Sermon - Ordinary 11 Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Put right with God by faith
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ -- Romans 5:1
Faith is so simple. There is nothing more to it than trusting in God rather than in ourselves. Why is it that it is so often misunderstood? You would think it is fairly obvious that to have a good relationship with God, you have to trust God. That does mean that you can't bargain with God, and you cannot place demands on God, like, "I've been helpful to Mary and John, I haven't done anyone any harm, not lately anyway as far as I know, and I've been to church today; so, God, you should treat me well." Yet we do such things even when we know that our small offerings of good deeds are not very impressive gifts compared with all that we have received from God. And they never really make up for our unfaithfulness in other ways. In any case, it is not a very good idea, if you are trying to establish a relationship of trust with anyone to try to gain a favour by offering something in return. That might be OK for a trading relationship in a profit making enterprise, but not in a personal relationship. If we try to earn a favour, that is not so much a matter of trust as it is of establishing a right.
You can never say to God, I have a right to expect this of you because I have done that for you. Thinking like that is not even a very good basis for trust in an equal relationship between people in ordinary human affairs. In commerce we establish rights to fair returns by making exchanges of goods, services and money, and even there it is important to be able to trust people to keep their side of the bargain, but the trader does not rely ultimately on trust but on legally enforceable contracts. Within a family we might be more inclined to trust people, but then you have to be careful about bargaining. Especially between marriage partners it is important to understand each others needs and expectations, but trust tends to dissipate if you only do something for your partner when you can see what you well get in return. True love is unconditional, and long term loving relationships will only survive if you can trust one another without having to bargain for everything. That is, the strength of the relationship does not depend on having power over one another, but on what is freely and gladly given. If that is true in human relationships of trust, how much more must it be true in our relationship to God? After all, we are in a very weak position to bargain with God. We have no alternative in the end but to trust him, and it makes no sense to destroy the relationship of trust with an inappropriate use of what little power we have. It is much better to accept what is freely given to us by God.
A relationship of trust in God
Our relationship with God, while it has some similarity with marriage and friendship, is more like that between children and parents. At least that is our potential: we have the power to become children of God [John 1:12; Romans 8:14].
That is God's purpose for us: to become children of God. When Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God, that is about the kind of relationship that we can hope to have with God, he took a little child and put it in middle of the group he was talking with and said they needed become like a little child.
The simple trust of a little child is perhaps the purest human example of faith; and it is an unequal relationship. The parent can do much more for the child than the child can do for the parent. It is even more so in our relationship with God. May I remind you again of what Paul said to the Athenians:
Paul even quoted a pagan writer saying:
Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything . As he gives us all that have and are, how could he be in need of anything we might give. We are not in a position to bargain or to gain favours or to establish any rights in our relationship with God. It really is an unequal relationship.
Why is it so difficult when it is so simple?
Now, I wonder if that is not part of the reason why it is difficult for us to have faith, to trust God. We like to think that we deserve what we get. We like to pay our way, but it is all quite pointless when we are dealing with God. Even if we know that we can't really do deals with God, human pride gets in the way: it stops us from having a simple childlike trust in God.
That same pride, which makes us prefer to think we can earn our pay, as it were, has even more serious consequences. Not only do we fail to trust God to do for us far more than we can ask or imagine [Ephesians 3:30], we openly rebel against him. Then it goes further still: aware of our rebellion against God, separation from God, or the enmity between God and us, we try to put things right with him by our own efforts, still thinking that we have to earn our place with God. We cannot win playing that game, so what can be done about it?
It does not seem to be sufficient to say to people, "Forget all that stuff about trying to get on the right side of God, only have faith, simply trust God." It is one of the great frustrations of Christian preachers. (Not only Christians, I expect Jews and Moslems have the same problem for they too believe that we are called to put our trust in God alone.) You can give that message over and over for years on end and it does not sink in -- people still think they can get right with God by doing good works. It is the most common heresy, and a great tragedy because you can never be at peace with God that way. You always know there is more you could do, so you cannot ever be at peace if your place with God depends on how much you do. So we have to find a way for people to be able to trust God rather than to rely on their own efforts which, in our achieving society, they are always inclined to do. God sometimes brings it home to us through a great loss or tragedy in our lives, when we everything else has failed and we are left with nothing but to rely on God. But he has provided for us a more generous way. There is a way to accept our place with God without feeling that we have to earn it, and that is what Paul was writing about in his letter to the Romans.
