Sermon delivered on Trinity 3C, Sunday, June 12, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 21.1-21a; Psalm 5.1-8; Galatians 2.15-21; Luke 7.36-8.3.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul talks about Christians being justified by our faith in Christ. In other words, we are put right with God and declared to be not guilty for the sins we have committed. But I suspect for many of us, this means little to nothing. After all, justification is a legal term and a rather clinical one at that. Moreover, we tend to talk about being justified by faith in Christ in the abstract. It just doesn’t hit home for a lot of us. So what does justification look like on the ground and why should we care? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
In his letter to the Roman churches, Paul wrote that we should, “consider the kindness and sternness of God” (Romans 11.22). It is important that we keep the two attributes in balance because if we ignore the former we have a God who is a raging tyrant, angry and vindictive, waiting to strike us down for the slightest mistake. We see the sternness of God in our OT lesson. Ahab, the king of Israel, resorts to deceit and murder to get what he wants, namely Naboth’s plot of land. The result? God sends his prophet Elijah to condemn Ahab to death for his sin.
We also hear the psalmist in our lesson this morning talk about a God who takes no pleasure in wickedness and who can countenance no evil, a God who abhors the deceitful and bloodthirsty, and who hates all who work wickedness. If we let these attributes stand alone, it is not a pretty picture of God we have. It is a terrifying one, and we should rightly be terrified at the prospect of meeting this God. Sadly, many folks have grown up knowing this false, one-dimensional god who is all anger and has no love for his image-bearing creatures.
But neither should we just consider God’s kindness without also considering God’s sternness because then we get a doting old grandpa who really doesn’t care about what the kiddies do with their lives or God’s creation. As we just saw, sin and evil do matter to God because they corrupt God’s good world and dehumanize his image-bearing creatures whom God created to run his beautiful world. So the point is, we have to keep both the kindness and sternness of God in mind if we want to know God’s true character.
But here’s the rub. I suspect many if not most of us focus more on the sternness of God than on God’s kindness. Like David in Psalm 51, we know our transgressions all too well and our sin is ever before us, i.e., we find it hard to forgive ourselves, try as we might. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, how can God? This, combined with the fact that many of us were taught that God is more stern than kind, and fundamentally hostile to us, can produce no small amount of personal anxiety. We walk around waiting for God to drop the hammer on us because we are such rotten people and are terrified about what awaits us when we die. The writer of Hebrews sums it up nicely for us: It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10.31). If you are such a person, then listen carefully and ask the Holy Spirit to give you ears to hear and a heart to believe as I continue because I’ve got some really Good News for you this morning.
To be sure, evil and sin are offensive to God. As we have seen, God created this world and its creatures good, and God created humans to run his world on God’s behalf. When we do that well, things cannot go better for us. We can only find real and lasting happiness when we live our lives according to God’s creative purposes for us. Sadly, however, most of us didn’t get that memo and we seek to create our own happiness, which often conflicts with God’s creative purposes and intentions, and God finds that offensive. Not because God is an ogre and hates us, but precisely because God loves us and wants the best for us. God knows that when our relationship with him gets disrupted and we find ourselves alienated from him, that sickness, madness, anxiety, and ultimately death enter into the picture and that’s not why God created us!
So what to do? Humans have a rich history of trying to play God and create our own failed solutions to the problems we have created and the alienation we experience with God our Father. So God took the initiative to end our alienation and reverse sin and evil in the world. God did that, of course, by becoming human and dying on a cross for us so that God could rightly condemn our sins without having to condemn us. Not only that, but as the NT writers affirm, God conquered evil and death, replacing both with light and life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the faith Paul talks about in our epistle lesson, a faith that causes us to be put right in God’s eyes right here and now, a faith that allows us to know that we will not be condemned at the great final judgment at history’s end. That’s the logic of justification.
But as we have seen, this is all rather clinical and abstract. It really doesn’t get at why God did all this for us. But if you paid attention to our epistle lesson, Paul tells us. In what is probably our earliest statement about the doctrine of atonement, in which we are reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, Paul writes these breathtaking words: The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me (and you and you and you). These words speak of the cross as an act of love, and not simply a cold legal transaction. They speak of arms outstretched in love, and a heart bursting for love. They speak of the self-giving love offered to the undeserving beloved, you and me, so that we might rediscover (or perhaps discover for the first time) the true heart of the Father. If you want to know the kindness of God, look no further than the cross. On it, the sternness of God was satisfied and we were saved from evil, sin, and death because of it. It is the only way we can escape and find new life, new hope, and new and fresh forgiveness.
Yet even God’s kindness revealed to us on the cross, wondrous and comforting as it is, still is rather abstract. What does the Father’s love and forgiveness look like on the ground? Can we find it in the living of our days? If so, how? To find answers to these questions we look at a couple of examples from our readings this morning. First we see that even wicked old King Ahab found God’s kindness. Hear the rest of the story:
(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.)
When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house” (1 Kings 21.25-29)
Apparently even the worst of the worst kings, the very man who, because he was a king, should have embodied the love of God for his people but didn’t, could find God’s kindness when he humbled himself before the sternness of God. That speaks volumes about the heart of God!
