see for ourselves how to care for them.

When we do, we become a little more holy, a little more like God. In our evolutionary story, we are all somewhere on the way from amoeba to angel.

In God’s love, we are all included. Happy 9th birthday Open Table, and may your 90th birthday still see you proclaiming God’s openness to everyone.

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