As those on Wednesday night can attest, I really enjoy teaching Bible Study classes. Truthfully, I enjoy plumbing the depths of Scripture like we do on Sunday mornings, but I love trying to present the Scriptures in relevant ways. The reason, of course, is that Bible Study gives me an opportunity to take the “spiritual temperature” of those active in the congregation. I get to hear where your struggles are, way better than I do after sermons on Sunday morning. A few attendees on Sunday may come in later in the week to argue with me or to share with me their struggles, but the real wrestling comes in Bible studies. I joke that the patron saint of all Episcopalians should be St. Jacob because we love to wrestle with God, much as did Jacob so long ago. God does not seem to mind us wrestling with Him too much. Sure, He dislocates hips or cracks 2x4’s upside heads every now and again to remind us that He is God and we are His creature. But, overall, He shows us incredible patience. Bible Studies, to continue the analogy, give me a chance to see where people are wrestling with God in their lives. Some will outright state that there is a sin that plagues them or a part of His instruction to which they will not submit. Often, though, people are really trying to figure out what God expects of them.
I have only been at Advent for two months, but one struggle has certainly become visible even to this legally blind pastor. It is a question which plagues far too many of us as a group, and it is a question which I feel must be addressed. The answer to the question will have ties to the reading from Romans and from Genesis. I think it will cause a bit of a murmur around here, as it will not be my typical sermon. You all have been very gracious in your observations that I try to give you ways to apply the Scriptures in your daily life and work and that I share the ways in which your friends, your co-workers, your family, and others might see you, the world, or, most importantly, the Gospel. This one won’t, but it will. I will have no specific illustrations for you to try this week; yet without this fundamental understanding, your ability to share the Gospel and even your ability to share in the Peace that passes all understanding will be diminished.
That all being said, what saves us? This is not meant to be a rhetorical exercise. I want you to think how you understand faith and belief and righteousness and all those fancy words that we throw about casually. What saves us? What is it that makes us righteous before God? This question is of paramount importance because far too many people have misunderstood how they are saved. In my couple months with you, one of the big questions repeatedly asked of me is whether I think the person in my office has enough faith to be saved. Father, I have done this and this and this. Do you think I have enough faith to get into heaven? Father, sometimes I struggle with this sin or that sin. If I know it is a sin and still sin, do you think that just confirms my lack of faith and the fact that I will not be saved unless I get better? Sitting there, you might think such questions ought to be coming from our shut-in’s, as they face the decline of health. I am here to tell you that not one of our shut-in’s have asked that question, or one like it, of me. No, it has been the people in the pews next to you.
I daresay all the answers tossed out earlier are correct. All flow rightly from the teachings of the Gospel. Jesus died for us. He made us worthy to stand before God. His blood cleansed us. All those answers uttered and thought along those lines are right. Jesus, by His work and person, saves us from the wrath of God and bestows upon us eternal life. Where, in all those discussions that you were having in your head or with the person sitting next to you, does God ever teach us that He is measuring our faith as a determining factor of whether we are saved, admitted into heaven, or however you want to put it? Where does God say, on the scale of faith, one to a hundred, you need 50.01 when you stand before Me? You can point to Scriptures where God commends the faith of certain individuals, but nowhere is there a “standard of faith” put forth in Scriptures. So I ask again, in light of Genesis and Romans, what saves us?
The truth is we have become sloppy Christians. That sloppiness has led to an increase in anxiety, the very opposite of the Peace which passes all understanding which are told to expect. Perhaps we always have been sloppy Christians and that is why Paul wrote so many letters to churches around the Mediterranean. We sling around words like righteousness and faith and salvation and forgiveness like everyone knows what they mean. But we never really slow down to consider what should be meant by those words. Righteousness, as we see in our reading from Genesis this morning, simply means a right relationship with God. Righteousness and unrighteousness are used in the Bible to teach us about our relationship with God. As sinners, we are unrighteous. Sin keeps us from a right relationship with God. Now, God has made it possible for humans to be brought back into right relationship with Him. The torah taught that the cost of sin was blood. If one was a faithful Jew, one could make the appropriate sacrifice and be brought back into right relationship with God. Paul tells us in some of his letters that he was righteous under the law. Paul is not bragging to the churches to whom he wrote or to us. He is stating a fact. Notice, though, Paul does not speak of forgiveness under the law. When he sinned, Paul made the appropriate sacrifice under the law. Because Abraham believed that God could give him and Sarah a child, the Hebrew speaks of bringing life from death, God credits his belief as righteousness. How do we become righteous?
