Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 6/13

      “We know that a person is justified not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.”  Many of you, not all of you but many of you, have been attending Lutheran churches your whole life, for some of you it’s this Lutheran church you’ve been attending your whole life.  That means, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you are familiar with Luther’s understanding that we are justified by God’s grace through faith, an understanding that he based on passages like this one today from Galatians.  In other words, our relationship with God doesn’t depend on the good we do because we can never be good enough; we’re always going to fail in some fashion.  So our only hope is in the grace of God and what he has done for us through Jesus Christ.  If someone asked you for Lutheran theology in a nutshell, that’s it and it is based largely on Paul. 

      The traditional understanding was that when Paul wrote these verses about not being justified by works of the law he was offering opposition to Jewish works righteousness, the idea that people should be trying to earn their way to salvation by ritual observance and by following the dietary laws and observing the appointed festival days with all the offerings and sacrifices associated with them.  The notion that obedience to the law, doing the right things, was how you earned God’s favor was thought to be what Paul was reacting to.   

      Luther then used this interpretation of Paul’s thinking to offer opposition to the Catholic system of penance and indulgences that existed in his time, a system that was also seen as a way to earn merit or buy merit for yourself or for your loved ones, another variation of works righteousness. 

      These days however, the thinking is that the Judaism of Paul’s time wasn’t as legalistic as it has stereotypically been made out to be at least in terms of what we think of as earning your way.  The laws and rituals were not understood to be a way to earn God’s favor as opposed to trusting in God’s grace which is how we usually thing of the faith vs. works argument. In the Judaism of that time though, observance of the law wasn’t about earning your way but had more to do with identity.   

      The laws and rituals were ways to identify yourself as a Jew in a mostly Gentile world so observing the law meant that you wouldn’t just blend into that society, but instead you would be noticed. It was more of a social thing; you can tell we are Jews by all these things we do, and we’re proud of it.  So Paul was saying that in order to be a Christian you didn’t have to observe all these distinctive marks and actions of religious identity but he wasn’t thinking about them as a means of salvation or of how one gets to heaven.  His opposition was more about these things being part of one’s identity or part of what you had to do to live a good life.  

      With that in mind, it would seem that Paul was writing and reacting to a situation quite different from the situation to which Luther applied Paul’s writing.  Besides being 1500 years apart, the contexts were quite different because Luther was writing about salvation. His opposition to the sale of indulgences had nothing to do with social or religious identity, which was Paul’s focus, it was about the church’s claim that purchase of such indulgences would take time off of someone’s stay in purgatory, and therefore the sale of indulgences did have something to do with salvation.  Paul and Luther were writing about different things.  That difference doesn’t mean Luther was wrong in the theological conclusions he drew however.  He may have been mixing apples and oranges a little bit in his interpretation of Paul, but his insight that we are justified by God’s grace through faith not by earning our way is still true. 

      A more pertinent question for us might be to ask whether Paul was right; was he right to say that observance of these outward signs of the law was unnecessary?  There were theological reasons for Paul’s decision, but you have to think that there were practical reasons as well; Christianity was not going to be very attractive to many Gentiles if it meant adherence to all things Jewish.  The very success of the Christian movement could have been at stake here, so at the time what Paul said made sense.  The problem though is that without the outward signs and rituals it’s easy to lose the sense of distinctiveness that makes one easily identifiable as a member of a religious community.  This probably wasn’t something Paul had very much on his mind though, because one’s religion was much more public in his time; even without observing the Jewish law, the failure of Christians to participate in accepted Greco-Roman social practices still would have caused them to stick out; they were noticed and at various times as the movement grew, they faced persecution as a result. 

      I don’t think we can necessarily blame Paul for it, but without any outward marks or actions that easily identify us, over time Christians have pretty much fully assimilated into the wider society and culture such that there is no distinctiveness; for the most part you can’t tell a Christian from anyone else these days.  You might notice that someone attends church or they might notice that you do, but what can you or they tell from observing day to day life?  Does the life of a Christian look any different than the life of anyone else?  Should it look different from the life of anyone else?  If we were more easily identified as Christians would our expectations of ourselves be any different? 

      In the first century Jews and Christians were more easily identified by things they did or did not do day to day; in our time, that’s not the case.  You can’t blame Paul though because lack of easy religious identification is true with Judaism today too except for Orthodox Jews.  I grew up in a town where there was a significant Jewish population but when I was in elementary school the only way I knew who the Jewish kids were was that they didn’t come to school on Jewish holidays and they couldn’t play baseball or football after school on Tuesdays because they had to go to Hebrew school.  Other than that they were pretty much like everyone else as far as I could tell. 

      These days we pretty much all blend in and in the case of Christians sometimes the ones who are easily identified can be a little hard to take because what often makes them easily identified is that they say Jesus a lot but their life doesn’t necessarily reflect Jesus very much, but they know the Jesus jargon and want to make sure that you know that they know it.  Other than that though, apart from an hour on Sunday morning, we mostly blend in and…I think we kind of like it that way; we’d rather not be noticed. 

      In the letter to the Galatians, Paul does eventually get around to behaviors to be avoided or to be followed for all Christians regardless of Jewish or Gentile background.  In passages we’ll hear a couple of weeks from now Paul provides lists of Spirit led behaviors that would reflect Jesus in day to day life which is further evidence that Paul was not railing against what we think of as works righteousness because clearly he was concerned with moral behavior.  If we were more easily identified as Christians it is these behaviors that would reflect that identity and the ones Paul lists mostly have to do with Jesus’ love command. Paul uses phrases like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Bear one another’s burdens,” “Do not grow weary in doing what is right,” “Work for the good of all.”   

      For Paul it is clear that being a Christian is more than just saying Jesus a lot.  There are God pleasing, Spirit led behaviors that reflect Jesus’ life and teachings and there are many Christians, Lutherans and lots of others who engage in these behaviors, quietly and humbly, blending in with others who do similar things regardless of what they believe or don’t believe. 

      Which brings us back to the question; as followers of Jesus, is that OK?  Is the quiet, humble, don’t call attention to myself, just blend in approach OK, or would it be better if in addition to doing those God pleasing things there were ways that others knew that our actions had something to do with our faith?   Would it be better if we were more easily identified as Christians?  I don’t have the answer to that.  Humility is identified as a virtue in many parts of the Bible but evangelizing and sharing our faith is also called for. 

      In his time I think Paul was right to downplay the outward marks of identity.  In our time though, where as Christians we are fully assimilated into the culture to the point of not even being noticed, maybe it’s something we need to think about.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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