I was in Melbourne at ACOL (Australian Consultation on Liturgy) on Thursday and Friday; I preached in country Victoria at Romsey and Lancefield Uniting Churches this morning, while my good friend Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones presided.
A life lived in Christ
Luke 7.36 to 8.3
I was born in a town called Harrogate, in Yorkshire, England. It’s a nice town; in fact, it’s actually a rather well-to-do place with a very respectable, genteel, posh reputation.
If you’ve read the James Herriot All Creatures Great and Small books about being a vet in Yorkshire, you may remember a town called ‘Brawton’; Harrogate is Brawton’s real name. And the real-life James Herriot was a vet called Alf Wight who used to go into Harrogate on Fridays, his day off.
While he was there, he’d often go to a place called Betty’s Cafe. Don’t let the name fool you; Betty’s Cafe has a pretty posh reputation.
Whenever I’ve been back in England, I’ve always popped into Betty’s. I was walking near there one day with two teenage cousins, and asked if they’d like to go in. ‘Oh, we couldn’t go in there,’ they said. It was too posh for the likes of them. But I persuaded them that they were plenty good enough for Betty’s, and we had a very enjoyable time. It was especially memorable as one of them was wearing a T-shirt with this amazing message:
When I die, bury me head down
so you can kiss my cold dead arse
The T-shirt also had an appropriate picture along with the words…
For my young cousins, the very name ‘Betty’s Cafe’ acted as a barrier to their sharing in what it had to offer. They thought they weren’t the right kind of people to even enter Betty’s.
There may have been those sitting in the cafe that day who looked at these young people with the outlandish T-shirt and wondered if they were indeed the right people for Betty’s. I don’t know, I wasn’t looking around. At the time I only cared about my cousins.
It’s a bit like that day when Jesus went to the house of Simon the Pharisee. A woman came to him
who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
This unnamed woman was a ‘sinner’; we don’t know exactly what that means. Through the centuries, the imaginations of male exegetes have sometimes run amuck and they have often assumed she was a prostitute. The Bible doesn’t say that. ‘Sinner’ may mean she was employed in work that made her unclean in the eyes of the Jewish law. ‘Sinner’ may just mean that she didn’t fit the way of life of Simon and his friends.
Whatever, she bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She kisses his feet and anoints them with ointment. Phew! That kind of thing never happens at Betty’s Cafe, let me tell you! I reckon Simon the Pharisee was jealous. I’d be jealous too—heck, who am I kidding, I am jealous!
If Simon were jealous, he can’t admit his jealousy. Instead, he says to himself,
‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’
Jesus shows he is a prophet by telling Simon what kind of person this woman is. And what kind of man he is. But there’s a sting in the tail; Jesus reframes things, declaring that the woman is someone who loves extravagantly because she knows herself to be forgiven of so very much. Whereas Simon’s love could fit on the back of a postage stamp, because Simon was unconscious, unaware, unmindful, ignorant of his need of healing and wholeness.
Simon kept the law though. He was probably very like the Apostle Paul—‘blameless’ according to the letter of the law. That’s what Paul said in Philippians 3.6. Before the Damascus Road experience, Paul had been a Pharisee who had kept the law; I suspect Simon the Pharisee could say the same.
But what does keeping the law mean? The letter of the law only commands the basics. It tells you what you can eat—like grasshoppers (yum!!)—and what to avoid—like bacon. The law tells you which day to rest, and which days to work. It tells you not to murder or steal.
The law doesn’t tell you how or how much to love others. It doesn’t command a joyful, hope-filled life. It doesn’t bring healing and wholeness to you. It doesn’t teach you how to care.
The law can only get you so far, and it only got Simon the Pharisee—and Paul the Pharisee—so far.
Law was directing how some Christian believers acted in those vital few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul describes how some people wanted to keep the Jewish laws going, as expressions of religious purity and ways of answering these important questions: Who is ‘in’? And who is ‘out’?
Food laws, circumcision, sabbath rules, were marks of purity for these people. It settled their anxieties about people slipping into the Christian fellowship who weren’t, well, kosher—whether they are so-called ‘sinners’ like the woman in Luke’s story, or whether they’re Gentiles. Like most of us. All they wanted was a pure, law-abiding community. Was that too much to ask?
But Paul knew that law didn’t work. He’d found that out on the road to Damascus. And Peter knew that God was pouring the Spirit out onto the Gentiles, who hadn’t obeyed the Jewish laws and still weren’t obeying the Jewish laws.
But when these people came up from Jerusalem to promote law-keeping, Peter withdrew from the Gentile Christians. He’d been eating with them, asking no questions about their prawn cocktails and bacon sandwiches. But now it was back to grasshoppers on toast. What did Paul do? He spat the dummy, he saw red. If I can be allowed to say it, Paul was appalled.
Paul had discovered a new way. So too had Peter—it’s amazing what righteous religious pressure can do, isn’t it? It can fool us into forsaking some of our best insights.
Yesterday, Avril and I went to a service of sacred union for four same-sex couples. They pledged their love and loyalty to each other, and received a blessing in the name of the triune God.
These people are faithful Christians, servants of Christ and the Church. They are seeking to live out the best insights they have learned as followers of the Jesus who welcomed those who were labelled as ‘sinners’.
But to some in our Church, they are law-breakers. And that is the end of the argument; there’s no more to be said. To them, they are on the outside and can’t come in.
Paul says that he had
advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
Paul loved the law. Until Jesus Christ stopped him dead in his tracks on the road to Damascus. Paul found that there was one greater than the law, greater than Moses. Jesus was Lord, who had eaten with ‘sinners’ and welcomed them. Jesus was Lord, even though he had been crucified as a law-breaker under the law that Paul loved.
Paul’s whole life was turned upside down by this. The law could no longer be the centre; Jesus became the centre of his life. Before, the hallmark of his life was obedience to the law; remember, he said in Philippians 3.6,
as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless.
What could mark his life now, a life given over to Jesus Christ? The mark of his life was now the same as the mark of Jesus’ life. We can see this in Galatians 2.16, a verse that has caused a deal of comment.
One thing that is clear in this verse is that we are justified—made right with God—through Jesus and not by following rules. In the NRSV, it reads this way:
we [Jewish believers in Christ] know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
What is the mark of Jesus’ life in this verse? It’s faithfulness. Bible scholars have spilled litres and litres of ink over this verse. I’m convinced that where it says in the NRSV
…a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…
that we should read the marginal reading:
…a person is justified not by works of the law but by the faith [i.e., the faithfulness] of Jesus Christ…
We are justified by nothing that we do, but by what the faithful Christ has done. In the words of the Basis of Union of our Church,
Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain.
This ‘response of humility, obedience and trust’ is what Paul calls the ‘faithfulness’ of Christ. Whoever we are, we are made right with God through trusting that Jesus was faithful. And that his way of life is the way for us. Then the hallmark of our life becomes the same thing: living by the faithfulness of Christ, following him faithfully, being faithful to one another.
Paul went further. He could even say in those well-known words,
I have been crucified with Christ…
‘I have been crucified with Christ…’ The salvation he has won is mine. The life I live is his. That’s the hallmark of the Christian life, and it leads to a life in which the operative principle is not the letter of the law but is love. Or we could say the operative principle is sheer grace. Or acting in compassion.
Whatever words we use, it’s a life lived in Christ, not in law. It’s a life with Jesus at the centre, and not rules.
Let us commit ourselves to that life; and—to God the Holy Trinity of Love be all honour and glory and praise, now and for ever. Amen.