In the grand scheme of things, nothing has really changed since Genesis 12. What makes us righteous? What restores us to right relationship with God? If you are from a tradition that believes in “believer” baptism or one like our own where we confirm that our youths, of an appropriate age, accept the oaths made on their behalves. In reality, all that a believer is asked is a simply question. Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and was raised by God to new life, and do you accept Him as Lord? That’s really it. Like Abraham, do you believe that God brought life from the dead? Here’s the great news: it is a simple question that demands a simple answer. Either we believe it true that He died for our sins and was raised from the dead by our Father in Heaven that wonderful Easter morning, or we do not believe it. It really is that simple. It is so simple that it becomes offensive the eyes and ears of many. We are asked to respond to a yes or no question. Whichever answer we give, that’s it. Well, Brian, I want to be like St. Augustine and party some more before I believe it. Fine, that’s a no. Well, Brian, there’s so much evil in the world and Christians have done such horrible things in history, I’m not sure I want to be included among them. Fine, that is a no. God does not make us accept Him. God gives us all free will with respect to this choice. But nowhere, nowhere in this covenant that He makes with us does He ever say our faith saves us.
Jesus’ faith is what saves us. I see by the expressions that you have never considered this. Who had to demonstrate faith that you and I might be made righteous, made worthy to stand before God? Jesus. Jesus is the One who came down from heaven to do the will of the Father. Jesus is the One who had to reject the temptations by Satan in the wilderness and continue to do the will of the Father. Jesus is the One who was homeless and had to have faith that the path which He was on led ultimately to His and God’s glory. Jesus is the One that was betrayed by the very people He came to save? Jesus is the One who was mocked, punched, spat upon, crowned with thorns, and nailed to the Cross. Jesus is the One who gave up His last breath on that Cross and died, trusting that His Father, the Lord, would bring life from this death, radiant light from this darkness. It is Jesus’ faith that God would redeem His suffering and death that saves us. Jesus had to have faith in God’s plan when Satan tempted Him to bypass the Cross and aim for more temporal glory. Jesus did the heavy lifting. You and I just have to believe, or are free to reject, that He did. We got the easy part of this process of redemption, salvation, and forgiveness. Jesus did the hard work! And that, brothers and sisters, is why it is Gospel news! To those oppressed, to those struggling, to those wondering whether they could be restored to Yahweh and His blessings, this plan of redemption was incredible. It was so incredible that it took Paul, St. Paul—A Jew’s Jew, three years to come to grips with this Resurrection of Jesus!
The Temple priests got it wrong; the world got it wrong. We cannot do anything to make ourselves righteous before God. There is no amount of money, no amount of time, no amount of prayer, no amount of fasting, no amount of anything that we can give that makes us deserve to be restored. That is why it is called grace. God offers it freely. God gives it to all those who believe in Lord Jesus. Young or old, rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, line worker or company owner, all have the same requirement—Do you believe? That’s it. It really is that easy.
Brothers and sisters, if you are struggling with questions of whether your faith measures up, stop! I promise you, neither yours nor mine measures up to our Lord’s. All He demands of us, all He asks of us, is whether we believe that He died for our sins and was raised on that third day. That voice that you are hearing, that voice that causes you to question whether your faith measures up is not our Lord’s. He knew our faith long before He ever came down from heaven. He went to that Cross knowing the relative strength or weakness of our faith. And still He died for us, that our Father might credit our belief in Him as righteousness, and so bless us, we who were already dead, with eternal life!