Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Gospel of What Is Unaccountable (Gal 2:15-21)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on June 12, 2016, Proper 6)


Two Sides of the Same Coin

Recently I finished reading Cannery Row, a novel by John Steinbeck, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. With many books, I have trouble getting past the first fifty pages. Not with Steinbeck. He paints the setting of his stories with broad, colorful strokes, filling the canvas with contradictions, with a rich diversity of compelling characters. Over here, he introduces us to the rich and well-to-do. And opposite to them, he makes our acquaintance with the bums and the beggars. Next he leads us to the darker corners of town, where we find the local “sporting house” and other less-than-reputable places. And then afterward, he shines a light on the households of virtue and stability. Rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy, good and bad—Steinbeck fills his story with characters from both sides of life.

Many readers have remarked that Steinbeck had a better sense than most what it means to be American. And I have to agree. Drive through just about any town and you’re bound to see contradictions sitting side-by-side: a tobacco shop right next to a yoga studio, a fitness center right across from a fast food chain where you can super-size any item. Find me an adult bookstore, and within a block or two I’ll find you a church.

It’s tempting to see these many opposites as competitors. But as Steinbeck skillfully illustrates over the course of his novels, these contradictory people and places are often two sides of the same coin. The one side is necessary for the other; the one keeps the other in business. What appeal would fitness centers and yoga studios have if there were no establishments promoting the sedentary life? What else is a church for, but to clean up the folks who have slipped into less reputable habits?

The “Law”: Sin vs. Virtue 

In his own way, Steinbeck is addressing what Paul addresses in today’s scripture. When Steinbeck shows us virtuous characters and sinful characters, honorable places and places of ill repute, he is showing us a pattern of life that Paul, I think, is protesting.

Of course, Paul writes with very different words than Steinbeck. In Paul’s language, the pattern of life that he is protesting is “the law.” In today’s scripture, Paul addresses a group of Christ-followers who believe that in order to follow Christ, you must also follow “the law.” In other words, these Christ-followers believe that following Christ means doing virtuous things. For them, the world is an arena where good fights evil, and the law oversees this ethical competition.

But Paul sees things differently. Yes, he believes that the law identifies what is good and holy and from God;[1] and yes, he believes that the law distinguishes virtue from sin. But he also believes that virtue and sin are two sides of the same coin, that they turn life into nothing more than a marketplace where virtue and sin are always keeping each other in business. And for Paul, the gospel of Christ is revolutionary because it does not trade in the coin of virtue and sin. It does not live by the law. It does not find life in the law.

The Law of Our Lives

It's worth taking a moment to untangle just what “the law” is. On the surface, it would appear that Paul is talking about the Jewish law. That’s probably what the Galatians would have heard. But Paul, I think, means much more than just a single set of laws. When he refers to the law, we might imagine him referring to it as the Uppercase “L” Law. He is talking about a capital “L” Law that extends across all parts of life: economy, politics, religion, relationships. He is talking about the Law that accounts for every little thing in life. If someone borrows money from you, then they must pay you back. If someone commits a crime, then they must endure a proportionate punishment.[2] If someone treats you rudely, then there must be a reason: perhaps they underslept; perhaps they were upset by something you said.

The Law determines the order of life. It balances the accounts; it accounts for every decision, every consequence. It is the “ought” or the “should” that directs the traffic of life, whether that “ought” or “should” comes from the government or your parents or your teacher or your pride. If you think about it like a computer program, the Law is the code that ensures life will run smoothly.

Or if you think about it like a game, such as baseball or Monopoly, the Law is the rules to the game. The rules, of course, are essential to the game. Without rules, you wouldn’t have teams or time limits or out-of-bounds or goals or fouls. Without rules, there wouldn’t be a game. Just as without code, there wouldn’t be a computer program. So, without the Law, there wouldn’t be life.

But here’s where Paul jumps in so passionately. The Law may be essential for life, but according to Paul, it is also insufficient for life. To live by the Law is to miss out on life. If Paul lived today, I imagine that he would say, to live by the Law is to be nothing more than a robot. In order to live, one must actually, as Paul says, “die to the law” (2:19).

