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We Are Justified By Stories


“We are Justified By Stories,” Pastor James Clarke’s sermon for Graduation Sunday, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, June 12, 2016. The scripture: I Kings 21:1-21, Galatians 2:15-24, Luke 7:36-50.

I just finished a book by one of my seminary professors, John B. Cobb Jr., Theological Reminiscences, an autobiography, but focused on the development of his thinking and ideas. So there was a lot of theological language in it: The fallacy of misplaced concreteness; the principle of limitation; Ockham’s razor; Physics and metaphysics and Panexperientialism.

But there was also stories – personal stories: Meeting his wife Jean, who Paula worked with in the seminary library; the birth of their four sons; caring for his brother who suffered from addiction and serving for a short time as a pastor.

An anecdotal story from that time: As pastor of Six Point Charge in northern Georgia (This was in Appalachia), the pastor who had preceded him insisted that the parsonage have internal plumbing. The trustees put it in, but it ended up splitting the church. I suppose one could say the church went down the drain…

I did not know these personal stories when I was in seminary. John Cobb is one of the wisest persons I have known. I always associated him with his ideas. But reading this book reminded me that ideas cannot be detached from a person’s life.

We cannot fully understand St. Augustine’s view of human nature as totally depraved if we don’t know about his struggles with sex. And having a brother who commits suicide – John Cobb – will change the way a person sees the world and faith. Ideas are not born in the mind abstractly, but are inextricably connected to a person’s life story.

A couple of weeks ago when Dana Brager first returned from college – a Lutheran University – she started to tell me about her class on Lutheranism and mentioned Martin Luther. Kind of as a joke, but not entirely, I asked if she learned about his battle with constipation. Scholars believe that Luther did much of his work forming his 95 thesis on the pot.

In 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which is identified as the beginning of the Reformation. But seriously, and a little less sardonic, Luther had a life story too. Luther believed literally in the Devil as a personal being and was scared to death. Prior to the Reformation salvation/justification ascribed by the Church, take away that assurance of salvation and he was scared.

The context of his personal life was dread of condemnation by God. He was a very anxious person. Today I suspect he would be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. No wonder he suffered from constipation! And it was amidst this personal context – his life story – that he birthed these 95 theses; ideas that changed the Church forever.

The epistle lesson from the lectionary for this Sunday (Galatians 2:15-24) expresses the root of Luther’s revolutionary idea: that we are justified not by works but my faith. Or more precisely, through grace by faith.

For someone who was so filled with anxiety about hell and Satan, can we imagine how powerfully liberating this idea was for him? One can feel the rush of tension being released… I’m sure he was quick to visit the toilet! And knowing a little of his story gives meaning and understanding to this idea.

The Bible wasn’t written in stone…. It was written in particular cultures, at specific times and within the life stories of inspired people. And we read the Bible juxtaposed to the context of our culture and our community in our time and out of our own life stories.

Language is not absolute or fixed – it is not eternal – it expresses what is eternal, but it is not eternal. Language is fluid and changes depending on culture, context, time and a person’s story. In the context of my story, for instance, the word “justified” doesn’t mean much. It comes from the Roman court – and it implies being found worthy; acceptable, not guilty. Good language for Martin Luther, but odd language for someone who believes in prevenient grace.

John Wesley used the language of justification. It was what the Bible said. But he didn’t focus his understanding of salvation on justification as much as sanctification. For Wesley, to be justified/saved all one has to do is accept that God accepts us and go on.     Grow in grace and live a Christian life.

The word “saved” isn’t my favorite either. I prefer (to saved) the related word that we are “healed”. In Greek, the words can be used interchangeably. I also like the words “transformed” and “made whole” more than “justified’ or “saved”. So I would rather say we have been “made whole by faith” than “justified by faith”. How about you? What does your story tell you?

