I once met a woman named Grace. We didn't spend a lot of time together, only a few hours. But even after those few hours, I could tell that she had been well named.
For one thing, Grace was a good listener. She wasn't the kind of person who, when listening to you, appears to be thinking about what they are going to say next. Furthermore she listened with goodwill. She wasn't the sort of person who assumed the worst motivations in what you said, but rather she seemed to be assuming the best motivations.
Grace was the sort of person who you could immediately warm to. You just instinctively knew that you were safe - that she wouldn’t gossip or try to make you look bad in the eyes of others. You felt that you could admit to not being perfect and she would be patient rather than petulant.
I wonder if you know anyone like that? I wonder how many of us think that God is like that?
Grace versus Law
In Galatians 2:16, the apostle Paul writes: ' And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by works of the law.'
The letter to the Galatians is a letter about grace versus the law, or at least this is one legitimate interpretation of it and this interpretation has certainly been important to Protestants since the reformation. But as a friend of mine once admitted 'I'm not always certain that I know what justification by grace through faith means.' Alleluia! Someone else has finally admitted that this idea is not actually a very easy teaching to understand.
I want to think, first of all this morning, about the idea of getting right with God through the law. In today’s Gospel story, Simon the Pharisee was a person who was trying to get right with God by obeying God’s law.
We might look at Simon and say to ourselves 'Poor deluded fellow, he had Jesus right in front of him, and he had a fantastic witness of thankfulness right in front of him, and all he could think about was his purity codes, instead of learning from this woman's testimony of extravagant thankfulness, all he could think about was his disapproval that Jesus had had anything to do with her in the first place.'
But I think that we need to be careful about criticising Simon too harshly. We might be tempted to view him as the antagonist in a pantomime, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we may very well have acted the same way in the same situation.
The Negotiator god
Why do we react this way? When we invoke the law and when we label people as sinners in the eyes of the law, we are seeing God in the image of what one theologian calls ‘the negotiator god’.
‘The negotiator god’ is a god of rules and regulations, in other words, the god of law. The negotiator god can seem comfortable to us on the one hand precisely because we can negotiate with him: ‘Look god, here’s the deal. I’ll say my prayers, go to church every Sunday, keep your commandments and, in return, I ask that you bless my life to be reasonably healthy and happy.’
Of course, this is the god who we also often think has let us down when we think that he hasn’t fulfilled his end of the bargain; ‘the bargain’ being the conditions that we set when we told him what it was that we were prepared to do in exchange for his favour.
But there is an even scarier side to this negotiator god. Because when I break my side of the bargain – when I break one of his laws – the negotiator god must punish me. As Paul writes in the 3rd Chapter of Galatians: ‘For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law”’.
The negotiator god is a god to be afraid of. Because anyone who is the least bit honest with themself, knows that they cannot keep all of God’s laws. So if we think that the God of the bible is a negotiator god, then we do need to be afraid of him. And I think that this is the image of God that Simon had in his head. Because with a negotiator god, we dare not make a mistake, break the law or get things wrong.
The God of Grace
But what’s the alternative to a god of Law? The biblical alternative to a god of Law is the God of grace.
The God of grace is not a permissive god who simply looks the other way when we sin and pretends that sin didn’t happen. If that were the case, there would be no way of knowing right from wrong.
No, the God of grace is a God who names our wrong-doings, who asks us to repent and asks us not to do wrong again, but who has promised us through his Son that his forgiveness is always available and will never be withdrawn.
So, unlike the negotiator god, we do not need to be afraid to approach the Triune God in an attitude of repentance. In our Gospel story, Jesus personifies the God of grace. The woman has been forgiven her sins. No-one in the story is pretending that she didn’t sin. Jesus forgave her sins and her gratitude at being forgiven is wildly extravagant. She is so thankful that she weeps, she humbles and debases herself by washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. And the ointment she uses is outrageously expensive.
But Simon, in his fear, doesn’t understand the difference between forgiveness and permissiveness. He simply sees Jesus’ forgiveness as overlooking the woman’s sins.
But the character of the God who we are shown by Jesus is a lot like the woman named Grace who I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon. We can go to God knowing that, because of the life, death and resurrection of his Son, that God offers us forgiveness even before we ask for it.
We can go to God in repentance knowing that he will treat us kindly and with mercy. We can go to him in repentance knowing that he will never refuse our request to be forgiven. We can have faith – indeed, we depend on the fact – that God will never say to us: ‘That was the last straw. You’ve asked for forgiveness too many times and this time I refuse you forgiveness.’
Faith in the God of Grace
But how can we know that God is like this? How can we know that God is gracious? This is where faith comes in. Despite the witness of scripture and tradition, it does take faith to believe that God is gracious and merciful and forgives us our sins.
As CS Lewis famously said, ‘grace’ is the doctrine that is unique to Christianity. Grace – this message that we are free to repent because our sins are already forgiven – is a scandal in the eyes of the world. And, if we are being honest with ourselves, Christians too often act as if grace is a scandal.
I said earlier that my friend finds it had to understand precisely what is meant by ‘being saved by grace through faith’. She acknowledges Jesus as her Lord and Saviour and she acknowledges that she cannot save herself, but I think that she also points out a truth when she says that the doctrine of salvation by faith is not always easy to understand.
I’d like to read a quotation from a commentary on Galatians about the nature of saving faith.
Faith in Christ is the offering of a glad word of thanksgiving for God's goodness focussed in the gift of his Son. It is the standing ovation we give when we have caught only a fleeting glimpse of or have been thoroughly gripped by the drama of Good Friday and Easter. With people crowded row on row in front and behind we find ourselves a part of an audience on its feet with applause, whistles, and shouts of 'Bravo!' Then, in a strange way, almost as if in a dream, we are transformed from isolated spectators into a company of participants, no longer looking on but actually on stage. A moment comes when, moving about from scene to scene, we realize that we are not intruders in someone else's play. We belong here, this is our place, our part. The cross and the resurrection are not only Jesus' but ours. Faith becomes obedience - not the superficial, formalised adherence to the demands of the law, but conformity to the prime figure in the drama, following him about as he moves among the mass of humanity declaring good news to the poor and release to the captives, binding the brokenhearted, giving garlands instead of ashes, and above all announcing the year of the Lord's favour.*Conclusion
The image of God as revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the image of a God of who never stops offering us his forgiveness.
The Triune God is the God life, of new creation and new beginnings. The Triune God is not to be feared, but is to be trusted with our repentance and with our secret and not-so-secret sins. The Gospel is a message of good news to the poor, release to the captives and healing of the brokenhearted.
The biblical God is the God of outrageous generosity and grace. In God we can have faith. In God there is forgiveness and salvation.
And so it is my prayer this morning that we may each grow in the knowledge and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we may each be set free into grace and forgiveness and that, like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet, our hearts may be filled with inexpressible thanksgiving to the God who richly pardons us all.
* Galatians: Interpretation, a bible commentary for teaching and preaching by Charles B. Cousar. John Knox Press, Louisville, 1982. p. 55.