To bring that message a little closer to our time I would like to share with you something of its significance in the evangelical tradition of the People called Methodists. I hope this will help to bring forward into our time a little more of the great variety of treasures we have inherited, and so encourage you in a free, heartfelt response to the love of God - in Christ. You see, it is the introduction of Jesus Christ which makes the difference, and makes it possible for people to accept the free gift. He poured out his life (blood) in radical faithfulness to overcome the separation (enmity, wrath) between us and God. He became through his life, death and resurrection, the great mediator (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:15, etc.) making it possible for a broken relationship to be restored. The work of the Mediator is made available to us through faith. It comes to us by the grace of God through faith. Accepting it as a free gift was the foundation of the Methodist evangelical revival of the eighteenth century which is part of our heritage in the Uniting Church, as it was also the central belief of the Reformation in the sixteenth century which has come into our church through other founding traditions. We would not be here in this church today had people not in previous generations discovered again and again the truth of what Paul said about being justified by faith.
John and Charles Wesley's experience
After a several years of service as an ordained minister and serious searching for a personal faith that would put him at peace with God, John Wesley went through a period of preparation with the aid of a Moravian missionary, Peter Böhler, who he had met when he too was on missionary work in America. He and his brother, Charles, had been serious young men at Oxford, founders of The Holy Club through which they had sought to be true followers of Christ by following a disciplined life of prayer, Bible fellowship, sacraments and service to the poor and people in prison. Their ordered ways earned them the scoffing nickname of Methodists for their careful methods of living a holy life. But serious and disciplined though they were in serving God, they had not found peace. Eventually, through much prayer and by sharing with others in discussion of the writings of people like John Bunyan, William Law, Thomas a Kempis and Martin Luther, they became more aware of the grace of God. It all came to a head in London during May in 1738. John's brother Charles, first came to a new and living faith: with a friend he had been studying Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians. Later that same day he wrote of his struggle:
Four days later on Whitsunday Charles was able to accept the free gift he had so ardently sought:
John heard of his brother's new experience and wrote:
But for himself John could only write to a friend
Three days later, John had his own transforming experience of the "warmed heart" that was later shared by so many and was looked upon by them as the founding point of the great evangelical revival, the beginning of the Methodist movement, "the religion of the warmed heart". He wrote in his journal for 24 May 1738, the often quoted passage:
The great change that followed
John Wesley then left behind his concern with those had opposed him in his unsuccessful missionary work in Georgia, his enormous effort at discipleship through good works and his personal struggle to fully accept the freely given grace of God. He was now assured of God's acceptance, not through his own efforts but by trusting in Christ alone for his salvation. That is the great change: a person who has not been able to trust in God, despite all his belief in God's goodness and his lasting commitment to serve him, is now able to trust because he accepts what Christ has done for him. Jesus Christ is the mediator who makes it possible for people who could not otherwise trust God now to have faith in him. So the Christian believer is put into a right relationship with God, justified, through faith in Christ. That is the faith about which Paul wrote to the Romans:
The great preaching ministry through which Wesley delivered his message to hundreds of thousands, often in enormous crowds in the open air over the next fifty years, and thus became an agent of national transformation in social life of England, began about three weeks after his Aldersgate experience when he preached at St. Mary's Oxford, before the University, on Salvation by Faith, taking as his text:
In answering the objection that it is an uncomfortable doctrine he said
And so it was that the great unchurched masses at the beginning of the industrial revolution learned and believed that they need not, in their poverty, work to earn the love of God, but that through faith the Spirit would assure them that they were accepted as children of God. The enmity between them and God was done away with, as we have it from Paul
Sharing with conviction this belief in the freely given saving grace of God, Wesley's preaching changed the lives an enormous number of people and laid the foundations of much work for social justice and what was to become not only a great church in Britain, but the largest church in the newly independent United States of America and a missionary movement which took the gospel into the alien cultures of Africa and Asia and as far as the most distant Pacific islands.
Varieties of experience
Least you should think that this kind of evangelical emphasis is peculiar to the Wesleyan tradition, let me share with you a similar record of faith from a Presbyterian type of background, from an unknown writer in the collection called The Celtic Tradition. It is from the same decade as Wesley's experience:
There are, still, people living today, including I believe some in this congregation, who could attest to a similar experience. It is most important to be open to that possibility and not to limit the power of God to change lives through faith in a sudden and dramatic way. It used to be talked of a good deal more than it is today, but it is not a thing of the past. If it is your experience or it is God's gift to you at some time in the future, do not be ashamed to acknowledge it. At the same time, salvation by faith is not salvation by having a particular experience. Different people can enter into the new relationship with God in different ways. It is quite wrong to say, as some do, that you are not a Christian unless you have this kind of experience and you can tell the time and place when it happened as John Wesley could. Sadly, some people walk away from a Christian a fellowship because its members do not speak in that way; but belief in the necessity of a particular kind of experience of the grace of God is not a true Christian belief. There is no better authority for that than John Wesley himself. He wrote to one troubled by this idea:
It is not how we experience the grace of God that is most important, but the objective fact of his free gift to us. May we all be ready to receive the freely given grace of God in Christ however the Holy Spirit may bring it to us.
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