You know that last week I went to Ronald United Methodist Church for (my wife) Paula’s last Sunday – what a tear fest! I have never liked this about the UMC – or life in general – all the separations! And according to the Discipline, Paula and Ronald UMC are not to be in touch with each other for one year. I say phooey on that!

With all the disconnection, the leave-taking, the detachment, do we know our neighbors? With all the extrication in our lives I feel scrambled on the outside and on the inside. It is too easy to be isolated and drift through life. I need to be made whole much more than I feel the need to be justified and I’ve never had a big problems with constipation. “We are made whole by faith”. How does that sound?

But alas, I have problems with the word “faith”. Not because of what it is supposed to mean, but because of what it has come to mean. It has come to mean “belief” which means ascribing to a rational proposition. In the case of Christians, a proposition about Jesus that “Jesus died for our sins”. But actually faith (pistis in Greek) is closer to trust. “We are made whole by trust”. How does that sound? I think that’s a better reflection of my story.

But I would offer other words too. Connection, relationship, bond – for example – or even enlightenment and awareness. How often does Jesus talk about “seeing” in the gospels? “We are made whole by God’s grace through our connection to God in Jesus Christ”. “We are enlightened by God’s grace through our devotion to God in Jesus Christ”. And I think that any of these are lived out through our stories.

In the other two texts from the lectionary for this Sunday we have stories. The story from I Kings (21:1-21) is a gruesome one and it is more about how to disconnect with God. It is a prophetic warning if you politic around and kill people… Read on and we will see that Ahab and Jezebel get their just desserts.

The story from Luke (7:36-50) includes a parable within a story and both are about forgiveness. Forgive much and we will have more love. Where there is little forgiveness there will be little love. One could simply say, “forgive and you will know God,” but doesn’t the story tell it better?

We are saved, justified, transformed made whole… by grace through trust, forgiveness, connection, all can be true.       Language is not meant to be permanent or inflexible.       It never has been. What works with our stories?

John Cobb’s life was greatly transformed by relationships with other people. One could say of the story of his life, “He was transformed by grace, through relationships.” His reminiscences as theological as they were, were not long separated from people he knew.

Ignacios Castuera shared with him Liberation Theology; Ernest Colwell nurtured him like a son; Jane Douglass (who was also my teacher) about gender and feminism; Dialogue with Japanese Buddhists and what he claims as his greatest conversion through an article by Lynn White on the historical roots of our ecological crisis.

Can we imagine if we knew this kind of information about politicians? Can we imagine a politician responding to a question not talking about his/her unique ideas, but referring to someone in his/her life who was particularly influential?

How then shall we live? We have graduates today who are on the cusp of a new life. What shall we tell them? That they are justified by believing that Jesus died for their sins? If that fits their story, then good, although I worry about the punch line, “So don’t stop believing or question too much.”

Can’t we offer them something more? I would even be radical enough to say that one possibility is, “We are transformed by grace through our questions.” Open Minds people! Open Minds! We are transformed by grace through our open hearts and minds. Now that’s part of the Methodist story.

The gift that I want to give them is not a theological formula: Just believe this and you will be okay. Christian life is not about formulas. That’s what the Pharisees were about. I want them to have Open Hearts and Minds to feel free to ask questions. And to be connected to us so that they can always come back to share with us. And I want them to be open to the story God is telling in their lives.

I want to send our graduates into the world seeking God’s grace in their stories. I want to say to them, open your hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit may help write the story of their lives. And remind them that this community is always with them.

As I said at the beginning, ideas, beliefs, opinions can never be separated from life stories. One theological formula does not fit all. “Jesus died for our sins.” “Justified by grace through faith.” No idea of faith should not be set in concrete (that’s the fallacy of misplaced concreteness!) We solidify things that shouldn’t be solidified.

Ideas are like examples, as they come from life stories and they invite us not to believe in them, but to look at our life stories and consider how do we see it? How are we, saved, transformed, healed, etc.


Picture Courtesy of Dale Carter

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