This is the sermon I wrote for St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul MN for March 17th, the 5th Sunday of Lent.
“Hey! That was my line!”
Sermon for March 17, 2013 (Philippians 3:1-14 and John 12:1-11)
I’ve been in and out of prisons for most of my life. That’s not exactly the sermon opening I’m sure many of you were expecting to hear, but it is true. One summer when I was in college I was a guard in a juvenile detention center — the work matched up with my interest in sociology and criminology which I was studying in college. Nine years later I was an Episcopal priest and I was also working on a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Nebraska. Happy to have any kind of work the Bishop of Nebraska offered me $50 a month to be a chaplain to the Episcopalians in the state prison in Lincoln. Once more, something else you may not have expected to hear: Episcopalians locked up.
And one Episcopalian, about 33 years old, had been locked up for a long time. His name was Jim and he’d already been there for 12 years. He was serving a life sentence for a murder he committed. He served 17 years before going out on probation.
During his last year in prison, in 1973, Jim was in a work release program in Omaha and I was the curate in a church there. Jim’s many gifts included music. Our church had started a 9:15 folk mass with the lead guitarist coming from a work release program. I can’t believe how naïve we really were at that time, but my wife Caroline would load the four kids up in our van (ages 3 to 8)—I was already at church. She’d go down to the Salvation Army which ran the work release program, sign Jim out for the day and then bring him to church. He’d have lunch with us after church and I’d take him back.
It was the gospel story for today and brought Jim to my mind — for there was Judas Iscariot who watched Mary wiping the feet of Jesus with “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard.” And Judas ask “why was this perfume not sold for 300 denaraii and give the money given to the poor?” Judas! Do you ever wonder why he was part of the community of disciples? The few references to him in the gospels paint such a negative picture. Why didn’t Jesus get rid of him?
But let’s set Judas and Jim aside for a moment. I’ll come back to them with regard to a significant question I have to ask.
I want you to look at the Philippians passage — and as I asked you to do this I want to forewarn you. I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years researching a book I am now starting to write. This passage from Philippians is part of the story.
Now the working title for this book is “Luther Misread St. Paul,” but I am not attacking Lutherans. It’s just that Luther, and really many others in the time of the Reformation, had a few key passages from the Bible in mind that framed the theology we know as “justification by faith.” Sometimes it’s phrased as “Justification by faith alone.” We heard one of these key passages used by advocates of justification by faith alone this morning. In Philippians, Chapter three, the ninth verse, Paul said that his hope was to be found in Christ “… Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.” (Phil 3:9)
Essentially that means that we are made right with God — in the sense that we are found not guilty of our sins while at the same time given a status of righteousness, being okay again — through our faith in Christ.
So what’s wrong with that? It’s a foundation stone in the Protestant world. It underlies the argument which Paul also seemed to be making that we can’t get right with God through anything we do, any kind of works we offer, because everything we do is marred by sin.
Looking a little deeper into the explanations of the theory of justification we discover, somewhat frequently. an emphasis on God’s anger with humanity. Some explanations use the image of a court of law to explain how an exchange takes place making salvation possible. Some of these ideas are really gracious in their tone and spirit, but there are also scenarios and sermons where the message is “turn or burn.” As end up in that other place, not in heaven.
There is another way, however, to read the same scripture passages that shaped “justification by faith alone” For the past 30 years, at least some New Testament scholars have suggested that we can translate Philippians 3:9 in a slightly different way — and it may be a way that makes all the difference. Having graduated from seminary 46 years ago I had no idea of what was going on in Pauline studies, and never even noticed in the NRSV Bible I hold in my hands a little footnote “S.” It says, in point 4 type, Paul may not have meant “our faith in Christ.” The little footnote says it may be read “the faith of Christ.”
Listen again to the same passage, with the change of one little word. The word “in” becomes “of.” So Paul said his hope was to be found in Christ “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faith of Christ.”
There are two choices for translation: Either “our faith in Christ” or “the faith of Christ”. Some also say “the faithfulness of Christ.” The Greek words are actually “Pistis Christou” and it’s the the ending on the word Christ that causes all the trouble. That little “OU” is a form of the genitive — grammar for what we would call a possessive noun. My car, your kids, our land. Things that we belong to or it is something belong to us.
Greek grammar is a little more complicated. Thus, New Testament scholars question if this is a subjective genitive—which means, the focus is on Christ (who he is and what he has done, or what God has done through Christ), or is it an objective genitive in that it’s about us (our faith our response to what God has done and then our understanding of who this Christ is, and what it means for our salvation.)
For the past 500 years, at least in the Protestant world, the emphasis has been on our faith in Christ as the key that puts us in a right relationship with God. To be in that right relationship—to be saved—means many things, not the least of which is your final destination. The saved are going to heaven and those who are not saved are going somewhere else.
So what about Jim? What about Judas?
