Sermons That Work

It Would Be Interesting…, Proper 6 (C) – 2004

June 13, 2004

It would be interesting to look more closely at the last two stories we have just heard. They are great stories, and really very important. They both talk about the same things, and they both say two of the really important words of the Gospel.

In Galatians, Paul is describing what must have been one of the great brawls of Christian history. To understand it takes some background. The Christian Church started in Jerusalem, and all of the first Christians were devout Jews who followed (most) all of the Law of Moses, including lots of regulations concerning what you ate and with whom you ate. This law included regulations that said that Jews and Gentile were not supposed to share a common meal. (Remember, the Eucharist was a common meal.) The church in Jerusalem took this very seriously, and any Gentile who wanted to become a Christian also had to become a Jew, and to keep all of the law of Moses. In order to gather at the Lord’s Table, you had to have this extra credential. That was the rule in Jerusalem, and everywhere else, for a while.

Then there was Antioch. Antioch was a large, cosmopolitan, city 250 miles north of Jerusalem—deep in Gentile country. St. Paul, who wrote the Galatians section we heard, started the church in Antioch—and they did things differently there from the way things were done in Jerusalem. In Antioch, Gentile converts did not have to become Jews, and Jewish Christians ignored the regulations about meals; so Christians and Jews ate together, and shared the Eucharist together, and everybody pretty much ignored the law.

(This whole issue was a big deal, and the question of what sort of credentials you had to have to share the Eucharist was one of the roughest issues the early church faced.)

Anyway, back to the story: Next, Cephas, who is Peter, the first of the Apostles and one of the two main leaders of the church in Jerusalem, came up to Antioch for a visit. At first, Peter liked the way they did thing there. He shared meals with Paul and the Gentiles, in violation of the Law, and he fitted right in.

Then James—the brother of Jesus and the other leader in Jerusalem—sent some emissaries to Antioch to check up on things. (These are traditionalists are who Paul calls “the circumcision faction.”) When they arrived, Peter suddenly began to worry about the Law. He changed his mind, backed off, and became very careful and very public about keeping the Law and avoiding the Gentiles and eating with only the right people.

Paul just blew up. He read the riot act to Peter and called him just about everything there was except a nice person. It must have been quite a scene, with these two giants of the church, nose-to- nose, red faced, working, at the top of their voices, to establish a theological point.

It’s an important point. Who belonged at the table of the Lord—what credentials were required for an invitation? Peter, when pushed, relied on his credentials, on his Jewishness, his observance of the Law, for admission. Paul said something new; he insisted that, because of Jesus, credentials no longer mattered. He said that to Peter loudly, in front of God and everybody. In the end, Paul won—because he was right.

Something very much like this was going on with Simon the Pharisee. Luke just loved to tell stories where folks on the bottom of the social and religious ladder are presented at an advantage; and he obviously enjoyed this one. Jesus is the guest of a Pharisee. That means the house, the meal, and everything connected to them, were proper—Pharisees were special guardians of the Law, and no detail of required obedience escaped them.

At the same time, formal meals with out of town celebrities were also a spectator sport, and major social events for the whole neighborhood. The invited guest reclined facing into the area where the food was served. The rule was that anyone could show up to watch the meal and the discussion, but the uninvited guests stayed outside the circle formed by the invited guests’ feet. For a known sinner to show up, and to make such a scene as did the woman in this story, was not unheard of. The real scandal, in Simon’s mind, was that Jesus allowed it. If Jesus knew that she was a sinner, Simon thought, he would have run her off as not being good enough even to get that close to him or to the table.

In effect, Jesus tells Simon the same thing Paul told Peter. Talking about how Simon had omitted every optional amenity a gracious host usually provided a guest was, like Paul’s rebuke to Peter, a way of making a larger point—which is simply that credentials do not matter when it comes to sharing the table with the Lord: No one is worthy, no one is good enough. Period. No one. To rely on your own strength, your own worthiness, your own credentials—especially that perverted form of self-righteousness that says, “at least I’m not as bad as she is,” is not only to court Jesus’ anger, but to guarantee it.

The reason a notorious sinner is closer to the kingdom of God than a Pharisee is not that it is morally better to be a notorious sinner. It is not—it’s almost always morally worse. But the good can drive out the best; and a notorious sinner may well be closer to God because she is less likely to hide from God and the truth behind a wall of self-righteousness and silly credentials.

To claim, by virtue of good behavior or anything else, the right to God’s presence and God’s favor—and the attendant right to judge whether others so belong—this is so fundamentally to misunderstand the Gospel, and ourselves, as to separate us firmly from God. That is the first basic word of the Gospel. No one is worthy. No one has earned a single thing from God; and to pretend otherwise guarantees judgment.

Now, the second word only has power when that first one is heard and felt. The second word is that everyone is invited. The second word is that it really does not matter, finally, who we are. The source of our lives, the basis for our invitation into God’s presence, is God’s loving grace and forgiveness, nothing else. And to rely on anything else is to lose it all. The gift to us of God’s love is absolutely unearned, totally without merit, and given freely to all. (Sure, we need to unwrap the gift and use it, but that is about response and gratitude, not worthiness). When Paul says, “no one shall be justified by works of the law,” he means just that—there is nothing we can do—there is nothing we have done—that earns us God’s favor.

Instead, God’s love for us is absolute, total, unconditional and free. We cannot work our way into that love, we cannot sin our way out of it. We live by Grace and forgiveness. Our lives as Christians are not about somehow managing to get loved or saved or accepted by God. We have that; we are given that, we begin with that. Our lives as Christians are about responding to the gifts we have been given.

Since all are unworthy—including ourselves, we don’t have to worry about that or spend a lot of energy on it. It doesn’t really matter. Everyone is invited; everyone is offered the gifts of grace and forgiveness. That is how we begin. Then, we are called to take those gifts, accept them, and share them with a world dying for that Good News. Jesus says to each of us what he said to the woman in the story: “Your faith has saved you, go in Peace.” And he calls us to hear that, to believe that, to live that, and to share that.

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Christopher Sikkema


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