s182g01 Somerton Park 15/7/01 Sunday 15
"wanting to justify himself ..." Luke 10.29
I confess I've always had difficulty with the phrase: "justification by faith" - not that I don't believe that we are - but that the words "justify himself" used by this lawyer are actually not commendable. I am well aware that St Paul does not mean the same thing as this lawyer does when he talks about justification, and this is just as well.
You see, this lawyer, who comes to Jesus, knowing full well what the law says and the implications it should have for his life, seeks to justify himself ... In reality, of course, he seeks to justify - on the one hand, his inactions - his own reticence in helping people other than those amongst his own circle of friends. He seeks to justify his own "passing by on the other side". Just as likely, he also seeks to justify his positive antipathy towards some other people. He seeks to justify his actions of stripping, beating and leaving others half dead, - denying others the right to exist - if they dare impinge on his personal "promised land".
I was thinking recently about conversion experiences that some people have had. As they are related in personal testimonies, most often people have been wrestling with some personal issue, and for some reason or another, have made some private conscious mental profession of faith in Jesus - and they have as a result felt a special presence and affirmation from God. Now I do not want in the least to criticise such an experience. It is wonderful and affirming, and often sustains that person's faith for years afterwards, testifying to the divine origin of those experiences. But my concern is that it is entirely personal and private. This process doesn't involve even one other person. But it seems to me that Jesus was ever involved with other people - indeed I would assert that it was precisely this active involvement with other people that precipitated the enmity of the religious hierarchy, and his eventual death at their hands.
But it doesn't matter what experience of God we have had, the parable tells us that it makes no difference. It doesn't matter what sort of experiences another person has had, or indeed has not had - we cannot say that everyone else has to have the same experience as we did, or that anyone who hasn't had an experience like us is a lesser Christian. We cannot use whatever conversion experience we have had, to justify our inaction when called to assist others, or our positive putting of other people down - who don't share our mode of conversion. The message of this parable is quite definitely that we are called not to try to get other people to have replica conversions as our own, but to extend our help to others when needed, whoever the other person is.
I was recently thinking about my own spiritual journey and how loosely I sit as an "Anglican". And as I thought about this, my mind turned to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, realising they were naked and hiding from God. Now initially people might think that this is an unusual passage to consider one's denomination; yet I suddenly realised that God loves me "naked", without all the denominational clothing I might try to put on to cover up my nakedness ... No, you can all breathe a sigh of relief, I am NOT going to do a streak :-) Catherine is the only one who has to put up with that! As she will tell anyone, it isn't a pretty sight! And if God can love me naked, God loves everyone else naked!
God loves each and every one of us, naked, without the trappings. Yes, I enjoy the "Anglican" trappings, and I suspect God doesn't mind them either. But they don't make me more acceptable to God, who loves me (and everyone else), before, when and after I have done the wrong thing - when I only want to slink away and hide.
So changing clothes, changing denominations, is really a bit of a subterfuge. It does not make God love us any more, because as this parable makes abundantly clear, God loves the Israelite who was robbed and the Samaritan who helped him. God loves us without the clothing we wrap ourselves in.
And I have my suspicions that this is where the parallel of God's unconditional love for us and the unconditional physical intimacy between lovers becomes so obvious. And by extension - why intimacy which is actually domination or manipulation in disguise is so destructive on a victim as well as on the perpetrator. And putting on the mantle of respectability called "marriage" will not undo or justify the hurt caused another.
It is comfortable with clothes on, though I suspect naked Eskimos would be as incongruous as wearing tuxedoes and top hats on Maslins Beach in high summer! (Maslins is a legal nudist beach about 20 kms (12.5 miles) south of Somerton Park).
Some of us have experienced a "Cursillo" weekend, and the beauty of those experiences is the little expressions of unconditional love that happen.
Some others have been to an "Alpha" course, and the beauty of these is that people sit down and eat together, and enjoy one another's' unconditional acceptance in a social setting.