Jim got married after he was released from prison. A year later in 1975 I baptized his little girl. We then moved to Minnesota and he went to Seattle. We exchanged Christmas cards for a few years. Sadly, I know he got divorced – then we lost all touch with each other. If he’s alive he’s in his early 80s. I wonder what became of his little girl who’s now almost 40. And is he still an Episcopalian? Still helping church choirs sing? I don’t know.
And Judas—where is he? Any chance he’s in heaven? Let’s let that question hang in the air for a few minutes.
I made sure that we got to hear the opening verses to Chapter three. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. He’s a pastor, but he’s angry and he’s worried about some troublemakers who’ve shown up in his absence. That’s why we heard his harsh words. “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” Who are these opponents of Paul?
These troublemakers, it seems, were probably troubled by Paul’s willingness, and even enthusiasm for welcoming Gentiles into knowing Jesus as the Messiah the Christ. But why should they be troubled if people want to believe that Jesus was the Christ, a belief they shared?
Remember Paul said “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord.” And he gives us a listing of all of the things that should have counted for him as a Pharisee. He had all the credentials that were certainly needed to be proud of his heritage. He was born “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews;” Then he mentioned his loyalty to the Torah—as a Pharisee he exhibited zeal as he went about persecuting the church.
Also remember that before giving his credentials Paul called his opponents “dogs” — a highly derogatory term in that culture. It was probably the term his adversaries used for Gentiles. As near as we can tell Paul’s opponents, to the extent that a Gentile might be coming into faith in Jesus as the Messiah, they also needed to become fully practicing Jews, even to the point of adult males being circumcised. Ouch.
We have to be careful here. We are mindful of religious choices in our world. Thus it can happen—someone who is Jewish becomes a Christian. He or she has changed their religion. Or it can be the reverse— a Christian who becomes a Jew.
In the time of Paul that were also religious choices. But Paul wasn’t a Jew who became a Christian, and then argued with Judaism. There’s some consensus among many New Testament scholars on this point today. Paul’s issues weren’t with traditional Jewish ways or Jewish practices. He just did not believe that Gentiles who were coming to know Jesus as God’s Messiah —needed to adopt those practices definitional of traditional Judaism.
Gentiles coming to the faith that Jesus was the Christ were reminded of the entire faith story which included the narrative of God’s creation and God’s covenantal story with the people of Israel—Gentiles were now incorporated into this story—and the sign of it was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit making their lives different – Being a Christ follower meant you didn’t go back to the way you once lived. You now lived a new life—a life in Christ.
Paul did not change religions —but Paul’s perspective on religion changed. He was a changed man. Verse seven is a remarkable statement: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Actually the Greek should be translated, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as rubbish (or garbage) because of the Christ.” And now if you want to find Paul you couldn’t find him where he used to be. His mailing address was changed. He wrote that he was now located in Christ—now to be found in him not having a righteousness of his own or one that comes from the law, but one that comes from the faithfulness of Christ. And as it says at the end of our reading, it’s “… Because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12).
Paul, you see, had a death experience. He had all those credentials, but now they were worthless. He says that he wants to know Christ, by—get this—“becoming like him in his death.”
All the things that used to matter to Paul are now without value. Hmm? Did I just say without value. Remember the word of Judas in our gospel today. We could have sold this perfume and given the money to the poor.” I’ve heard many similar statements in church settings in my years of ministry. Why are we redecorating that library? We could help others with that money. You’ve heard them as well.
That gospel story with Mary wiping the feet of Jesus, with her hair let down, and the smell of that perfume filling the whole house, and it all happening that context with a Lazarus raised from the dead. Lazarus stands there breathing, but Mary’s act foretells the death of Jesus. The risk that Mary took in exposing herself to ridicule and ostracism for what she did by exposing her hair and what she wasted. It was all gift and it was a prophetic act. I have to believe that Paul knew that story, but whatever he knew of all the pieces of the story of Jesus, they became one for him. One story: the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. And then it became the new life of a community that wasn’t to be shaped by the divisions and differences of this world.
Inside this story of new life and hope everything can be forgiven. The focus for Paul wasn’t about individuals being saved, or making personal faith commitments, but it was on a new world that God was bringing into being. And we, in the church, are still that world. We are that world if we are communities of reconciliation and new life.
So you remember, I was wondering about Jim and I wondered about Judas as well. Where are they with God? If it’s the faithfulness of Christ, and the God who raised Jesus from the death that is at the heart of our message, this is what I am thinking. If Jim is alive today I hope he’s playing the piano, he was classically trained, and that piano is in some church today. I hope it’s is church where people love him and his smile. Do they know of his record? His being in prison? I don’t know. I just know that questions like that don’t need to matter as much inside this new world, this Christ shaped community that God is creating in us.
As for Judas. Well I have this strange, heretical picture in mind. He’s walking arm in arm with Peter in heaven. And Peter mutters from time to time, “We both betrayed him. But his love found us.” And walking a few steps behind is Paul who says, “Hey! That was my line! Read Philippians.” Amen.