Whose Faithfulness?

June 9, 2024

    Series: June 2024


    Today's Sermon


    "Whose Faithfulness?"


                We continue our series on the letter to the Romans, the most comprehensive accounting of Paul’s theology, remembering that Paul is the most important figure in history in framing what the “Jesus event” means in Christianity.  Seeing how Paul wrestled with his world in light of God and Jesus helps us in our own wrestling.  Today’s reading from Romans comes from 3:21-26:

    Romans 3:21-26
    21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

                The major question for today, one on which the whole of our religion turns—that’s not overstating it—is, “Whose faithfulness matters?”  We can’t get to it, however, until we do some clean up because I’m guessing many of us are stuck on a particular portion of this passage. What do we do with this notion of Jesus as a “sacrifice of atonement by his blood,” put forth by God (Romans 3:25).  How many of you are troubled by the notion that somehow God sacrificed Jesus, who we call God’s son, and it’s by Jesus’ blood that somehow our sins are forgiven, and things are made right? 

                That formula is a huge stumbling block for Christians in all the churches I have served, not to mention the legions who do not attend church precisely because of this notion.  Remember, part of what we’re doing is understanding the world in which these words were written.  To us, this formula makes no sense.  We don’t believe you make things right by making a blood sacrifice, but people in Jesus’ time did.  The temple was where humanity’s relationship with God was mediated through animal sacrifice. 

                Jesus comes along, and all these claims start to emerge about him, but then he is killed.  That doesn’t make sense if you were expecting a Messiah, a chosen one who might come with great power.  These people had to make sense of what happened, and they did so the way we all would, by drawing on familiar cultural images and concepts.  As part of an animal sacrifice culture, it made sense for Jesus’ followers to start to talk about him as the sacrifice of all sacrifices. Just as the blood of animals was understood to atone for the sin of the people, so would the blood of Jesus be understood.  Indeed, Jesus’ blood healed the rift between creation and the Creator once and for all, and charged the people to become ambassadors of that healing out in the world.    Accordingly, Jesus became known as the lamb of God.  The book of Hebrews, one of the later written books in the New Testament, takes it a step further, describing Jesus as both the unblemished lamb, a perfect sacrifice, and the high priest who makes the sacrifice, who mediates between heaven and earth.  It made perfect sense to them.

                How do I know Paul and his ancestors thought this way?  It’s right in their scriptures.  Here it is in today’s reading from Leviticus.  It describes instructions for a priest conducting an atonement ritual, making things right with God:

    Leviticus 16:12-16
    He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy-seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy-seat, and before the mercy-seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.

    He shall slaughter the goat of the sin-offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy-seat and before the mercy-seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.

                Do you see how Paul and others would have used this as a model for understanding what happened to Jesus?  Would we make sense of Jesus that way?  Of course not.  Can we think of images we might we use from our culture?  For example, we like to talk about heroes, individuals going up against a great challenge or an overwhelming opponent, and then against all odds, they are triumphant.  We still draw upon a biblical story today when we speak this way, David vs. Goliath.  Incidentally, this interpretation of David vs. Goliath totally misses the point.  It’s not a story about the little guy getting one over on the big bad bully – that’s more good old American mythology than good theology.  By the way, the story of David and Goliath is not about the power of the little guy; it’s about God’s power, but I digress.  We might be likely to frame Jesus as the little guy (even though he’s God’s special child) who faces the big bad Roman Empire, refusing to return violence for violence, submits to being killed, and then rises from the grave overcoming the greatest enemy of all, death itself!  Talk about a heroes’ journey!  And, that is, indeed, how many people talk about the Jesus event.

                There are a few ways of talking about the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that have dominated Christendom.  The most troubling perhaps was one created by Anselm in the Middle Ages which essentially said the blood sacrifice of Jesus satisfied God and moreover positioned Jesus as a substitute for us because we in our wretchedness all deserve to die and suffer for eternity.  Jesus takes our place.  Scholar John Dominic Crossan goes into great detail explaining the cultural framework upon which Anselm drew to come up with this formulation, but it was exactly that, a familiar cultural formulation.  Crossan, and I for that matter, say this formulation is, with all due respect, nonsense. 

                What’s exciting is that while many of us have only heard of a way or two of understanding Jesus’ death, there are actually many ways of thinking about this.  I have a wonderful book here called Cross Examinations:  Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today. The information is in your bulletin, so you don’t have to write it down.  As the title suggests, the book is a collection of writings that wrestle with Jesus’ killing from all kinds of diverse perspectives and in light of a number of challenges we face today.  It employs different cultural lenses or models, just as Paul employed his own.  It consists of nineteen chapters that fall into three larger sections:

    • How the cross repudiates human (or divine) violence, especially state-sponsored violence
    • How the crucifixion speaks to racial and gender oppression
    • How Jesus dying on the cross connects God to the suffering world

    You may not even want to accept the construct that there is or was a fundamental rift between humanity and God that needed to be healed in the first place.  Fine.  Some of the authors in the book I just referenced would agree.  I might agree.  There are plenty of us who believe the point of faith is not overcoming some original breakup between God and humanity, but rather living ever more, best we can, into union and communion.  Whatever you believe, I hope I have at least clarified where the blood talk is coming from. 

                Now, to the main question of the day, and I know we are most of the way through the sermon.  That’s okay, because it’s a question we can answer fairly quickly, even though it’s of enormous impact.  As I said earlier, it’s the question on which perhaps the entire tradition turns. Whose faith matters?  It’s a question so simple, you may not know how to answer.  Our faith matters.  Actually, more specifically, in our individualistic culture, my personal faith matters.  The whole point of Christianity is to make a personal profession of faith.  That determines everything.

                What if we got that wrong, or only partially right?  There’s a famous linguistic argument that just might just help us see anew as we promised last week we would endeavor to do.  Romans 3:21-22 reads, in part, “the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ…”  That phrase, “through faith in Jesus Christ,” has been determinative. You must have faith in Jesus Christ. Grammatically, however, the phrase is just as accurately translated, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” or “the faith of Jesus Christ.”   Do you see how significant this shift is?  It’s not all about ourability to have faith in Jesus that makesall the difference, but how Christ was faithful to God that madeall the difference.  It has been done already.  Our faith still matters, for the line continues, “for all who believe,” which can also mean, “for all who trust,” but Christ’s faith is primary.  That’s whose faithfulness matters the most. 

                It’s not that you don’t measure up if you don’t believe enough or aren’t good enough.  Sure, Paul believes we all fall short, and while we may not like that negative view of human nature, we can probably acknowledge on one level how we do at times, fall short. We certainly can see it when we look around at others.  That it is Christ’s faith which matters makes the news so much better.  It doesn’t come down to you.  What comes down to us is the joyful response we offer to Christ’s faithfulness.  We don’t use Christ’s goodness as an excuse to not offer our own to the world.  We don’t abuse God’s grace in Christ.  Paul later addresses the temptation to take advantage of God’s grace.  In chapter 6 he says, “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means!” (6:1) he exclaims, which I had a professor say was really a more aggressive response akin to “Hell no!”

                We “take advantage” of the grace given as the result of Christ’s faithfulness by giving thanks but not with more blood offerings or other religious observances that don’t transform us or support our faithful living.  We give thanks with our living, by loving God and loving neighbor.  That’s it. That may look like going to Israel-Palestine as our youth director did these past two weeks.  It may look like going to Bolinas with some of us later this month to build housing for someone in need.  It may look any number of ways. 

                For us, the blood of Jesus simply shows us the lengths to which Jesus went to live the way of God in the world.  That courage, that, yes you could say, sacrifice, is our lifeblood.  It empowers us to live boldly knowing our job is not to earn God’s favor, but to give thanks for it with our own lives.  The blood of Jesus isn’t that which flowed to appease an angry God/Father.  It is lifeblood that flows through us, animating us for creativity, compassion, joy, and passion for justice and wellbeing.  For us, that’s the real power of the blood.