Reasonable obedience or unmerited grace?

Sermon,  March 17, 2019 – Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Before I begin my sermon, let me admit to you that when I first read through the passage today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I completely misunderstood his point.  You see, my first thought was that Paul was laying a great smack down on hedonists and libertines.  Paul wrote “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”  I’ll bet when you heard this today, your first impression was the same as mine – Paul is directing his criticism towards the party crowd.  But I was wrong.

With today’s passage, as is so often the case, it is vital to understand the context before getting too carried away with its interpretation.  If we read earlier in the letter to the Philippians, we would learn that Paul is addressing a group in the church that was teaching that strict adherence to Jewish law was necessary for Christians in order to be saved.  They said that the death of Jesus Christ was not sufficient.  This group would have taught that you needed to follow Jewish dietary law and become circumcised.  So when Paul wrote that “their god is their stomach”, he was making the point that, for them, their salvation was achieved via their diet.  And when he wrote “their glory is in their shame”, he was commenting at how they believed that becoming circumcised won them glory with God.

So Paul isn’t going after the party goers here, but actually the goody two-shoes.  While I had first thought that setting our mind on earthly things must mean embracing hedonism, Paul is also telling us that focusing on earthly things can mean a belief that our own earthly behaviors can win us salvation.  This is works based religion, and this was what many Jewish religious leaders at the time taught.

In fact, before his conversion to Christ, Paul was just such a Pharisee, who was very skilled at following the Jewish religious law.  And so when Paul encountered this same attitude amongst some of the Christians in Philippi, he called them out.  Paul knew that throughout the whole of the Old Testament, God’s people repeatedly failed to follow God’s laws and commandments.  This is because all people, including us, are sinful and unable to follow God’s laws.  And so a religion that teaches salvation is dependent on our obedience is one that condemns us.

But Jesus doesn’t condemn us, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is about freeing us from the bondage of sin.  This is why Paul declares in our passage that “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and that “their destiny is destruction.”  He says this because he knows that it is true.  The gospel of Christ is not about placing more rules on us to follow.  It is about putting our trust in the saving power and grace of Jesus Christ.

Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”  Our hope is not in our own obedience, following a dietary law or becoming circumcised.  No, our hope is in Jesus Christ, by whose power we are saved.  Not by our own power or obedience, but by Jesus.

This is very important for us to understand.  We human beings always imagine that we are the center of everything.  We like to keep control of everything in our own hands.  It allows us to take pride in our own accomplishments and look askance at the failure of others.  I read a news story this past week about the results of a national poll in which people were questioned about their feelings towards members of the opposing political party.  About 20% of each party’s supporters stated that they thought that the country would be better off if most of their partisan opponents would die.  That’s a pretty shocking result.  And yet it reveals that we each have the tendency to think only the best things about ourselves, while reading wickedness and ill will into the motivations of others.

The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t let us indulge in the fantasy that we are better than others or that we can merit our own salvation.  Instead, it requires that we acknowledge our own sinfulness, and that we must put our trust in the grace of Jesus Christ.  During Lent, we often say together the prayer of humble access prior to receiving communion.  This prayer dates back to the earliest Anglican Book of Common Prayer and is based on two passages from Scripture.  In Matthew 8, a centurion replies to Jesus ““Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  And in Mark a woman replies to Jesus confessing her unworthiness to him by saying “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The prayer of humble access reads as follows

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I know of Christians who won’t recite this prayer because they think it is too depressing.  They think that it sounds like God does not accept or love us.  But I think quite the opposite.  We are confessing our unworthiness and our sin, but despite that, claiming the love of God and his great mercy towards us.  We are admitting that we’re not in control.  We’re admitting that we’re not any better than our brother or our sister, or our partisan opponent.  We have no claim to salvation on our own merits.  But despite this, Jesus still loves us and gave his life for us.  That is real love.

In our passage from Philippians, Paul was responding to a group in the church who were arguing that Christians had to fully adhere to the Jewish ritual law in order to be fully accepted by God.  We learned that Paul had himself been a Pharisee before he became a Christian.  But here’s the secret.  Our passage from Genesis today shows that God knew from the very beginning that we would never be able to live up to our own side of the bargain.  The Jewish religious teachers were wrong about God.

Let’s look at this passage from Genesis.  I am sure you all find it to be a rather bizarre and somewhat grisly account, with animal carcasses split in two, and a mysterious smoking firepot passing between the halves.  This sounds more like a gruesome psychedelic dream of a drug-addled hippie, than a Bible story.  Or, to make a pun, maybe a different kind of story featuring smoking pot.  So what’s really going on here?

This is actually an incredible story of God’s promise to Abraham.  You see, in the first part of our passage, God promises Abraham that he will be his defender and that Abraham will become a great nation.  Abraham believes God but asked God for a sign of this promise.  And God responded by making a covenant with Abraham.

Covenants were a very important aspect of life in the ancient near east, and the most solemn and important covenants included very graphic rituals that signified the terrible consequences if either side failed to live up to the covenant.  In this case, God had Abraham sacrifice a number of animals, cut them in two and lay each half opposite the other.  With covenants like this, what would happen next is that both parties to the covenant would walk between the carcasses signifying that if they broke the covenant, their fate would be like the sacrificed animals.  In other words, they were declaring that they would forfeit their lives if they did not uphold their end of the covenant.  This was a very serious covenant.

But listen to the rest of the story.  Abraham falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision of a smoking firepot with a blazing torch passing between the carcasses.  The firepot with the torch was God.  Only God walked between the carcasses.  Only God took on himself the potential curse for breaking the covenant.  Abraham did not.  And this was God’s sign to Abraham.

God is telling both Abraham and us today, that he knows that we are unable to keep our side of the covenant.  If God had let Abraham walk with him through the middle of the carcasses, he would be condemning Abraham to certain death.  This is precisely the message that Paul has for the church in Philippi.  If anyone tells them that their salvation depends on how well they keep the Jewish law, than they are condemning themselves to death.  Paul says “their destiny is destruction.”

I want to finish my sermon by reading an excerpt from an excellent and timely article that I read this week that echoes what we heard in today’s readings.  The author wrote “The union between God and his children is not, as so many believe, a covenant built on mutual promises of reasonableness. It’s not a covenant where we promise to make ourselves holy by obeying God’s commands and he promises to make the highway to heaven relatively easy. Rather, it’s a covenant of grace—one where God the Son earns eternal life for us sinners who could not earn it and where God the Father gives that salvation as a free gift to all who believe.”

There is no law that we can follow, or things that we can do that will make us worthy of God’s redemption.  But the good news of Jesus Christ is that God walked through the carcasses.  Not us.  Jesus Christ gave his life for our sins.  He gives us salvation as a free gift.  The Gospel of John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.“  This is the gospel.

Let us pray, in the words of the prayer of humble access as we look forward to sharing the Lord’s Supper,

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

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