SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MARCH 17, 2013, THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
From this morning’s Epistle, Paul writing to the Church at Philippi:
… that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. ( 3:8 – 9 )
St Paul gets a bad press nowadays, and – poor old thing – he’s blamed for all manner of ills which afflict the modern western world. The “blaming” is something new, I suppose. But I doubt that Paul has ever been a popular figure. The Church, of course, has never been able to ignore him, but to many people he sure “ain’t easy to love.” He can be grumpy and ill-tempered, like most of us. He harps on things and goes on and on and on. And sometimes his confidence in Christ seems almost to be arrogance. Moreover, Paul does not advocate an easy, anything-goes Christianity. We may well be saved by our faith and not by our works, but, as Paul sees it, faith is not empty and without effect. Faith in Christ issues in a certain kind of life in Christ. And as we heard this morning in the Epistle, one of the words Paul chooses to describe that life in Christ is righteousness.
As far as modern America is concerned, he couldn’t have made a more disastrous choice. Righteous, righteousness – it’s one of a whole nexus of related terms which have lost a great deal of their power in the contemporary world and have taken on unpleasant, unattractive connotations. Words like virtue, upright, just, justify, moral. And righteous, perhaps more than any, has become almost a term of reproach. The word itself seems to frown deeply and wears a black frock coat. It never smiles. Straitlaced, holier than thou: that’s what it’s come to suggest, and we don’t feel comfortable with it.
This is sad, because it’s a perfectly good word. And sadder still, because this means that when we come across the term in Scripture – and that we do quite a lot – when we come across it, all those unpleasant overtones take over and obscure its meaning. And there is to this word a rich and full meaning which ought not escape our notice.
Let’s look at it.
In the first place, righteous/righteousness does indeed have the kind of moral/ethical tone with which we normally associate it. The word does point to a type of behavior and implies conformity to a certain moral standard. But second, and much more important, it is a term which refers to a relationship. The Hebrew word, for instance, is used in a very specific sense, used not just to refer to behavior, but used in a context – in the context of covenant. For example, a person or a group of people are righteous in the Old Testament sense, if they maintain the covenant which God has established with them. The Jews were called by God, and by God they were called to be a righteous people, not because they were morally superior to any other people - which they certainly weren’t - but because God had established with them a special relationship, a covenant, an agreement. To keep that covenant was to be righteous; to violate the relationship was to be unrighteous. The word, then, refers primarily not to a code, not to a set of do’s and don’ts – but to a life, a living, active relatedness between persons and God.
And so you see, righteousness is really a much broader and richer concept than we would imagine at first glance. When it’s used to describe God, it never suggests the kind of stern disapproval some have come to associate with it. Rather – and quite the opposite – it points to God’s action to be related to His people, His movement to be with humanity. God establishes a covenant, and He is always righteous in that covenant. A woman, a man, is righteous when he or she keeps that covenant and continues to be with God.
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At this point let’s return to Paul. Paul was a man who was very much concerned with righteousness. Before that astonishing change in his life, Paul was righteous in the conventional sense of that word. He was a devout, pious Jew; exacting, scrupulous in his observance; a Jew who kept with precision all the ordinances of the Jewish law. But in all this Paul yearned for a deeper righteousness, because, you see, the law didn’t satisfy him. It promised relatedness to God on the basis of behavior – “works,” as he would have it – but it didn’t deliver what it promised. There was within Paul a nagging, painful, frustrating sense of his un-relatedness, his apartness from God. (He would have called this sin.) Paul had the hunger of the mystic for union with God, but the separation of sin prevented the realization of that desire, and the law did nothing. But one day all that changed. He had been Saul; he became Paul. He had been a persecutor; he became an apostle. He had been a man of the law; he became a man of faith.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul cries out that a new righteousness has dawned from heaven. In Christ, God has done away with the separation of sin and has instituted a new covenant, and therefore a new righteousness for all mankind through Christ. It is a new covenant and a new righteousness based only on faith. The law, works, he tells us, can accomplish nothing . . . except make us aware of our shortcomings. In Christ they are over and abolished, because superseded. Faith only avails. Faith – an openness in man made possible by the openness in God . . . in Christ.
Let us make no bones about it, my brothers and sisters, the business of the Christian faith is the business of the mystic. We shouldn’t be afraid of the word, for it is union, personal relationship with God – that is what our religion is all about. If not that, then nothing. That is what seized St Paul and turned his life around. That is what seemed so new, so fresh, so unbelievable to those earliest Christians that they called it Gospel – “Good News.” And it is true and it is possible, because our God is a righteous God – a God of covenant, a God who acts for relationship and unity with His people.
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Righteousness describes this God, and so do a host of other terms from Scripture and theology. Atonement – you know the word: at-one-ment. In Christ God acts to be at-one with mankind. Reconciliation: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” – another phrase from Paul. ( II Cor. 5: 19 ) Emmanuel – an Old Testament name for the Messiah (the Christ) and what does it mean? God-with-us. Forgiveness – what after all is forgiveness other than the re-establishing of a relationship which has somehow been broken. All these Biblical terms speak of the righteousness of God, because they point to His action, again, to be with His people, to bring them into closer and closer communion, relationship with Himself.
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One last thing. Right now, we find ourselves in the season which the Church calls Lent. It is the time when we are directed to look closely at the passion of our Savior – his struggles, his disappointments, the lies, the denials and the betrayals, his agony, his death. And if we look closely enough, we will see clearly and overwhelmingly the righteousness of God. In Christ, God related Himself to and became one with the sadness, pain, sin, the depths of human life, as well as its heights and its joys. In Christ, the righteous God related Himself even to those things which are un-righteous. He made them His own. He knew their temptation, their pain; he experienced the power which they can exert over human life. God gathered them to Himself in His incarnate life. As Paul himself tells us: “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin.” ( II Cor. 5:21 ) That is to say, He took on even those things which are against Him. In Christ He embraced everything that opposed Him.
Why? To strip them of their power and to bring mankind back to Himself in faith.
Why? Because He is a righteous God, and, you see, His righteousness is His love.