Epistle for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost
In the Epistle reading for this Sunday, Apostle Paul speaks about how man is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. He further speaks about having ‘died to the law that I might live to God’.
Something very important and very profound is being revealed here…
At one level he is speaking about the place and the interaction of faith in Christ and the works of the law. Apostle Paul himself was coming into Christianity from having been a Jew, a man who lived by the Judaic Law, who carefully fulfilled the meticulous customs and obligations of his religion.
The issue which called together one of the first councils of the bishops of the new Christian Church was precisely about whether or not Gentile Christians were obligated to fulfill the Jewish laws or not.
As that council determined, and as St Paul proclaims in today’s Epistle, it is not by fulfilling the works of the law that we will find our salvation. Indeed, he writes, ‘by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.’ Apostle Paul is emphasizing in his letter to the Galatians that, try as he might, mankind cannot earn salvation through his own efforts and through fulfillment of the law.
Indeed, mankind cannot earn salvation through his own efforts. We usually take this to mean ‘through our works’. And St Paul collaborates that in emphasizing our justification through faith in Christ. But there is something deeper being said beyond the merits of our works or our faith.
Listen to what he says: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’
We do not earn salvation through the effort of our works nor through the merit of our faith. Our salvation is accomplished in the incarnation of God and by His death and resurrection. It is by Christ’s taking on humanity, by His sinless life, by His trampling down death by death, and by His glorious resurrection that mankind may be saved.
Christ God, in taking on human flesh, has healed it and divinized it. He has overcome the fatal disease which is sin and has restored and bestowed upon mankind the hope of salvation. Salvation is granted to us to the measure that we cast off our fallen humanity and unite ourselves to Christ.
This is the essential point and this must be our focus – uniting ourselves to Christ. In uniting ourselves to Christ, we unite ourselves to His victory over sin and death and we unite ourselves to His glorious resurrection.
And so, if salvation is given to us in uniting ourselves to Christ - where do faith and works come into play in all of this?
St Seraphim of Sarov put it very well when he said: ‘Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.’
This acquisition of the Holy Spirit is precisely uniting ourselves to Christ – for the indivisible Trinity is one and the same.
We apply ourselves wholeheartedly to doing Christian works and to the life of faith. In doing so, we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. Bit by bit, year by year, day by day we cast off the old man of sin and put on the New Man of Christ.
As St John the Forerunner said in reference to himself and Christ: ‘He must increase, and I must decrease.’
Perhaps that is a scary statement for us… but if so, it is due to a case of mistaken identity. We resist casting aside our fallen self because we mistakenly identify ourselves with it. We fear that if we decrease in favor of Christ increasing, we will lose ourselves and what makes us unique. The problem is – we do not know who we truly are or who we are truly created to be. In casting aside the falseness of our fallen humanity, we do indeed suffer loss, and it can be painful… but dear brothers and sisters in Christ… ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him’.
We must trust our loving God and Father. We have everything to gain and nothing of worth to lose. In Christ Jesus, we grow into the full stature of who we truly are… of who we were created to be… in all our uniqueness, yet blessed and filled with the grace of our Lord.
May God grant us the courage to apply ourselves in Christian works and in a warm and loving faith that we may cast aside our fallenness and be united in the victory and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!