SERMON ~ 03/12/2023 “Justified by Faith”

03/12/2023 ~ Third Sunday in Lent; Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42 ~ VIDEO OF FULL THE SERVICE:

Justified by Faith

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace….” — Romans 5:1-2a.

I think we all know Paul’s writings are complex and the preacher’s job is to unravel the complexity. I may have a tall order ahead of me. So, if I fail I may make this passage seem even a little less complex than it already is, I ask for forgivness. So I’ll apologize right now. Failure— is something which constantly looms over the head of all preachers at least once a week. (Slight pause.)

That having been said, the late scientist Jacob Bronowski said science is analysis mixed with synthesis or imagination. Art is synthesis— that imagination stuff— mixed with analysis. Science— analysis mixed with imagination; art— imagination mixed with analysis.

Let’s explore that just a little. I invite you to look at the hymn we sang a couple minutes ago, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. Go ahead— pull it out; look at it. (Pause.)

I want to point out some science, some structure in most of the hymns we sing. To be clear, songs, hymns are works of art. But art does not happen at random. Art has structure, analysis.

Here’s the science in this art— if you count the number of bars in this piece, you will find it has twenty. Much of western music— meaning the music of western civilization, not music cowpokes sing— western music is written with a structure.

The number of bars are often divisible by four. Twenty bars— that’s divisible by four. The classic bar structure is, in fact, thirty-two bars long, eight bars, eight bars, eight bar bridge, followed by an eight bar repeat— classic song structure.

Even beyond that bar structure, there is science in how sound is produced. An instrument or voice moves air molecules around at a specific speeds to produce a pitch, a tone— that’s science. The melody and the chords appeal to the ear and engage the emotions— that’s imagination— that’s art. (Slight pause.)

It’s well known Leonardo Da Vinci was both an artist and a scientist. Leonardo thought of the painting we call The Last Supper as a study of light and shadow— science— a study of light and shadow.

If you look at The Last Supper carefully, you can see it features light and shadow. But through a subject taken from Scripture, depicted with personal, intimate interactions, Leonardo created art through that exploration of science— that light and shadow. And The Last Supper appeals to the eye and engages the emotions— so yes, it is art.

Artists and scientists have much in common. Both seek to embrace truth by seeing and exploring an aspect of truth. Please notice, neither group should claim they are in possession of or know all truth, omniscience. The claim to be made is an aspect of truth is being explored, characterized, conveyed.

Indeed, if scientists and artists understand the nature of the truth they address, they understand such truth as finite. Therefore, today’s scientific truth may well become tomorrow’s overturned hypothesis. Today’s artistic truth will may well become tomorrow’s forgotten work of art.

And yes, scientists have looked to the edge of the universe and they see it expanding. Is God is still creating? Artists, working in forms ancient, in forms modern, constantly find new ways to communicate, different ways of listening, interpreting, seeing. Is there yet more light and truth still to break forth to us through artists from God? (Pause.)

These words are from the work we known as the Letter to the Church in Rome: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace….” (Pause.)

Much of what I am about to say is laid out by Karen Armstrong in her book The Bible: A Biography. Charles Darwin walked the earth in the Nineteenth Century, a very long time after dinosaurs walked the earth.

Before Darwin published the Theory of Natural Selection, commonly called evolution, a bone of contention was already being discussed in communities of faith. But that dinosaurs might have existed millions of years ago, certainly a part of Darwin’s ideas about evolution, that piece of information did not cause this contention.

Rather, some Anglican clergy published and, hence, made accessible to average folks, what had actually already been known to Biblical experts for over 1,000 years. The claim was the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible— they were not written by Moses. Again, this was known for better than 1,000 years but generally ignored. That information shook some people up, shook them to their core.

Shortly thereafter research helped people realize it was not just that the Torah failed to be written by Moses. This research said the Torah was composed in at least four separate segments in four different eras over the course of about 700 years. It was then cobbled together later, yet a fifth aspect of the work. That information reallyo shook people up.

