March 23, 2014, 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year A
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….”
We are “justified by faith.” Who has heard those words before? They are absolutely fundamental to Protestantism, the reform movement out of the Roman Catholic Church that erupted 497 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Saxony. These words, this concept is fundamental to the whole Protestant project of which we are, in a significant way, descendents of. The English Reformation was quite different from the continental Reformation of Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, and we treasure and retain significantly more of our Roman Catholic heritage than our more purely Protestant friends in Christ, but being justified by faith is still pretty central to our traditional, I dare say orthodox understanding of Godly things. So that being said, what does it mean, to be “justified by faith?”____
Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the last century, put it very succinctly. It is the idea that, “we are accepted by God although being unacceptable according to the criterion of the law, and all we must do is accept this acceptance.” In proper English that means that even though we are not perfect, God loves us because that is what God does, and not because anything we do.
Now this has a lot of theological connotations, including two very positive ones from the perspective of those of us who are less than perfect. First, no matter how good you are, no matter how often you come to Mass, how nice you are to your neighbors, how giving of your life you are to serving the least of these, that won’t make God love you any more. All that good stuff pleases God, good works resonate with the heartbeat of the creation, but it doesn’t earn God’s love, nothing can earn God’s love, it is freely given by grace alone.
Conversely, no matter how bad you are, how sinful, how cruel, how unfriendly, unkind, unforgiving, no matter how destructive you are to yourself and/or others, you can’t make God love you less. All that bad stuff breaks the heart of God in Christ, but it doesn’t interfere with God’s freely offered love, nothing can get in the way of God’s love. Well, nothing but yourself. We can reject God’s love, we can refuse to accept it, refuse to accept that we are loved, are loveable by God. And truly much if not most of the evil done in this world is directly related to how loved/connected/secure/safe the evil doer feels, the less of those things we feel the worse we tend to behave. It is tragic how deep the lies we tell ourselves can be, and is tragic how steep a price we all pay for it.
“Justified by faith.” We are loved just the way that we are. That is the reaction of the Samaritan woman at the well; that is where her amazement comes to a head. First, here is a man talking to an unaccompanied woman, a Samaritan at that, and he a Jewish man. Jews and Samaritans did not mix. He asks her for water, listens to her story of her ancestors, then He offers another kind of water. She tells the truth, He fills in the rest of the story, and though she, as a woman, would have had no choice as to her marital status as divorces came only from men, her story was sordid, her reputation questionable (Eve was framed, right?). And yet He, the Christ, notices her, pays attention to her, teaches her! Jewish men did not talk to, let alone teach Samaritan women anything. And He offers her this Living Water. She is amazed. She runs off to tell her people, and let’s get midrashic here, let’s put some holy imagination into this story, she tells her people in the city, “He told me everything I have ever done (and He still loves me)!”
And her story is on the heels of he story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee and leader with whom Jesus had met one chapter earlier in St. John’s Gospel. Nicodemus was the consummate insider: male, clergy/scholar, educated, probably wealthy, he is named… that is pretty basic, being named. She, the Samaritan woman is nobody, is a nobody, unnamed, poor, female, a social, religious and political outcast. But Nicodemus came by night, sneakily because he was probably afraid what others would think, while the woman, who risked a lot more being near strange men, she came to Him by the light of day. Nicodemus came seeking Jesus with the spirit of debate on his heart while the woman was just going about her business drawing water. And Nicodemus could not wrap his mind, his highly conventional, educated, culturally occupied mind around the truth of God standing directly in front of him, whom he sought out. And the nameless woman, so alienated from the world that Jesus was also in conflict with, she found what she was not even looking for, the truth and presence of an ever-loving God, the Living Water. “He told me everything I have ever done (and He still loves me)!” She could not expect that from the powerful man, the churchman, the Pharisee, but she got it from God. God loved her just the way she was.
God loves you just the way you are. “…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….” We are justified by faith. It is good theology. Really, really good theology. Really, really good theology that confuses the stuffing out of me.
On one hand, it is amazingly reassuring that even with all of my sinfulness, all of my failures, and brokenness, laziness and unthoughtfulness and carelessness and narcissism, even with all of that God loves me to the moon AND back. All of us. On the other hand, and one of the major critiques of this theology is that it doesn’t give a lot of ontological, doesn’t give a lot of really foundational motivation to be or do good in the world, to work for or on behalf of God, to try to fulfill God’s will in Heaven and on Earth. Faith alone; faith not works. (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some of us on the Anglo-Catholic side of the Episcopal Church understand that justification occurs in our baptism, our entrance into the community of Christ and a life lived trying, striving to do God’s will, it is a both/and with some sacramental obligations potentially mixed in).
We’ve all heard the little truism, “Perfect is the archenemy of good enough,” right? This is the feet on the ground application of this theology, very apt for those of us in the midst of our Lenten disciplines. (Funny how much we might learn from being beer-less or chocolate-less for at least 40 days). God does not expect us to be perfect. Jesus did not expect that of the woman at the well; He certainly did not expect that of His disciples, the jokers that they could be. God does not expect us to be perfect, but just how good are we expected to be? Are we too hard on ourselves? Certainly. I know some of your all’s back stories and some folks here are devastatingly, crippilingly hard on yourselves. That’s no good. Low self-esteem is epidemic in women and girls. Self-hatred is epidemic on the street and for addicts of all stripes and in all stages of recovery. That is not God’s way; nor should it be ours.
Are we not hard enough on ourselves? Do we let ourselves off too easily? Again, I know a lot of back stories, my own in particular and maybe, maybe more of us err on that end of things???? I’m just saying… I just work here… Self-discipline, authentic self-discipline is not an epidemic in our culture. Rigor in our religious devotions and practice isn’t spreading like measles are in New York. Striving to reduce the quantity and increase the justice-rich quality of what we consume is not a widely practiced virtue. Holding ourselves truly accountable for what we do, fail to do and consent to be done on our behalf, which we confess weekly, that, again, is not something I often need to counsel folks to moderate. My own special problem is that I am inconsistent. I have unrealistically high expectations of myself in some areas of my life that bring on withering self-critique when I fail to measure up. I also have just as irresponsibly low expectations in other areas of my life, which some folks here can attest to. I am too hard on myself in some places and I let myself off the hook far to easily in others. (I am right on in a few places, I think, I’ll ask Win). Where to you fall? How do you measure up? How forgiving or unforgiving are you of yourself? Something to ponder.
Justification by faith. We do not need to be perfect to be loved by God. I don’t think we even need to want to be perfect to be loved by God, that Samaritan woman wasn’t looking for anything but a jug at the well and she got Jesus Christ. But to love God with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul and body and to love our neighbor as ourselves as we are commanded to do demands action in this realm, in time and space, here and now. You are good enough to be loved by God, to be held tenderly in the arms of the creation. As you sit in your Lenten austerities, may light be shed on how to act like you are. AMEN