Other people have done "A Big Enough Faith" course, and may I affirm that my experience of the staff at our theological college, St Barnabas, is that they have certainly demonstrated to me that they actually love the Bible and see in the words of scripture God's unconditional love for all people - rather more than some who I have heard speak, who profess to take the words of the bible literally.
So I rejoice when people have found more evidence of God's unconditional love for all people - that God loves us, naked, wherever these perceptions are found. There are a multitude of ways God uses to get this message across. Of course, one is not more acceptable before God because one has been to Cursillo, or Alpha or a Theological course, any more than God loves us more because we are Anglicans, or Christians, or people of faith, or that we are "sincere". One can know of God's love of us naked well before this. For God loves the Israelite who fell among the thieves as well as the Samaritan who helped him.
Surely the message of the parable is not to change our clothes or to try to get others to wear similar clothes to us, but to love others who come to us in clothes of a different kind.
I often remember the time when I did a service at the 'Village, and contrary to my usual practice of wearing jeans, I was wearing "proper" trousers this day. One of the congregation, expressing her surprise and delight, remarked in hushed tones to her neighbour, which everyone else who was not totally deaf could easily hear: "Oh look, the Rector's wearing trousers today!" :-)
Often the regular members of a congregation want the priest to attract young people, yet complain when he or she wears the type of clothes that young people like to wear. You can't have it both ways!
Now there is another garb which we can put on, and that is the garb of the "repentant sinner". This garb is inspired by Jesus words' in the gospel several weeks ago, words to Simon the Pharisee. He said, "the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little". Now, far be it from me to criticise Jesus' words, but again the emphasis is surely on the loving actions of the woman who is ritually impure and the less than cordial reception from the person who is morally and religiously upright. God loves everyone, Simon the ungracious host, the woman who was the sinner who loved. God doesn't especially want us to repent of our sins, God wants us to get on with loving - others. If we want to repent of our sins, well and good. God indeed forgives us, and praise the Lord. But if it just stops there, what on earth's the point? God isn't in the business of forgiving us our sins to make us feel better about ourselves, God is in the business of forgiving us our sins so that we get on and accept others as they are.
The incident of Jesus and Simon and the sinner woman shows us that the constant temptation for everyone who is religious is that they become less, rather than more, accepting of others. It may be that the chief sins we might have to forgive others is that they won't become Anglicans or Christians like us ... And we may also have to realise that people are really actually quite prepared to be loving, but that they carry a lot of negative experiences of the church - experiences that have been less than affirming. When we are so keen for people to come to church, are we constantly affirming hem as they are - or are we surreptitiously thinking how we can get them to become like we are? Are we just trying to get them to dress similarly to us? People have a right, nay an obligation, to reject us if we are just offering them clothes in which to hide from God.
Of course when one really comes to think about it, the second commandment is not - thou shalt be an "Anglican" (or "Christian"), but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself ... Being something other than "Anglican" or "Christian" is not the unforgivable sin - if indeed there is actually any in which is unforgivable.
Indeed if we are really only offering people just a set of clothes to hide from God, we deserve only the contempt of people who are not Christians, as well as contempt from God who accepts us quite naked and others also. Contempt - because we haven't heard the gospel.
As I celebrated the midweek service recently, I read the epistle from 1 Peter 5 where he writes: "clothe yourself - in humility". You can't clothe yourself more humbly than when you're naked!
"Justification by faith" means that we come to our loving God, naked as the day we were born, and that we are loved in this state, as God looked at the first man and woman, made in God's image and they were declared to be "very good".
When we treat others with the dignity that merely being another human being should engender, when we help when asked, regardless of gender, race, colour, culture or creed, we will have no need to justify ourselves before God or before anyone else, for we have done as much as our Lord asks of us.
And I cannot but finish this sermon without inflicting on you some doggerel which came into my mind:
Just as I am,
without even a leaf ...
naked, I come to thee ...
nothing in my hand I bring ...
O Lamb of God,
I come :-)
And yes, I thoroughly agree, I am not a poet!
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