I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago to surprise my father for his 70th birthday. I flew in a day before the surprise party and stayed at my sister’s house, just a few miles away from my parents. On the day of the party her family and I set about getting the place clean from top to bottom and ready for a house full of friends old and new. My sister’s oldest daughter, 9 year old Emma, was ON FIRE getting things cleaned up and without even being asked or given specific directions. She made her bed and the beds of her two younger siblings. She picked up the room she shares with her sister and her brothers room. She helped me sweep and Swiff and mop; she carried countless rental folded chairs and rolled round tables from the front yard to the back - - and all before lunch! We were all so impressed…right until we broke for lunch and she came up to Kara, my sister, and said, “So, what are you going to pay me for all that?”
My sister could have done what another mother did:
A woman, a mother, tells the story, about her young son and herself. She says:
My little boy came into the kitchen one evening while I was fixing supper and he handed me a piece of paper he'd been writing on.
For mowing the grass, $5.
For making my own bed this week, $1.
For playing with baby brother while you went shopping, $.25
For taking out the trash, $1.
For getting a good report card, $5.
For raking the yard, $2.
I guess at some point all parents probably have an experience like this, and it makes sense. Our whole understanding of how society, life, business, and the community works is on a payment-for-work system. Our kids pick up on this pretty quick. We will get something good if and only if we pay for it. This little boy paid first and then came looking for the reward, but we even do it the other way around with our God’s grace. We think there are things we need to do to pay for God’s love. We are constantly trying to define, either to reassure ourselves that we’re “safe,” or to take on the role of God and judge who is “out,” what does it really cost, what is the real payment we have to make, to make things right between us and God.
We ask how much we have to forgive other people to earn God’s forgiveness. We ask how much we have to believe, how often we have to come, what we will have to give of our time, our energy, and our money to earn a place at the table of God. We want to know what it takes, what we have to give, what we have to do to be sure of our inclusion, our justification to use Paul’s language, our salvation, our experience of God’s love.
The mother in the previous story answered her son like this:
I looked at my son, standing there expectantly, and a thousand memories flashed through my mind. So, I picked up the paper he had given me, and turning it over, this is what I wrote:
For the nine months I carried you, growing inside me. No Charge
For the nights I sat up with you, doctored you, prayed for you. No Charge.
For the time and the tears, and the cost through the years. No Charge
For the nights filled with dread, and the worries ahead. No Charge.
For advice and the knowledge, and the cost of your college. No Charge.
For the toys, food and clothes, and for wiping your nose. No Charge.
When you add it all up, the full cost of my love my Son. No Charge.
That is what is God's love is all about. There is no charge. Just a lot of hope - God hoping for us - God praying for us - God feeding us, God watching over us.
The gospel is not - - the gospel is NEVER about what we do earn God’s love. The gospel is NEVER about how good we are, how worthy we are, how deserving we are of God’s grace. There is nothing we need to do to have the love of God made human and visible, demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, showered upon on grace upon grace, because it’s NEVER about what we do or don’t do, not even whether we believe or don’t believe.
I think this is one of the most dangerous contemporary versions of this same ancient debate. Most of us, I think at least intellectually have gotten on board with the idea that there’s nothing we can need to do to earn God’s love. We know (that doesn’t mean we always live like it, but we know) that we don’t fill backpacks for hungry families in our community because it makes God love us. We don’t teach Sunday School or share in fellowship time or contribute to the food shelf or send youth on mission trips or serve dinner at Grace Place or study the Bible or come to worship God or sing in the choir or pledge our money or ANYTHING else to earn God’s love. We get that. We don’t believe in “works righteous,” we say. We believe in God’s grace.
What we sometimes need to be reminded is that it’s possible to turn even faith in God’s grace into a work. It’s possible to set up a new standard that’s not about circumcision or what we eat or don’t eat or which of the laws we keep or how often we worship or which missions we support. It’s possible to set up a new standard of judgment of ourselves and others based on whether or not we have faith or have “enough” faith in Jesus. We human beings are just so used to there being a cost to us for everything that we have the driving need to put a cost to us on God’s love so we set up litmus tests of faith. We make God’s love and reconciliation based on whether we or others have enough or the right kind of faith.
