Sermon - Sunday, 10 September 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 10 September.

Scripture: Matthew 18: 15-20 / Galatians 2: 15-21

Text: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ        (Galatians 2: 15)


Although I played rugby for the better part of 20 years, the first time I ever read the laws of the game was after I had stopped playing.

It was the autumn of 1993, some months after my appointment to Cramond Kirk.

For the previous five years I had been the oldest and slowest full back for Greenock Wanderers 2nd XV, enthusiastic, quite good at tackling, but it was the fact that I had a car and could provide transport for the away games that secured my place in the team.

Moving to Edinburgh it was time to stop playing, yet not wanting to lose my involvement with the game, I made an appointment to see John Ellis, then the Royal High School’s head of PE.

A scrum half in his playing career, and with one Scotland cap to his name, John had played rugby to a good standard.

John suggested gaining a referee qualification would be the most useful thing I could do as school games in particular often struggled for want of a qualified referee.

So it was in the autumn of 1993 I found myself in the hallowed surroundings of Murrayfield Stadium with some twenty other aspiring referees and, for the first time, reading the laws of the game.

What is the difference between a ruck and a maul?

Where is the offside line at a tackle?

What is the penalty for a prop failing to bind properly?

How many players are allowed in a line-out?

Complicated – there are so many possible offences at a scrum or a line-out even before the ball has been put in squint - over the years how many television viewers were grateful to the late great Bill McLaren for his commentary on rugby internationals and his explanation of why a decision had been given.

Of course, it is one thing to learn the laws of the game, it is quite another to interpret them consistently and in a way that allows the game to flow, something the Welsh referee, Nigel Owens, does so well.

Learning the law, being able to interpret it consistently, knowing how best to apply it in different situations: long before the game of rugby was ever played, these were some of the concerns which dominated life in ancient Israel.

The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; for the people of ancient Israel, and for our Jewish sisters and brothers today, true religion and piety was - and is - concerned with keeping the law.

Based around the 10 Commandments, the Jewish law is all embracing, addressing all aspects of personal, family and community life, and for any Jewish person or family, upholding the law and passing it down through the generations is what faithfulness looks like.

So it is that having plagued Egypt and its hard-hearted Pharaoh with flies and frogs and boils, rivers of blood, darkness and swarms of locusts, God instructs Moses to prepare the people of Israel to leave.

A particular day in a particular month is nominated, certain animals are to be sacrificed in a certain way and at a certain time of day, people are to be appropriately dressed for a quick departure and blood is to be daubed on the lintel of each Jewish household: evidently having heard the cry of the people, God has decided to act and to create something new out of the misery of Israel’s life in slavery.

And far from being a one-off event, what became known as the Passover was a festival to be handed down through the generations, a re-enactment of God’s liberating and life-giving power, not just in the history of ancient Israel but also in the on-going life of its people.

Liberating and life-giving in its intention, by New Testament times the gospels reveal Jesus’ repeated complaint with the Pharisees and the way their interpretation of the law had become so burdensome for people.

Hypocrites is what Jesus called them, blind guides, who honoured God with their lips and not with their hearts, who allowed someone to rescue an animal from a ditch but objected to his healing someone on the Sabbath because healing was work and the Sabbath was a day of rest; it was not the law per se to which Jesus objected but the many ways in which what had once been given to help people enjoy a good life with God, with one another and with the whole of creation, had become distorted, perverted and corrupt.

Distorted, perverted, corrupt: if these words capture something of Jesus’ attitude to the religious leadership of his day, they certainly capture a great deal of Martin Luther’s attitude to the Catholic church of his day.

An often troubled individual, his father’s hopes of a career in the legal profession dashed with a vow taken during a thunderstorm led Luther to becoming an Augustinian friar, one of the things over which Luther agonized was whether he would go to heaven or spend eternity in hell.

My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him.

Although Martin Luther should never be confused with a ray of sunshine, the concern which motivated him could not be more personal or more pastoral.

If going to heaven, if being right with God, was a matter of keeping all God’s laws, what hope did Luther have, and what hope did any person have?

If, as Luther believed, there was no merit in himself, he was also persuaded merit did not lie in the purchase of an indulgence, an ever more elaborate system developed by the medieval church of payments made to the church to reduce someone’s penance or even cancel their sin.

By 1512, appointed as a Doctor in Biblical Studies at Wittenburg University, it was to scripture Luther turned, initially a lecture series on the Book of Psalms and then to the letters of St Paul, his epistle to the Romans and then his letter to the Galatians.

In Paul’s letters Luther found a kindred spirit, someone who also wrestled with what it meant to be faithful to God, and who wondered whether obedience to the law alone could lead to salvation.

And it was from the Apostle’s writings Luther began to discern that such merit as was needed to secure salvation was not to be found in him, or in any other human being, it was to be found in Jesus Christ.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ

Luther would write of how he pondered Paul’s letters night and day until the connection dawned upon him, the connection between God’s justice and faith.   

Where once Luther hated this just and angry God and murmured against Him, so in Paul’s letters Luther came to see the saving grace and justice of God revealed in the suffering face of Jesus Christ.

Christ crucified on Calvary’s cross, dying not for any sin he had committed, but bearing the sin of humanity.

Christ rising to new life on Easter dawn, the stone rolled away, sin forgiven, salvation the free gift of divine grace.

And the key to unlock it was faith, faith not in himself or in any human capacity or power, but faith in the saving grace and forgiving mercy of God in Christ.

Whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, Luther would write, now it came to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love

If justification by faith alone became one of the watchwords of the Reformation, it is one which continues to speak to our hearts and souls.

Do you suppose even as a minister I have always lived a good and godly life?

Are you here today with no stain on your conscience, a heart-felt regret for something you once did or said?

Who among is not ashamed of some betrayal, lie, broken promise, an act of greed or selfishness?

If salvation, if the gate to heaven was opened only by the extent to which you and I could keep God’s commandments and laws what hope would any of us have?

St Paul’s genius was the realisation that our hope of salvation lies not in what we are able to do for ourselves but in what God has done for us in Christ.

It was a truth that mattered to Luther then.

It is a truth that matters to us today.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen