Justification by Faith

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Galatians 2:11-21

March 12, 2017

H. L. Mencken once said “Believing the worst about another person may be a sin, but it is seldom a mistake.”[1] The sage of Baltimore isn’t known for his religious sensitive but he got some things right.  We are not to think ill of others who are also created in God’s image but, as we are all sinners, thinking too highly of another can also lead to problems.  Paul has a better away.  We are to think highly of Jesus Christ, who gives us poor sinners a chance in life!  And because of what Christ has done for us, we’re to be welcoming of others, sharing with them our secret for a hope-filled life.

As I announced last week, I plan to preach through Paul’s letter to the Galatians during Lent.  If you would like to dig deeper into this text, I invite you to attend our Wednesday evening soup and bread dinner and Bible study.  Today, as we explore the ending of the second chapter, we come to heart of the matter for Paul.  Here, he makes his strongest case for justification by faith in Jesus Christ.  To be justified before God is to be made right with the Creator.  Think about it.  On our own, it’s hard work to be justified; in fact, as Paul says, it’s impossible!  But thankfully we have Jesus Christ, whose death atones for our sins, and who calls us into the church family and finally, when life is over, helps us stand righteously before God the Father.  We don’t depend on our own righteousness.  We have good standing, we are justified because of what Jesus has done for us.  He washed away our sin.

In our reading this morning, Paul speaks of an incident with Peter, but uses Cephas, which is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word, Peter.  Both words mean “Rock” but here Peter is not steady like a rock.  He crumbles under pressure.  Read Galatians 2:11-21.

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I am a member of a writer’s group in Savannah.  At our last meeting, Jim, one of the other members, brought a memoir piece to share.  Jim is from New England, but after a stint in the army, attended Ole Miss.  This was in the mid-60s, just a few years after the James Meredith had become the first African American to integrate the university.  The incident he described involved him going into the cafeteria.  He saw another friend, who was already eating, so he dropped his books on the table by his friend and went to get his food.  As he was coming out of the line with his tray, he noticed that a black student had sat down with his friend.  At this time, there was only a handful of African Americans at the university.  They mostly kept to themselves.  Racial tensions were high.  He paused and debated within himself about going back over to where his book were, or finding someplace else to sit.  He wondered what other students would think of him, a Yankee, sitting with an African-American.  In the end, he did the right thing and sat with his friend and the young black student, but his hesitation bothered him as did the way other students pointed to them sitting together and whispered among themselves.

I’m sure we’ve all been in such situations.  It might not have been racial. In school, most of us probably wanted to sit with the cool kids and not those who were on the outside. For whatever reason, some kids are picked, others are left out.  But, as my mother used to ask me, how do you think they felt being left out?  How do we feel when we’re not included?

Sadly, in this incident in Antioch, we learn that such actions of exclusion occurred even in the early church.  However, there’s a catch-22 here.  If we think that we can justify ourselves by including everyone, even if it’s the right thing to do, we’re fooling ourselves.  The point Paul is making in this passage is that justification comes by grace through Jesus Christ.  No, we shouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of others, but even more important as Paul sees it, we need to assure the unity of the church who is made up of sinners forgiven by Jesus Christ.  Knowing what it feels like not to be included, isn’t it wonderful that Jesus includes us.  Because he loved us, we are to love one another.

Let’s look at our text.  Paul begins by recalling this incident with Peter that had occurred in Antioch.  Peter, who’d been eating with Gentiles, all of a sudden shun Gentiles when a group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, who had been sent by James, arrive.  Obviously, Peter wants these guys from Jerusalem to see that he’s still upholding the Jewish law, but his actions exclude those who are not Jewish.  Paul realizes immediately that this incident has the potential to split the church into two factions: Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  This split is happening.  In Antioch, all the Jewish Christians follow Peter’s lead and head off by themselves.  Furthermore, Paul is worried, and for good reason, that Jewish Christians are going to think themselves as superior to Gentile Christians.

Paul, like Jesus, is concerned about unity within the church.[2]  You may recall that in his prayer the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for unity.[3]  Paul encourages his congregations to be unified.  This is seen clearly in 1st Corinthians, where you have a congregation which consists of Romans, Greeks and Jews, rich and poor.  Using the analogy of the body, Paul makes the case that everyone is needed if the church is going to be successful in its mission.[4]   For Paul, it would be tragic for the church to be divided into two fractions, so he confronts Peter in front of the other Jewish Christians.

On the surface this seems that Paul isn’t using Jesus’ teachings on how to handle a disagreement.  In Matthew 18, Jesus tells us to confront another in private, and you only bring in others as needed.  But here, Paul is not just confronting Peter, but all of these Jewish Christians, including Barnabas whose actions, in Paul’s eyes, are shameful and inconsistent with the gospel.

This incident sets up an opportunity for Paul to delve into the doctrine of justification, or of being made right with God.  We are not justified by observing the law.  Avoiding pork, shunning those we consider sinners and eating with the right utensils won’t to cut it.  Paul is clear; the law hasn’t worked.  It didn’t work for the Jews and it’s not going to work for the Gentiles.  Part of our human condition is that we’re sinners, every one of us.  The only way we are to find peace, to be brought back into a relationship with God, is through Jesus Christ.  But we must accept him and what he’s done for us.

But the law has done one thing for us, as Paul outlines in verses 17.  Through the law, we realize that we’re sinners.  We’re in need of a savior!  Instead of focusing on the law, Paul wants his readers to focus on their relationship with God through Christ.  We are to allow Christ to live through us, which means that our lives are going to be better.  We don’t worry about the crossing ever “t” and dotting every “I”, but having been freed to live in Christ, our lives will bear fruit.

Paul closes out this section on a forceful high note.  If we could be justified through the law, then Christ died in vain.  If the law would have worked, then Jesus didn’t have to die.  But because it didn’t work, Jesus willingly gave his life for us.  Jesus makes the difference and accepts those who hears his calls and follows him.  That’s good news!

But what does all this mean for us?  “The church lives not by what we are able to do, but by what God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit,” a theologian once said.[5]  Did you hear that?  What’s important isn’t what we can do as individuals or as a body, what’s important is what God has done and continues to do for us in Jesus Christ. For this reason, we live with hope even when there is no evidence for it, for we are not trusting in our own power or might, but in the God of Creation, who loves enough that he sent his Son to die so that we might live!  It’s in Christ that we place our trust and because of him we are to welcome one another in love.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Quoted in Andrew Purves and Charles Partee, Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Times  (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000), 106

[2] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians: NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1988), 211.

[3] See John 15.

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.

[5] Mark Achtemeier, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ,” in A Passion for the Gospel: Confessing Jesus Christ for the 21st Century Mark Achtemeir and Andrew Purves, editors (Louisville KY: Geneva Press, 2000), 20.


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