If Paul lived in the twenty-first century and had a working knowledge of modern-day sports and board games, I imagine that he would put it like this. Can you remember the last time you really enjoyed a game? When you laughed? When you forgot about the world around you because you were having so much fun? At that moment of supreme joy, you were not thinking about the rules. You were not accounting for what was what in the game. Sure, you were playing by the rules—you were taking turns, heeding the boundaries—but you were not thinking about the rules. There’s only one person on a playing field always thinking about the rules, always accounting for every move of the game, and that’s the referee or the umpire. And while these officials may enjoy what they do, it’s a safe bet that they never experience the full joy of the game. They do not know the breathless wonder of sinking a last-second shot or flawlessly executing an overhead kick. They do not know the miracle of making a move that even you didn’t know you would make before you made it.

The Unaccountable Faith of Christ

The joy of a game, the wonder and the miracle and the breathless laughter—that, Paul says, does not come about because of the Law. It comes about, rather, by “the faith of Christ” (2:16; cf. 2:20). Our translation today still reads “faith in Christ,” which implies that faith begins with us, with our trusting Christ…but the original Greek literally reads “faith of Christ,” which means that it is actually Christ’s trust in us and his affirmation of us that gives us life.

We all know the difference between prescribed, law-determined kindness and unaccountable kindness, between someone treating us nicely because they “ought” to and someone who does it unaccountably, for no other reason than us ourselves. A good deed is a good deed, and yet unaccountable goodness breathes new life into us whereas prescribed goodness leaves us feeling like an object or an opportunity for someone else. I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says that real life comes through “the faith of the son of God who loved [us] and gave himself for [us].” When someone else loves us unaccountably and gives themselves unaccountably for us, we are inspired to live in an infinitely more colorful and joyful way than the Law could ever imagine. This unaccountable love of Christ is the heart of a heartless world, the flesh and blood that invites us out of our automatic, robotic, law-determined lives into a new and strange and different life.[3]

From Law to Life

Not long ago, I was checking out at the supermarket. Even now, at an age that must surely qualify as “adult,” I still feel a tinge of anxiety when I check out. Forced into a face-to-face encounter with plenty of dead time, I debate the length of eye contact to make with this complete stranger, whether or not to venture a conversational word—and if so, what could I possibly say beyond the weather? Anyway, on this occasion, I took a survey of my cashier’s face and saw a frosty distance. Deciding to keep quiet, I looked this way and that. Checked my phone. But then when I looked up to receive my receipt, I was inexplicably confronted with a pair of eyes looking into mine, a genuine smile, and a warm, “Take it easy.”

I know that such a moment probably seems inconsequential. But I count it as something divinely unaccountable. It confounded all reason and expectation. It was a glitch that the code of life could not account for, a moment of life that the Law could not explain. It was a tiny moment, a mustard-seed moment of grace. In it I encountered the faith of Christ, the love and self-giving of Christ.

It was but a “fleeting and fragile” moment.[4] And yet, the gospel that Paul proclaims is the good news that moments such as this one, moments of love that are unaccountable by any law, are what lead us into newness and strangeness and difference—which are all words for a much simpler gospel word: Life.


God of grace,
Incognito Christ,
Still walking in the world,
Loving us and giving yourself for us—
Point us beyond our lifeless account of the world,
Beyond debt and payment, crime and punishment, cause and effect;
Live within us;
Inspire us to a love
That is unaccountable and real and alive.


[1] John D. Caputo, “Postcards from Paul: Subtraction versus Grafting,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers (eds. John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 5.

[2] Shame and guilt are an important part of the Law, because they are signals that the Law has been transgressed and that something must be made right.

[3] The inspiration behind the figure of “what is unaccountable” comes from Caputo’s essay, “Postcards from Paul,” which reviews Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek’s appropriation of Paul as a revolutionary. Both Badiou and Žižek treat Paul as someone who points us beyond the negative prohibitions of the law, which keep us mired within a false self, to love, which is the life-giving affirmation of the other.

[4] Caputo, “Postcards from Paul,” 11.

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