Next we turn to our gospel lesson this morning. Remember who Jesus is as we look at this story. Let the scene rise on your mind. Jesus is invited to dine with a Pharisee. Luke doesn’t tell us explicitly that things were a bit tense from the beginning, but as the story unfolds it is clear that Jesus didn’t have a lot of fans dining with him. Perhaps Simon the Pharisee had heard Jesus previously and was skeptical about all this love and grace stuff that he taught and demonstrated. After all, if you wanted to remain pure, you had to stay away from sinners and treat them like the losers they are. So here was this wandering preacher from Galilee, rocking people’s boats and moving their cheese with all this talk about God’s healing love and forgiveness. We know Simon wasn’t completely warm to Jesus because he didn’t offer Jesus water to wash his feet or oil to anoint his head, both common courtesies of the day for invited guests. Neither was there a kiss of peace, which was also extended to invited guests.
As they are eating, a woman enters Simon’s house and crashes the party. Apparently it was the custom of that day to allow access to a meal in honor of a major teaching figure like Jesus. And this is where the fun and scandal began. Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the woman, only that she was a notorious sinner. Luke doesn’t even name her sin, only that it was well-known about town and her reputation preceded her. We get that because we have peeps with similar reps in our little congregation like, well, you know who you are. We know what we’re dealing with here!
Now the scandal wasn’t necessarily the woman’s presence, although that would have made good folks like Simon uncomfortable. No, the scandal was that the woman apparently came to anoint Jesus, to touch him. But she starts to cry because she apparently had experienced the real love and forgiveness that emanated from Jesus. We aren’t told how this came about. Perhaps she heard our Lord preach. Or perhaps she had a private encounter with him that went unrecorded. It really doesn’t matter because the fact is, we are looking at a notorious sinner who had found the love of God pulsing through Jesus and it affected her in a massive way.
Tears of joy and gratitude are now washing Jesus’ feet and to the horror of the other guests, she lets down her hair, something that decent women would never do in public, to dry her tears. After all this, she finally gets around to anointing Jesus’ feet with oil, itself a costly and extravagant act. If the oil was nard, it would have cost a year’s wages for one pound. This was no small gift she was giving Jesus! As any good self-righteous person would, Simon takes offense at the scene. Any thought that Jesus was a prophet was immediately dismissed. This dude’s no prophet. He doesn’t know the kind of woman he’s dealing with. He’s letting a whore touch him!
Not so fast, Simon, Jesus replies. I came to your house and you offered me none of the usual courtesies. In failing to do so, you showed me your heart, and is it ever hard! This woman has done for me what you should have done, but for very different reasons. She has come to me in humility and love, and look at the extravagance of her love! Because she has found forgiveness, it has changed her and turned her into a real lover. Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven and you are seeing the results of that forgiveness. How can you possibly embody the love of God for all people, irrespective of who they are or what they have done, if you shun them and condemn them outright? Jesus could have also told Simon to watch as Jesus went to the cross to die for men just like him. This is how God’s love must be embodied.
And then turning to the woman, Jesus tells her, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. Your faith has saved you.” It is crucial we hear these words because underlying them is a massive authority—the authority of God himself. Think about it. Here we are, seeing God himself in the person of Jesus, offering forgiveness and love to apparently one of the worst of the worst in that town and in that day. This is what amazing grace and love look like on the ground, my beloved.
There are three things I want us to think about in closing. First, notice that Jesus didn’t condone the woman’s sins. He simply forgave her. By all worldly standards, she was unworthy to approach him and unworthy to be forgiven, but she was forgiven anyway. And because she knew her sins had been forgiven in a real and substantial way, her heart was bursting with love and gratitude and humility. This always happens when we really experience God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. The sternness was there in that Jesus did not mollycoddle her. But at the end of the day, there was forgiveness offered first rather than condemnation, thanks be to God!
Second, in this story we find instruction on how to both treat others and ourselves. How do you treat folks who are known sinners? Do you shun them and judge them and look down on them like Simon did? Or do you welcome them into your world so that you can embody the love of God for them like Jesus did? And while we are at it, do you allow the love of God made known in Jesus to work on you so that you can experience and really know God’s healing forgiveness? The woman’s story was no fluke. When we dare have the faith and trust in Christ to let him into our deepest, darkest closets and ask him to forgive us and love us, despite who we sometimes are and what we sometimes do, the woman’s story and the testimony of countless others all speak to the reality and power of Jesus’ healing and forgiving love for us. The only hearts that Jesus opposes are the ones like Simon’s that are self-righteous, haughty and proud, and judgmental. That kind of heart doesn’t even think it needs to be forgiven and our Lord obliges reluctantly. Simon the self-righteous found himself outside looking in on a scene that we all desperately hope to be part of. But even he could be forgiven with a dose of humility!
This leads us to my final point. Stop for a moment and put yourself in the woman’s place. I”m going to pause and give you some time to do that. Approach Jesus with your wounds and hurts and fears. What in your life desperately needs to feel the healing touch of our Lord’s forgiving love? Lay it out before Jesus and don’t be afraid. Let his healing love wash over you like refreshing waters. Hear him tell you the same thing he told the woman. Your sins are forgiven because I love you and gave myself for you so that you could find new life and hope and peace. Go in that peace. I love you. I want you to be with me where I am. Let my love and forgiveness heal you and transform you so that you can do for others what I am doing for you. Will you trust me? Will you dare love yourself enough to believe I can and want to love and forgive you? When you experience Jesus’ healing love, you will surely know that you have Good news, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.