By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 25 2020 08:58PM
You might have picked up that this year has been declared the Diocesan Year of Pilgrimage, and each church in the diocese has a special candle to light at every service. Here is ours. Proudly on the front of each candle is the diocesan logo and motto 'Where faith matters'. It was a phrase Bishop June used frequently in her sermon at the special service in the cathedral last week. 'Where faith matters'. But for me that statement raises some big questions. Faith in what? I have faith that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will enable Manchester United to finish in the top 4 this season. Is that what it's on about? And why should faith matter? What difference does it make? These are important questions, and we'll find some answers as we study our Article of Religion for today: number 11 Justification by Faith.
But before we look at the Article itself, I'd like us to study our key Bible passage for today: Romans 3:21-26, p1130. We'll look at it in three sections: Humanity has a problem; God has the solution; and we respond with faith in Jesus.
We begin with a sobering truth: humanity has a problem. v22 "There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." A few verses earlier, Paul quoted the psalms to make the situation abundantly clear v10-13 "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." This is what we've been learning as we've studied our last 2 articles: original sin has infected us all, and without God even our finest acts of kindness are like filthy rags. It is seriously bad news. But it's news we need to hear, because if we don't understand the seriousness of our situation, we won't ever seek the solution. I think most of us use a relativist way of assessing how we're doing. "I might not be as good as X, but I'm nowhere near as bad as Y, so I guess I'm OK." But we're not. Handley Moule, Bishop of Durham in the early 20th century, described it like this: "The harlot, the liar and the murderer are all short of God's glory . . . but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine and you on the crest of an alp, but you are as little able to touch the stars as they." We can't reach God ourselves, we can't ever be good enough to get there under our own steam. But don't despair. Humanity has a problem, but God has the solution.
Before we look at what God's solution is, we need to understand what it isn't. It isn't God overlooking sin, brushing it away like it doesn't matter. God can't do that because God is just. He acts justly. And it isn't justice to let wrongdoing go unpunished. Just this week the scandal of another paedophile ring was in the news again, this time in south Manchester. But the main source of outrage wasn't so much that this group of men had targeted girls in the care system, injected them with drugs and abused them. It was that the police didn't arrest them. Maggie Oliver, a former detective who resigned over the way cases in Rochdale were handled by the force, said: "These are not mistakes - I want to make it absolutely clear - these were deliberate acts to bury and ignore the abuse of many, many vulnerable children." It is not justice to let wrongdoing go unpunished. God cannot do it. It is against his very nature. But also a part of his nature is love and compassion. God doesn't want to consign us all to hell, because he loves us. So God has provided a solution himself. This solution is described in v24-25. As we look at these verses, we see 3 different images used, and 3 churchy words which we need to understand.
The first image is from a court scene. v24 "and all are justified freely by his grace." Justification here is a legal word. When an act is justified, a person is not criminally liable even though their act would otherwise constitute an offense. It conjures up the image of standing in the dock in a courtroom, knowing that you are guilty and just waiting for the judge to pronounce the sentence, but instead he says "Not guilty". Not because the crimes weren't committed, but because Jesus stepped in. We see how in our next images.
v24 continues "all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Our next word: redemption, takes us to the slave market. In the first century, if you got yourself into debt, you and your family would be sold into slavery. The only way out of it would be to buy your way out or have someone buy your freedom for you. Then you'd be redeemed. Jesus has redeemed us. He's bought us out of slavery to sin and given us freedom. Sin isn't just the few naughty things we do, it's our whole lives if we're living them without God. We're stuck, caught up in it, can't get free. But Jesus has bought us out, at the cost of his own life. Our final scene explains how.
v25 "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood". We've moved to the Temple. The Old Testament makes it clear that sin angers God. It angers him in the way we might be angry about people abusing a child or burning a homeless person's tent down, only it is a perfect anger without sin's embellishment. As we understood earlier, sin needs to be punished. God's holy anger must fall. And so he provided a system in the Old Testament where you could bring an animal to the Temple. You would both stand before the priest and one of you would take God's punishment of death - the animal would die. It would be killed instead of you. It would take your place. This is exactly what Jesus did. He stood in our place and took the punishment we should have had. He died instead of us. Our NIV Bibles translates his act as 'a sacrifice of atonement', but the Greek is more correctly translated 'a propitiation by his blood'. Propitiation is our third important churchy word and it means 'to appease the anger of God'. At the cross, God redirected his righteous anger from us and onto Jesus. Something Jesus was very willing to do. Because of his sacrifice, we are justified, declared not guilty.
This is a lot to take in. God has done so much for us! What is our part to play? This is our third point:
We respond with faith in Jesus and what he has done. v22 "This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe". This is always how God has dealt with his people. In our Old Testament reading from Genesis 15, we saw how Abraham responded to the promises of God 15:6 "Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness." Reflecting on this, Paul comments in Romans 4:21 "Abraham was strengthened in his faith . . . being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised." This is a great definition of what it means to have faith in God: to be fully persuaded that he has to power to do what he has promised. This is the way God works in us to bring his promises to fruition, and it is vital we know it, understand it, believe it. Article 11 says "We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification." Friends, this is the absolute heart of what we believe as Christians. This is what Jesus has done. This is how we can be in a relationship with God forever. Cranmer was so clear about it that he wrote in his Homily of Justification that 'this is the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion' and that 'whosoever denieth is not to be accounted for a Christian man'. It is so foundational that Christianity falls apart without it. And what a wonderful doctrine. No wonder Cranmer said it is 'very full of comfort', for it shows the absolute depth of God's love for us, that he would solve our problem of sin by taking the punishment on himself. If you're trying to get to God by any other means - stop! Come to Jesus in faith and you will find everything for which your heart yearns.
The Diocese of Llandaff 'Where faith matters'. Faith does indeed matter. It matters far more than we realise. But the one in whom we place our faith is vital. If it's in anyone or anything other than Jesus, even in our own expression of Christianity, our church attendance, our Bible reading, our kind acts, our sin remains intact and we face the whole judgement of God. But if our faith is in Jesus and in the justification, redemption and propitiation he provides, then our future is secure. Our sin has been dealt with by Jesus and we are free to enjoy his love for eternity.