Paradoxically, up until the Nineteenth Century Scripture was not thought of as something to be taken in a totally, totally literal way. But, because science was emerging as a great influence in the Nineteenth Century, it was an era in which people started to ask “What is truth?” in a way different than they had ever asked that question before.

“Truth” became something measured, scientific, precise. Even more paradoxically, some turned to what science implied in an attempt to construct a defense of Scripture. With the concept of precision applied, the conceit of taking Scripture in a totally literal way, something which had never been done before, began to take hold.

I need to say something about that transition: this was a result of a change in the secular outlook. Hence, literal interpretation is a very, very secular way to look at Scripture.

One consequence of taking Scripture literally was faith became an intellectual submission to a set of beliefs, a series of statements. Proof became synonymous with faith. Faith ceased to mean anything close to trust.

Therefore trust was placed not in God. Trust was placed in statements about God. [1] To paraphrase the late Stephen Jay Gould, people started to believe, started to trust the age of rocks and stopped believing, stopped trusting the Rock of Ages. (Slight pause.)

When Paul writes this letter to the church in Rome, he is addressing the world in which he lives. We, therefore, miss some of what he says. However what he says 2,000 years ago is applicable in our modern world, despite its modernity.

You see, in Paul’s time Augustus Caesar had established the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. This peace was based on Roman justice, Roman law, a justice and law imposed on everyone by the Emperor, by the Roman government.

Because of the reality of this imposed peace, imposed law, two titles were applied to all the individuals who held the office of Caesar. They were called (quote) “lord” and they were called (quote) “savior.” The Caesars were called “lord” and “savior.”

So Paul here insists there is a different justice, a different peace, a different Lord, a different Savior because of God— God Who is not Caesar. This is the God of Abraham, the creator of the world, who has now established eternal peace (quote) “through our Lord Jesus, the Christ.” And that’s a phrase riddled with irony, don’t you think?

Peace is stated in the present tense in this passage. It is the peace called salvation. Therefore, salvation is seen as a current, real, personal reconciliation between each individual and God.

Further, in this individual peace are the seeds needed for communal peace. And all this is what happens because we are justified by faith.

And what does justified by faith mean? This faith, this trust is not just an enumerated set of beliefs. Faith simply means trust God— trust God. (Pause.) [2]

Here is a series of words we often associate with God and the realm of God: love, joy, hope, virtue, justice, freedom, peace, liberty… trust. Tell me, can we apply science to any of these? Can any of these be precisely measured?

Grace is another immeasurable here addressed by Paul. And what is grace? Grace is an action of God on behalf of humanity, an action which happens in a place, exists in an arena. In that arena called life, the love God offers can be felt. Therefore, grace is not like filling up a car at a gas pump, a measurable fuel dispensed by God.

Rather, Grace is a space made available by God in which our trust in God can grow. Grace is immeasurable, immeasurable just like love, joy, hope, virtue, justice, freedom, peace, liberty… trust. (Slight pause.)

So, I suspect you can see how challenging the concept of being justified by faith is for we moderns. It presents us with these questions: do we trust only if something is tangible, measurable? Do we trust that God is? Do we trust that God loves? (Slight pause.) Your call. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “Church historian Diana Butler Bass tells us that the first words of the Nicene Creed in Latin— Latin the language in which the creed was written— the first words of the Creed in Latin are Credo in unum Deum. These are often translated as ‘I believe in one God.’ But these words really mean ‘I give my heart to one God.’ And that’s what they meant to the people who first heard them is the point. And I do think if you give your heart to God that does not mean I believe as in ‘I believe 2 + 2 equals 4.’ It means ‘I believe’ as in ‘I totally trust God.’

BENEDICTION: Let us rest assured that God is among us and travels with us daily. Let us know that God’s Spirit empowers us to do things in the name of God we did not think possible. Therefore, let us share our love for God with others, confident that God will provide if we are faithful. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be in awe of no one else and nothing else because we are so in awe of God. Amen.

[1] Some of the basis for this discussion is found in The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong, © 2007, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York in the chapter titled Modernity.

[2] This analysis is found on the relevant section in The Interpreters Bible: The Electronic Edition. Needless to say, the electronic edition has the same information as the printed edition.

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