‘Les Misérables’ is a book, a play, and more recently a movie, originally written by Victor Hugo in 1862. The story introduces Jean Valjean, a paroled convict, who following a spiritual awakening after his interactions with a merciful bishop seeks new identity after his years of imprisonment and creates a new life for himself. Perhaps some lyrics from one of his songs captures his spirit best, from the song ‘What Have I Done’:
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!
His counterpart, Javert, is a fanatical police detective, hell-bent on pursuing Jean Valjean, and convicting him once again for his unwillingness to follow the law. His attitude is best captured in one of the songs called ‘Stars’:
There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from God
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face
He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
Those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
Two characters, similar in some ways, and yet quite different in others. The biggest difference, of course, is that for Jean Valjean, he chose to live his life based on grace and mercy. For Javert, he chose to live by the law and judgment.
The world is often not as black and white as books or movies would like it to be. People are no different. Within us we often carry angels and demons, good and bad, kindness and violence…all within our God-created, holy, bodies. Yet the way we live our lives, the attitude from which we approach our daily existence, the truth we choose to define, can often influence which side of us the world experiences.
I remember growing up as a teenager thinking that I would be just like Javert, a follower of the law. After all, it is in the law that the world is easier; most things really are either black or white. I was a good kid growing up, rarely in trouble, with a good work ethic, and extremely responsible. I set my own bedtime as a kid. I had my first job by the time I was 14. My brother; not so much. He didn’t breeze through school the same way I did. My parents often had to help him out. To be honest, I’m surprised he made it through his 20s in one piece.
We all know these people in our lives. I’m sure if I asked which character, Jean Valjean or Javert, you identify with, you could probably choose one. And I’m sure that we have decided at one point or another to understand the world in these different ways; should we live according to the law, or that of mercy. For our scripture reading today, the Apostle Paul is talking about a similar issue. For him, he is a living example of first playing the role of Javert as a former Jewish Pharisee; a persecutor of Christians, and now a liberated Jean Valjean; a converted Christian, now an apostle. Who would have thought that the Bible has anything to say about ‘Les Misérables’ 😛
We begin our 3 week study of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Galatia here in chapters 1 & 2, written perhaps about a decade after the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Apostle Paul is a pretty divisive character at times. Even today, people tend to love him or hate him. We pick up on some of his quirkiness as he writes to the Galatians. Paul gets right to the point in chapter one: “Stop being swayed by these false Gods. I know who the true God is. In fact, I am operating on God’s authority as I write this letter!”
1:10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
These are pretty big statements to make! Paul’s authority is from the one true God; his apostleship (his call in ministry and his being sent to proclaim the gospel of Jesus as the Christ) may not be from being part of the original disciples, but Paul is indeed sent by the risen Jesus Christ himself.
Paul then goes on to discuss his confrontations with the other disciples, now Apostles, especially those who contest that the gospel message of Christ means that converts need to follow Jewish law.
And then we get to our scripture text for today…
Paul continues with his developed theme of Jesus Christ being the centerpiece to all he says, he does, and believes, as he compares this orientation to his previous upbringing as a devout follower of the law:
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…
And here in verses 17 & 18 is where things may get a little confusing, but let’s work this out here. Paul is now contrasting the use of the Jewish law (the Jewish teachings), with the paradigm of faith in Jesus Christ. For Paul, the idea that one can serve both the law and Christ is simply incompatible. According to Paul, one of the main points of the law is to point out just how sinful humans are. On the other hand, Christ’s message is meant to offer new life and forgiveness to humanity.
17 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!
18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.
And here in verses 19-21, Paul will then communicate a new orientation to live one’s life; a gospel message. We, as Christians, define ourselves by the crucifixion and the resurrection of our savior, Jesus the Christ. It’s because of Jesus and nothing else that we are saved and offered new life.
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ;
20 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Yes, Paul is a quirky guy. He’s not the easiest to get along with. He certainly has opinions that we may not agree with, especially not 2,000 years later. But the Apostle Paul is on to something here. In this brief letter, he articulates an understanding of Jesus, and what it means to follow him. In a way, this is the perfect letter to read following the Easter celebration just last week. Paul is helping us put into words just who Jesus was, and what it means to call ourselves Christians, even in the year 2018.
And what does all of this mean? Well that’s our Good News: because of the death and resurrection of Christ, the focus of our salvation is no longer on the law (how good or bad we have been), but on God’s grace. This may be hard to understand or accept, but for Paul, Jesus had to die and be raised in order for God’s grace to be realized. If Jesus remained living as he always had, or if Jesus simply died and there was no resurrection, people would continue to argue whether or not Jesus was simply teaching a new form of Judaism. But Jesus’s resurrection was the definitive moment for Paul, when he understood that the message of Jesus was not just a nice addition to Jewish law, but a complete revolution (Jesus would use the word ‘fulfil’) in the way we understand the world and our relationship with our God. Karl Barth, a 20th Century theologian would write, ‘The Gospel itself has the form and fashion of the Law. The one Word of God is both Gospel and Law.’ (Church Dogmatics, vol. 2.2)
Today we celebrate this as our reality. We choose to live not as slaves to the old law, but as a free people by God’s grace. We worship a God who time and time again chooses to forgive us, embrace us, and then frees us to go back into the world and live as such examples of grace and mercy.
Each time we baptize or we celebrate new members into this congregation we affirm our faith in a God who conquered death, and who offers us grace time and time again. Each time we gather at the Lord’s Table, we celebrate not the condemnation of the law, but the mercy of our life-giving God.
Today may we be reminded of the power of the cross, and the life-giving freedom of God’s grace in the risen Christ.