Rev. Dr. Scott Herr


Please Read: Galatians 1:1-12 and Luke 7:1-10

One of the beautiful gifts that we have as a congregation is the diversity of theological, denominational, traditional and cultural expressions of the Christian faith. As I will (have) share(d) in the New Members orientation class, one of my favorite mottos for the church is from the 17th century Puritan preacher Richard Baxter who once famously said, “In necessary things unity; in doubtful things liberty; and in all things charity.” What a lovely ethic for our church which has such a broad spectrum of opinions, perspectives and praxis of faith. As we begin a new sermon series through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I would like to ask the question, “What is necessary Christian faith?” It’s an important question, really.  

The same question was alive during the first century when the Apostle Paul was moving about Turkey in one of his missionary journeys to share the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel, as most of you will remember, is the English rendering of the Old English word God Spell, or good story, taken from the Greek word which Paul uses in our text, euagelion, or literally good-message.[1] I think of the telephone game that we play sometimes at family reunions around the table. One person has to think up a message and then it is whispered around the table. The game is to see what happens to the message after it has been transmitted from person to person around the table. The larger the number of people around the table, of course, the larger the distortion of the original message.[2]

But quite honestly, the message that Paul wanted to clarify could be summarized rather easily. What Paul wants to clarify in his letter to the church in Galatia is what is essentially the good news of Christ. Interestingly, this word euangelion was used to describe the announcement of the birth of a new emperor or king. It was the declaration of something important that had happened! He says very clearly in verse 3-4, the Lord Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins to set us free…” Paul is actually quite passionate about keeping the action of God as the focus of the Christian message! The gospel is about the fact that God loved us so much, that God gave himself completely to show us his love. In the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we have been given the opportunity to have true freedom. This is God’s will for us. Paul writes that this good news is not something we can figure out on our own, or contrive, but rather it is revealed to us. It is declared for us. We have only to receive this good news, to trust that this news is true for us. And God’s grace and peace will change us; it will change the world.

The problem was, Paul felt that the Galatians had run after “another gospel…” We’ll learn more about what other messages they were being given in the coming weeks, but today I would like to focus on the essential gospel as Paul delivers it to the church. In fact, he says there really is no other good news. There is only one gospel (1:7).

Our lesson from the gospel according to Luke is fascinating as it is also about the heart of faith. Jesus says of the centurion that he shows the most amazing faith Jesus has seen ever… Another question we might ask is simply, “What is ‘such faith’?”

 Did you see the article by Tanya Luhrmann in the Friday International Herald Tribune? It was titled, “Belief, the least part of faith.” She distinguishes “belief” as the set of more abstract intellectual and philosophical questions and propositions about God. But “faith” for her is the way in which we relate to God. It gets at more of the Jewish idea of wisdom. It’s practical. It’s applied knowledge. She shared the story of what “One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: ‘I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.’” Tanya goes on to conclude that the woman’s comment “was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern day version of Pascal’s wager: In the face of uncertainty about God’s existence, it’s better off behaving as if God were real.”[3]

The centurion, I’m quite sure, knew nothing of the doctrine of the atonement, or the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds (of course!), or any other formal doctrinal statement. But he had heard about Jesus and he trusted in Jesus. He knew that even though he himself as a commander in the Roman army was a man of authority, Jesus had authority over him, over life itself. And he humbly put his faith in Jesus.

I think for us pseudo modern and post-modern types, we have a hard time trusting anyone but ourselves. We are redacting and deconstructing everything from “our perspective.” I think an essential part of faith paradoxically is acknowledging we are not as smart as we think. We are not as qualified as we think, nor are we as worthy as we may believe. If we believe in God at all, we often assume God owes us something. But the bad news of the good news is that we are desperately in need of a savior. We too are living in “the present evil age” and need rescuing. The gospel asserts that we cannot save ourselves, even by being good. That would mean that no bad people can be saved. And that is precisely who Jesus came to rescue. You see the problem? There are only two ways to be saved: One is a merit system, and one is a grace system. The gospel is all about grace: The unmerited favor of God. In other words, there’s nothing you can do to be good enough to accomplish self-salvation. Note the centurion’s confession: “I am not worthy.” It’s a humble, but very appropriate posture before the Lord…

Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century bishop and theologian, wrote, “The way to Christ is first through humility, second through humility, third through humility. If humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, if it is not before us to focus on, if it is not beside us to lean upon, if it is not behind us to fence us in, pride will wrench from our hand any good deed at the very moment we do it."[4]

What we need to clarify about the good news is that our salvation is a present status more than a future reward! (Keller). In other words, we can’t earn it. It is simply given to us by grace through faith… here and now. It is this good news that has been declared to us that we can humbly receive and trust as we live our lives. There are days to be sure when we may doubt the very existence of God, there may be days when we do not feel the presence of God. But that in no way diminishes the reality of God’s existence or presence. Living by faith means we live on as if we believe in God’s existence, as if God’s presence is real. Thankfully, God has provided so that we don’t just live our faith in our heads. Indeed, we do have experiences of the Living God.

It was on May 24, 1738 – that’s 275 years ago – on Friday a week ago actually, that John Wesley had his heart “strangely warmed” at the Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street, London. I happened to be sitting in the North Gate Church of St. Michael’s in Oxford that anniversary Friday, having wandered in quite innocent of the significance of the date. In fact, John Wesley had preached in that very church when he was a student at Lincoln College at Oxford. So it was quite a moment to be in that 1,000 year old sanctuary, the oldest building in Oxford. But here’s what struck me… I had gone into the church simply to find some peace and quiet, a place to pray. I’d been watching Danny row and had just deposited some money in his account and needed to calm myself! And as I sat in that little church sheltered from the hustle bustle of the university town crowds moving about outside, I wanted to hear from God. I confessed, Lord, I’m hearing a lot of other voices, but I really need to hear from you… And I believe God spoke to me powerfully through the words of Wesley: “The world is my parish!”

I share my own story not because I’m some mystic. I’m not, hardly! But I want to give testimony to the fact that God continues to strangely warm our hearts with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Living God wants to be in relationship with us and desires that we trust him. We may not always experience God’s presence, or “hear God speaking to us,” but God wants us to live as though we were absolutely sure that we are beloved children, heirs of the King.

Perhaps this point is understood through another illustration: A man walking down the road with his child all of a sudden picks up his son and gives him a big hug and kisses him, saying, “I love you so much, son!” The question is was the son any more a son because his father told him he loved him? Legally, he was the same status, but when his father picked him up and told him he was loved, he experienced his sonship/daughtership in a powerful way…

How might we come back to the good news that we are by grace given the status of beloved sons and daughters of the Living God by what Christ has done for us that we could not do for ourselves? And how then, can we live to give freely the gifts we have to offer from grateful hearts, and not from a desire or compulsion to earn God’s favor?

The table set before us is a reminder that we can only come with empty hands and receive God’s grace. May we remember here that we come not because we are worthy, but because Christ is worthy. Bad people can come to this table, because Christ accepts us as we are. It’s by his sacrifice that we are saved. It is his righteousness that has been given to us.  

You see, it’s all about reversal of the world’s values: It’s not only received but achieved by great reversals: Christ gave up power, he gave up all things but was given all authority and power. And so paradoxically, only when you become humble, when you declare bankruptcy will you receive spiritual riches. Only when you give up power, will you receive God’s power… This is what the centurion did… He recognized the greatness of Christ, and put himself under him…

This is our faith: Not just saying the words but living by faith. So come to this table in faith today, faith that no matter how unworthy you may feel, Christ accepts you by grace. No matter how bad and sinful you may have been, here is offered loving forgiveness. At this table may you experience the Father’s love again, by receiving the gifts of his goodness and mercy.

I love the words of the Book of Common Prayer that I heard that Friday in the little North Gate Church, words that surely John Wesley heard as he worshipped there as well, and words that I hope will strangely warm your heart. Hear again the invitation to the table: “You that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and be in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…”

[1] Robert K. Barnhart, ed., The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (The H.W.Wilson Company, 1988), 443.

[2] Fun phrases to use in “The Telephone Game” include:

"A million monkeys sat down and typed Shakespeare."

"The quick brown fox jumped over a lazy dog eating a hamburger."

"The dead Army duck sat placidly as the construction crew strode confidently past."

"We have contacted your Earth governments and they refused our existence."

"The wind whipped off the plateau with the fury of 1000 stallions."

[3] Tanya. M. Luhrmann, “Belief, the least part of faith,” (The International Herald Tribune, Friday, May 31, 2013), 9.

[4] Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 298.