But the whole point of all of this, the whole point of the gospel is that there’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing we HAVE TO TRY TO DO to earn the love and grace of God. It’s not even dependent upon our faith. When I read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning, I read something a little different than what our pew Bible said, something different than I at least learned growing up. Did anyone notice or was anyone following along and pick up on it? It was slight change of wording, but it was very intentional and can make a big difference in how we read Scripture, understand God’s grace, and live out our faith. I’m talking about verses 16 and 20. Here is what I read:
“Yet we know that person is justified [meaning absolved, forgiven, or restored to right relationship with God]…Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law….and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
What was the change? What was different? “Faith in” turned to “faith of.” Based on the possibilities of the original Greek language and the theology of grace demonstrated by Jesus and preached by Paul himself, I think that one little change, that one little translation and interpretation choice, is very, very important. Both are possible according to the structure of the language, but I think the latter is more consistent with the gospel.
It is not our “faith in” Jesus that guarantees our forgiveness, our inclusion in the love and wholeness of God. It is the “faith of” Jesus that makes God’s grace real. Faith is not a work we attempt in order to gain God’s love; faith, when we can muster it, is a response to our experience of God’s grace. We aren’t justified or forgiven or saved by grace through our faith in Jesus; we’re saved by grace through the faithfulness of Jesus. We’re saved, we’re loved, we’re forgiven, we’re included because no matter how often we wander away, no matter how much we hurt God, no matter what we do or what we say, not matter how we doubt or question or like Peter in the garden after Jesus’s arrest how many times we even deny him altogether, Jesus is faithful still to us. It’s not our faith that saves us. It’s his faithfulness to us.
I babysat a lot when I was in high school. I can remember this one little boy, he was the oldest child in his family, and HE KNEW THE RULES. The mom and dad were pretty relaxed people, not irresponsible, but not uptight about every little thing. They would tell us our choices for dinner, suggest some activities, and give a range for bedtime. It gave me plenty of freedom with the kids within some good boundaries - - the perfect set-up for a babysitter. Charlie, though, had other ideas. At eight years old, he knew everything, of course, especially every rule. “We have to have a meat, a fruit, and vegetable at dinner, and there’s no dessert unless everything is eaten. We have to wait until everyone’s done before dessert, and it’s three cookies, not two, not four. It’s three. TV is OK, but only these channels, only 30 minutes, and only after we’ve read for 20 minutes. We should go outside, but we have to wear shoes, even if we’re just on the patio. When we brush our teeth we set the timer. It HAS to be for 3 minutes. You HAVE to turn the water off when you’re not rinsing so you don’t waste it.”
Charlie had rule after rule after rule that just his parents never mentioned. After I had been coming to their house for a month or so, I asked his parents if there were specific ways I should be doing some of these nightly routines. They laughed knowing exactly why. “Charlie makes up his own rules. He’s stricter than we are, and sometimes we don’t even know the rules he’s made up for his sister! The order brings him comfort, but we don’t let him beat himself or his sister up over whether or not every rule is followed.”
Paul’s trying to say basically the same thing. This law that we have known and loved, these terms of the covenant with God that have been the center of the Jewish faith for centuries upon centuries, generations upon generations, they are good. They give structure and order to our life of faith. They remind us of whose we are. They teach us about God’s priorities and God’s desires, but we can’t beat up ourselves or our brothers and sisters with them. They don’t bring us God’s love; they are our response to God’s love. And so it is with whatever contemporary boundary we try to use today - - be it faith or good works for others or belief. We can’t beat up ourselves or our brothers and sisters with some arbitrary standard for earning grace. Our faith doesn’t bring us God’s love; it is our response to God’s love, which is infinitely more faithful than we will ever be. Great is Christ’s faithfulness. Amen.