A sermon on Galatians 2:16-21
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
By Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
March 1, 2020 – The First Sunday in Lent
We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. 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 the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Sad as it makes me to admit, I have three more sermons with all of you. In these three sermons, we’re going to talk about the “the big three” of Christian life: faith, hope, and love. I’m going to get really animated about hope and love in the next two weeks, but today we will talk about faith. Faith is the bedrock of who we are as the church. Faith is the reason we gather today or any day. But faith is not a blind exercise. Faith is, ultimately, our response to the One who has always been faithful to us.
When pastors need a sermon illustration, we ideally draw on the rich experiences of our own lives and the life of our congregation to reflect God’s activity in the world. But I hope it’s no shock to you that some weeks we just Google “sermon illustration for ______.” This was one of those weeks for me. And when I did so, I came up with this fun fact: an African impala can jump as high as 10 feet and as far as 30 feet and do so often in the wild; but they can also be contained by a 3 foot fence. You see, impalas will not jump unless they can see where their feet will land. If the landing is uncertain, they don’t risk it. Now, at first glance, this seems like the perfect illustration for the idea of “faith.” “A leap of faith” is what we often use to describe that act of faith when we can’t see where our metaphorical feet land.
I’d love to tell you that this phrase makes me immediately think of great philosophers like Kant and Kierkegaard, but the most vivid image that comes to my mind is Indiana Jones. Do y’all remember that scene close to the end of The Last Crusade when he has to walk across what looks like a bottomless chasm? He’s told to take a leap of faith and Sean Connery is in the background dramatically saying “You must believe, boy. You must believe!” And so Indy steps out into what looks like nothing, but what turns out to be a camouflaged walkway. Having taken this leap of faith he’s able to make it across, and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
We have glamorized the idea of stepping blindly off of cliffs, and so we see Harrison Ford act it out so well that it inspires us to do the same. We hear about those cautious impalas and know that we can do a little better. Except, my friends, that’s not the kind of faith God asks from us. We are asked only to be faithful to the One who has always been faithful to us.
In our passage from Galatians, we land in the midst of a pretty complicated and technical legal argument. Paul is in the midst of fussing to the Galatians about the difference between faith and works. We could spend weeks teasing out the conflict in this epistle, but suffice it to say that some of the Christian in Galatia are insisting that there are certain things you must do in order to be saved – pieces of religious law and requirement that they want people to keep up. We hear Christians do the same thing today. There are siblings in Christ who insist you must “ask Jesus into your heart” in a certain way, or avoid very specific behaviors, or never drink or use swear words, or only be in heteronormative relationships, or stick precisely to the Book of Order at all times as if it were Holy Scripture in order to be truly Christian – in order to be saved. Christians have always liked to put rules around who is in and who is out.
And what Paul tells us is that’s not what faith is about. Our faith ultimately rests in God alone. And our faith rests in God because God has been so faithful to us.
For millennia, God gave us the gift of the law, the Torah, the way of the Israelites. When we kept straying in sin, God gave us the law as a safety net, a guide for how to live. And when we kept straying in sin, God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us – not to supersede the law, but to fulfill it. That’s who we place our faith in – the God who has been faithful to us all along. That’s who we place our faith in – the Holy One who has always been there for us. It’s not a blind leap – we’re not asking impalas or people to not know where their feet will land. We know, by faith, that we will land with God. Not because of anything we do perfectly, but because that’s who God has proven to be time and again.
There is, perhaps, a better story to illustrate the kind of leap of faith God asks us to take. Darrel Pace was an Olympic gold medalist in archery in 1976 and 1984. He once gave an exhibition in New York’s Central Park which the local news stations were covering. He used steel-tipped arrows and hit the bullseye every time, again and again. Finally he asked for a volunteer. Josh Howell from ABC news stepped forward, and was told to hold an apple in his hand about waist high. Pace took aim from 30 yards away, and his arrow sailed right through the apple into the target behind it without a scratch on Josh Howell.
Darrel Pace didn’t ask Josh Howell to trust him blindly. He proved over and over again that he knew his way around a bow and arrow. Now, I’m not saying that faith in God is like being shot at with an arrow, but I am saying that God only asks us to trust in God’s own proven faithfulness. We may not always understand it, we may not know where it’s going, we might even think we don’t deserve it – but God has always been faithful to us. And so if faith sometimes feels like a blind leap, know that we don’t jump blindly so much as toward the sound of God’s voice.
There’s a funny end to the archery story. After Pace hit the target and Howell was covered in bits of exploded apple, the ABC cameraman came up to Howell and made his face fall when he said “So, I had a problem with my viewfinder and didn’t get the shot. Can you do it again?”
Look, even though God has been faithful to us, walking in faith is still nerve wracking. That’s ok. Because faith isn’t up to our bravery. “I do not nullify the grace of God,” Paul says to the Galatians. Our own fear, our hesitance, our grief, even our lack of faith doesn’t get in God’s way. Faith is scary, and God is faithful still. We may run away from God, but God still has faith in us. We may let our faith slip, but Christ still gave his life for us on the cross. We may let a tiny three foot fence hem us in, but the Holy Spirit is still beckoning us to step out in faith.
There is no church without faith. There is no Christianity without faith. We believe in what we can’t always see because we know that God has always been faithful to us. So if the future looks murky, if your footing seems precarious, if it feels like someone has a bow and arrow aimed at you, if you simply don’t know what God is doing next – the good news, my friends, is that faith is a gift from the One who has always been faithful to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.