Some of you may be wondering why I took off my shoes. I was reminded this week of Moses getting close to the burning bush. The Lord called to Moses and as Moses started to move towards the bush, the Lord said “Come no closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” I’m also going to talk a bit about my feet today (for a reason, by the way, not just because). When I was in Atlanta for continuing education, I slipped away from the conference for about an hour. I called for an Uber ride (which is like a taxi) and went to my appointment. I got settled on the paper covered table after some initial conversation and tried not to be nervous. Malia had made sure I was comfortable and then started in on her work. She dipped the needle into black ink and then touched the needle to my skin. As promised, I did not kick her out of reflex. And so, yes, while I know some of you may not agree with my choices, I did get more tattoos while I was in Atlanta. And they are on my feet. And they have everything to do with today’s reading from Galatians.
On my left foot is tattooed the words “by grace” and on the right foot is tattooed the words “through faith.” I placed them in the order that I did because many times when I start walking from either a seated position or standing still position, I start with my left foot. It is how I desire to walk through life: by grace, through faith. And I fail almost daily. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t keep trying. An interesting verse stood out to me this week as I prayed about this Galatians reading. Verse 16 says “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” If someone ever asks you what it means to be Lutheran, direct them to the book of Galatians. So much of what we hold to be true, what we believe, what we profess and claim, week after week and day after day can be found in this book.
One of the beliefs that make us different is that we hold fast to the idea that we are justified, we are made right, only by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot ever be made right or be justified by our works. So, let me break that down for you. You cannot earn your way to heaven. You cannot do anything at all to “get right” with God. We all know someone who feels like they have to get right with God before they can come to church. As if all of us have it all together and we’re going to notice. If you have that person in your life who is waiting to get right with God before they come to church, they ain’t never coming to church. Because none of us, none of us can do anything to get right with God.
This idea that we are justified by faith and not through works is one of the biggest sticking points that Martin Luther had with the Catholic church. Now, as a reminder, our friend, Martin Luther (or as I like to call him, “Marty”) was studying to be a Catholic Monk. He took this call to serve God very seriously. But Marty was also very studious, very serious, and and very faithful. He started to study the ideas and beliefs of the Catholic church and felt a lot of the things he learned didn’t jive with the Bible. And Marty believed firmly in sola scriptura (word alone). So when he found out about things like penance and indulgences he started to get angry. We cannot do anything to make God love us more. We cannot do anything to get in “better” with God. We cannot do anything to reverse the sins we’ve already committed. And for Marty, that included saying additional prayers or making large “donations” to the church.
Yes, it is to us to confess our sins. It is on us to admit to God and to one another where we’ve fallen short. It is on us to to admit when we’ve sinned in thought, word, and deed. By what we’ve done, and by what we’ve left undone. We need to confess when we’ve not loved our neighbors with our whole heart. We must admit that daily we are held captive to sin and cannot in any way, shape, or form, free ourselves. And then, we sit back and realize that the only way we can be freed from our sins is through Jesus Christ and not by anything we can do, might do, should do, would do, or could do.
Another important part of the verse I highlighted today (verse 16) says “and we have come to believe in Christ Jesus” so that we will be justified by our faith in him and not through anything we do. But have we? Have we come to believe that? If this were true, we wouldn’t constantly be wondering what we must do to “get right” with God. If this were true, we might not be so quick to judge the sins of others because we too sin and we know that we are all justified through faith in Christ. If it were true that we have come to believe in Christ Jesus then we would quit carrying around the guilt associated with our sins and stop beating ourselves up for the sins God has already forgiven. Our lack of faith has made us masochists. This is the only reason I can think of that we continue to punish ourselves for our sins that God forgave a long time ago.
I cannot think of a simpler way to put this: you cannot do anything by yourself to free yourself from sin. You also cannot do anything to gain more favor with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we go out looking to sin day after day. What it means is that when we do fall into sin and the inevitable guilt sets in, we rest assured that God has forgiven us. God has forgiven us not by anything we have done, but through Jesus Christ and the cross. Friends, stop beating yourselves up for the sins you have committed. Stop beating yourself up for falling short. Stop beating yourself up for not achieving the unrealistic goals you have set for yourself. Stop beating yourself up for feeling like a failure. You are not any of those things.
You are forgiven. You are saved. You have been called and claimed. You have been washed clean. You have been fed. You have been sent into a world that is hungry for a word of forgiveness and your life can be proof of that. You are not a failure. You are not your sins. You will not be defined by the times you fell short. You will be claimed for what you are: child of God, beloved, and set free. Brothers and sisters, you are loved. You are forgiven. Start acting like it.