Paul has some pretty clear words to those who think our actions can save our souls:
We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.
It is pretty black and white there. Further it clearly articulates the central tenant of the Christian faith: It is all about our relationship to Christ.
On paper, this looks like such a simple thing to believe. Yet, in practice, I think this is one of the thorniest struggles that we grapple with. After all, we live in a highly individualistic, competitive, performance based society that screams the exact opposite. Indeed, we have become so cautious of any type of discrimination that we overtly attempt to base our decisions exclusively on personal merit. Now I’m not trying to undermine the last of these societal vectors, however, it is important to remember that this will make God’s ‘criterion’ all the more culturally alienating: He takes you because you are family. Nepotism to the max.
Importantly, his family is open to all. So we can choose to benefit from his open employment policy!
Yet I don’t think we feel the giddy freedom that this simple equation affords. It is almost like it seems too easy. “What? I don’t have to jump through appraisal hoops to show you how awesome I am” we may well think to ourselves. After all, traditionally to get into nice places you need to be ‘worth’ something. To get into the nice parts of parliament house you need a security pass, or even to get in the door of some exclusive clubs. Yet for God’s house (the nicest of them all) it is free range. That is almost too sweet a pill to swallow.
“Yup”, Paul nonchalantly replies to my slightly hyperbolic questioning. Further:
The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
The logic makes sense. It seems like this is a good offer. Further, it is imperative that we take it on its merit for if we attempt to alloy grace with works then we get into strife. We need look no further than Paul’s direct rebuke of Cephas.
I think this rebuke still holds power today. I wonder if the veneers we put on in church are a reflection of the grace/works alloy that Paul warns of. Are we trying to prove our ‘goodness’ that we put on different performances of ourselves whilst meeting with… well, family?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of community in the church and the family language that God has provided us with. In talking this over with my wife she shared a story of a single-friend who had been continually invited to dinner by couples in her church. Sounds nice and giving, yeah? Well her problem was that these dinners weren’t the usual dinner you have with your immediate family, they were dinner parties. They were the ‘good china’ events that felt like, to this woman, the family were being put on a pedestal of formal behaviour and polite “pass the peas please?”.
Through the course of this discussion, another single-friend recounted similar experiences whilst living with a pastor’s family, until – one night – the mother came home declaring, “I’m too tired, get your own food”. It was at this moment that she felt truly accepted.
I find this really interesting because it seems to suggest that our attempts at being ‘culturally welcoming’ i.e. put on the veneer of your family at its best, actually has the potential to hinder vibrant community life. How much more then might the masks we wear in church hinder our spiritual community?
The costs of supporting a grace/works alloy continue to mount. Indeed Paul highlighted how it can prove burdensome to our ministry. It wasn’t so long ago that I was reflecting on the Christian response to the gay and lesbian community and, reading this passage, I think it is clear to see where the God Hates Fags church falls so violently wrong. By isolating one sin so prominently, this church is conveniently forgetting the comprehensively invasive nature of sin. Namely that it infects and corrupts us all. Or, contrary to what their vitriol would suggest, the gay community does not have a monopoly on sin.
Indeed, like Paul reprimanded Cephas it would be entirely appropriate to call these actions hypocritical. Further, it is justification “by faith in Christ and not by works of the law” that saves so the focus should be on fostering a right relationship with Christ and not demonising one sin over another.
In other words, yes: God is against homosexuality. Just like he is against avarice, and selfishness, and divorce, and no-holds-barred career progression, and exploitation, and dishonest gain, and a whole number of things. I struggled with stuff on God’s ‘not cool’ list too! This is why we are all stuffed under God’s law. This is precisely why God’s grace is so valuable. This is why, if we’re to isolate something unique to focus on as a church, it should be God’s comprehensively unique grace and not our garden variety sins that everyone has shared in.
Now these guys are the easy targets. They are overt and noisy in their critique of others. However, I am sure there are regions where this hypocrisy abounds within our own congregations. I know for me, struggling with illness, I have moments where I feel less of a Christian due to my inability to attend church events like evening service and Bible Study. If I am honest I know I’ve laid the same critique on others when I’ve noticed their struggle too. Yet the underlying logic here is to say my salvation is determined by the number of times I drag my bones through the front doors of a church, as opposed to my relationship with God.
Now I know that that last sentence, if taken to extremes can prove a fertile breeding ground for complacency or Rasputin-esque testing of faith. I’m not suggesting such a though gets taken so far along this vector. However, I do wonder if we have gone to far in the direction of the opposite horizon on this particular issue.
Grace alone. It is a simple concept that has the potential to liberate and rejuvenate us. It is like jumping off the cliff-edge headlong into a sparkling azure pond. The catch is that we need to trust in its self-sufficiency and strength. To lie down, crawl over the ledge and try to dangle our fingers in the water whilst keeping our feet firmly grasped in the mud is to lose the piquancy of an amazing offer.