Sermon preached at St Matthews Westminster on Sunday, 16 June 2013.
There is a poignant - almost wistful - phrase in St Paul's second letter to Timothy, ‘only Luke's with me’ . At one level it speaks of St Paul's isolation, imprisonment and all the other privations he endures – ‘only Luke is with me’ - and yet at another level when I read that evocative phrase I whisper ‘Thank God’. Not thank God St Paul was so alone, but that thank God that it was Luke who was his lone companion.
It is idle to speculate (but speculate I do nevertheless) whether the thrust of Paul's inclusive theology derived from the insights of the gentile Luke and whether the conversion which began on the Damascus Road was consolidated and developed in late night conversations between Paul the Jew and Like the gentile, as they considered the story that had transformed both their lives - the story of the dying and rising to new life of Jesus the Lord.
During the Sundays after Trinity we are reading in course Luke's Gospel and St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Though these readings are running on independent tracks (not chosen for their overlap) they have a wonderful sense of mutual illumination. If I am right that ‘ only Luke is with me’ suggests an ongoing companionship between the two men and also that the ‘we’ that crops up in Luke's Acts of the Apostles is a reference to that same relationship – then we shouldn't be surprised that the Galatians passage we heard this morning and the companion reading from Luke's Gospel dialogue with each other.
In Galatians we have a familiar Pauline juxtaposition between Law and Grace. The well-educated Jew from Tarsus understood the Law and lived by it: lived by it that is until on one eventful day he sprawled on the dust on the Damascus Road and heard a voice and saw the light. Then he knew that whatever the considerable merits of the Law might be – the law that represented the ancient covenant between God and his people – whatever the merits of the Law, nothing could compare with the Grace that came from faith in Christ Jesus. Martin Luther famously found in Paul's Letter to the Romans the theological backbone that underpinned the Reformation, when he read ‘humanity is justified by faith quite apart from success in keeping the Law'. And that conviction runs like a golden thread through the Pauline epistles, for we find the same thought expressed again in the Letter to the Galatians we heard this morning. ‘no one is ever justified by doing what the law demands but only through faith in Christ Jesus’.
As I say that conviction dawned upon Paul as he sprawled in the dust of the Damascus Road. As he was tossed from the high horse of the Law he discovered in his own weakness, poverty and lack of resource the weakness of the Son of God ‘who loved me and gave himself up for me’. It was that weakness, - that 'foolishness of God' that Paul came to see was stronger than human strength and that foolishness wiser than human wisdom. And he saw that grace of God streaming towards him, as he sprawled in the dust, from a crucified God. Paul's doctrine of the cross began on the Damascus Road. This cross and the one who is nailed upon it ‘Is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks yet to those who have heard his call both Jew and Greek alike it is the power of God and the wisdom of God’.
This impassioned and life-changing theology must have make quite an impression on Luke for whom obedience to the Law was not such a central idea as for Paul. But the idea that our salvation depends not on our desert or merit but on the Grace of God who, whatever we've done, wherever we go, whoever we are, loves us and longs to draw us back into that intimate relationship of sons and daughters that no amount of moral point-scoring will ever achieve – that idea of Grace transforming human lives must have rung bells with Luke who added his own particular gloss from a different gentile world.
For Luke is not only the great storyteller of the New Testament –though he is when you consider that this morning's account of the woman caressing Jesus's feet only appears in Luke. And similarly the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the account of the Annunciation, the Walk to Emmaus and the conversation between Jesus and the penitent thief – fantastic narratives all – only occur in Luke's gospel and all of them have to do with inclusion, drawing the outsider in, recognising that no one – not even a woman 'who was living an immoral life' was beyond the pale or beyond the reach of grace.
This account of Grace in action we have, as always with Lukan stories, to read more than once. At one level it is a cautionary tale reminding the religious not to be judgemental and self-righteous and reminding us all that love covers a multitude of sins. That no one is so much a sinner that they cannot love or be redeemed by love, and that love, to use another Pauline phrase, is the fulfilment of the Law.
I suppose the offence in this parable is first of all that this is a woman was talking to Jesus - a rabbi who was a guest in the Pharisees house and then that she is known to be a prostitute and a prostitute who i seemingly plying her trade under the very noses of the morally righteous; caressing and kissing the feet of the honoured guest with her tears. And Jesus, recognising the affronted tut-tutting that is going on around him tells a story that he knows the Pharisees will understand about debts remitted. The greater the debt the greater the indebtedness of the debtor. This is in fact an Ironic story because although the Pharisee understands the story and is able to give Jesus the right answer the point Jesus is making is not at all about a nice calculation of debt and indebtedness. His point is of course about forgiveness freely and extravagantly given.
At another level this story is an enacted parable about Law and Grace. The Pharisee represents the Law - he is a leader of Israel after all - and he fails the test of his own legalism for he does not observe the conventions of hospitality to anoint his guest or give a loving kiss of greeting on arrival. The Law in a sense has not been observed. As though to say when Grace abounds it shows up the inadequacies of the Law and those who practice it. The woman represents the lowest of the low – you and me (to look no further) in our deepest shame and poverty and moral inadequacy. She represents Paul sprawling in the dust on the Damascus Road. She represents all of us who are beyond the pale.
And It is precisely at the moment of self-recognition (like the Prodigal in the pigsty or Mary recognising her lowly estate which God himself exalts) precisely when we see ourselves as we are and begin to weep at what is revealed – precisely then Grace abounds.
‘you did not observe the niceties of the Law’ says Jesus to Simon the Pharisee ‘but this woman who seems to you to break the law simply by being a woman and, more than that, a prostitute who comes here to ply her trade. But her caresses are not a lustful come-on but a penitential offering. What she is offering here is not a conventional welcome or social conformity; she is offering herself, her soul and body, not for sexual gratification, but as a sacrifice, a self-giving, of which the precious myrrh is only a small token. She is healed and forgiven because however shameful her life may have been by conventional norms she has loved much. To change courses midcourse from Like and Paul to St John, ‘God's is love and whoever abides in love abides in God and God abides in them’ The Pharisee then represents the Law. The woman represents the one in need of Grace )whom the Law condemns) And Jesus in this story is both the Judge who judges according to the Law and finds us wanting. But more importantly he is also the source of Grace who speaks to us as to the woman, a word of forgiveness and healing. Today's gospel is an enacted parable of Love and Grace triumphing over the Law - and maybe Luke tried it out on Paul when they were companions together.
Maybe the distinction that both Paul and Luke were making between Law and Grace is recalled for us today in other words by Father Faber that we will shortly be singing.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of man's mind
And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own
And we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.
There is Grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great is this,
There is room for fresh creations in that upper room of bliss.
And as we gather together to receive a fragment of bread and a sip of wine from the common cup,
we know that we are raised from the dust of whatever road we lie in and are ourselves anointed, caressed and kissed;
forgiven and received into the banquet of God himself.
© 2013, Jeremy Davis