s153e01 Somerton Park 4/4/01 Lent 1
"Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." Romans 10:4
There is in this verse a statement about the centrality of faith in our lives. We can take it that there are some who believe and are, as a consequence righteous, and there are others who don't believe and as a consequence are unrighteous. Of course we all recognise that God has a part to play in our faith. Faith is a gift to each of us - a quite unmerited gift, so we are slowly but surely getting ourselves into the trap of concluding that for some obscure reason, known only to God, God has chosen to give us faith and made us righteous and so naturally prefers us to others. These others God has, for equally obscure reasons, denied faith and righteousness and acceptance.
I simply would not worship such an arbitrary and capricious God as this.
One of the fundamental assertions of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity - the oneness of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit - is to save us from the sorts of dilemmas having many gods, often with competing agendas, leaves the human race. One has only to read the Greek odysseys to see humanity at the beck and call of competing deities. It's like when one is in the army and a private gets one order from the sergeant and another from the lieutenant, and can't do one without disobeying the other.
(Actually, of course, there is a truth associated with the Greek and Roman pantheon, for often life does seem to consist of being at the beck and call of disparate forces - but the love of our Father is constant - as the psalms continually remind us.)
Now we can also go down the track of saying one must be Christian, but the reality is that there are so many versions of interpretation of what being a Christian is - means that that path is spectacularly unfruitful. I recall reading a publication put out by the "Affirming Anglican" organisation, to find that there are at least seven different strands of high-church-person-ship! I was so delighted to find this out, because when I've gone to some Anglocatholic parishes, I have often got the impression that there is only one way to be Catholic - and of course it's their way that is the Catholic way! Anything different wasn't even mentionable. Mind you the same can be said for most of the other strands in our tradition! I find it curious, for instance, that the ordination of women is opposed by some "high church" as well as some "low church" people, as well as proposed by some "high church" as well as some "low church" people.
But I wonder if there is not some interpretation of this passage which gets us away from all this "I'm right and everyone else is wrong" - the "what is the true faith" conundrum?
And I think that there actually might be.
If we take our text for today and just add some words to it, it might just be a little bit helpful. St Paul says: "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." If we add the words: who believe that righteousness is given freely to everyone - that righteousness is not gained by adhering to the law ... this is at least consonant with the sentiment contained in St Paul's actual words. So our belief is in a God who has done away with the law - a God who is not in the business of keeping people away, but in a God who accepts us and all people, and who wishes for us to live in peace and harmony with others.
For if we don't believe God is like this, we end up simply swapping one particular reason for exclusion with another. Instead of persons being excluded for breaches of the law, now people are excluded for breaches of ritual, or people are excluded for breaches of orthodox faith. Of what use is changing the reasons for exclusion? Where is the good news in this? when it is manifestly obvious that no person, or denomination or faith is able to supply a universal comprehensive and authoritative statement of ritual or orthodoxy.
It is our perception of the character of God, from a being who has a standard of admittance, to one who welcomes all, and it is people themselves who choose not to respond.
So trying to believe the right things or fulfilling the correct sacrificial system in a vain attempt to appease this God is all so unnecessary. Any appeasing of God that needed to be done, has been done on the Cross. Nay, of course, no appeasing has ever been necessary, and it is THIS that the Cross shows us. Trying to appease God is unnecessary and counter-productive, because it takes our focus away from what we should be doing, and that is listening to the other.
So salvation is not something which comes to us from outside; as St Paul says: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). (10:6-7).
No, St Paul affirms that we have come to the realisation that God loves all people, simply for whom we are: "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)." (Romans 10:8). The old distinctions of Jew and Greek are meaningless. So wide is the mercy of God that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (10:13) One has only to call on the name of the Lord - it is very near.
And we will of course "call on the name of the Lord" - each in our own way. The various great religious traditions give us some assistance and encouragement to do so. But in the end it is what lies on our hearts which is the most important thing and not the form of words or actions we use.
And I want to suggest that the realisation that God loves others as much as ourselves, leads us into rather different modes of life. Indeed as atheists seek to minister to their neighbours out of a spirit of simple humanity, they are, by this very action, "calling on the name of the Lord". When we pray: "through Jesus Christ our Lord" we are praying through this Jesus who was crucified for sitting down and eating with others, so what we pray to happen ought to reflect in some measure the same actions.
And God raised Jesus from the dead to vindicate this way of life. It is the guarantee that God loves us for whom we are, not for what we believe, not for how much we can contribute to the church, not for how devoted we are to the worship of the Temple; but loves us for who we are so that we in turn might love others as they are.
And in the end two of the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were to not believe the words of acceptance and love God had just spoken to him at his baptism: "You are my Son" and to prove it to himself and to others. The first and the third of the temptations are prefaced with the devil using the words: "If you are the Son of God ..."
So it is the devil's work to make us disbelieve the words of love and acceptance God has spoken to us in baptism when we too are called sons and daughters of God. And it is the devil's work to make us disbelieve what God reaffirms in us as we come to the Holy Communion ass God's children. It is the devil's work to make us try to earn God's love and acceptance, when in fact that love and acceptance is already there. It is the devil's work to distract us from trying to listen to the other, and trying to respond in love and acceptance.
So faith is in fact central to my life, for it is a faith in God who loves others as well as me. For St Paul did not say: "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for me because I believe." That is quite different from what he actually wrote: "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes that there is righteousness for everyone ..." For THAT is what I believe.
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