Righteousness and Grace

Sermon for Sunday, January 12, 2020 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17

Today, I’m going to talk about the concept of righteousness. The word “righteousness” is tricky because we almost never hear it decoupled from the word “self.” We all know it’s not a good thing to be self-righteous. It is, however, good to be righteous. But self-righteousness has such a monopoly on the concept of righteousness that we never take the time to understand what righteousness really is. So that’s what we’re going to do this morning. And we’re going there because of an odd exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading.

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then [John] consented.”

To fulfill all righteousness. Matthew talks a lot about fulfilling things, usually passages from the prophets, especially Isaiah. And here we have Jesus speaking about fulfilling righteousness. We can approach a definition of righteousness from several angles, and the one that speaks most to me uses the language of relationship. To be righteous is to be in a state of right relationship with God, with other people, and with Creation.

This state of right relationship dismantles all the barriers that our personal and societal sin construct, for sin is a distortion of right relationship. When we name the big sins such as poverty, racism, sexism, warmongering, and environmental degradation, we recognize that their stranglehold on us and on the world keeps us from reaching right relationship with God, other people, and Creation. 

Because of this stranglehold, righteousness is an aspiration, not a reality. In his letter to the Romans, Paul quotes the psalms when he says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (3:10). Paul goes on to say, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:21-24).

So, as long as righteousness is an aspiration, the grace of God is the reality. We do not live in a state of right relationship with God, with others, and with Creation. But we do live in a state of grace – an unrestrained gift which allows our imperfect relationships still to pulse with the perfect love of God. Grace, then, is the gift that keeps us striving, keeps us aspiring to reach the state of righteousness.

And we would know that state if we reached it. There would be no war, no poverty, no privilege that was extended only to some, no abuse of power. And there would be a natural world than can sustain all its creatures indefinitely. We lament that the state of righteousness seems so far off.

But remember, the state of grace exists now. But grace does not allow us to rest on our laurels. Grace compels us to extend the love of God out as far as we possibly can, touching as many relationships as we possibly can, nurturing as much of Creation as we possibly can.

Thus, striving for righteousness is never a solo endeavor. You can’t be righteous in a vacuum, because righteousness describes relationships. That’s why “self-righteousness” is a distortion of the concept. To be self-righteous means to use my own self as the first and final measuring stick for my morals and my behavior. I am accountable only to myself, not to a community, and certainly not to God. A self-righteous posture allows free rein to self-interest. And self-interest festers at the root of all the world’s evils, some of which I mentioned earlier.

Self-interest killed our nation’s ideals before the nation was even born because the freedom of the entire enslaved population was deemed less important than the bottom line in certain bank accounts. The dominance of self-interest has spawned entire economic theories and has led to half the world’s wealth being owned by 1% of its population. Self-interest breeds corruption into industry and government to such a degree that corruption starts looking like business as usual.

Self-interest exists only because self-righteousness grants it authority. Without self-righteousness standing in for conscience, the purely self-interested person would not be able to justify their actions. But self-righteousness looks no farther than the mirror. And self-righteousness is the bricks and mortar of isolation. The more we isolate, the easier it is to ignore the effects of our actions. That’s why bullying skyrocketed with the advent of social media.

But isolation is never the way. God created all things to be interconnected and interdependent, including us. That’s why Jesus tells John that his baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is showing at the outset of his ministry that he is not acting alone. He has a partner in John, and he will gain more partners soon. And Jesus has the ultimate partner – God, who calls Jesus the Beloved as he rises up from the water.

In his life, in his ministry, and especially in his death, Jesus shows us how little stock he puts in self-interest. As he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus leans toward self-interest in the form of self-preservation: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But then he rejects self-interest: “Yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

While on the cross, Jesus endures the jeers of those who only understand the world from the perspective of self-interest, who say, “He saved others. He cannot save himself ” (Matthew 27:42). But they don’t understand that Jesus is working to unbind us from self-righteousness by going to the utmost lengths to show us what true righteousness looks like: true righteousness, whose midwife is grace, and whose mother is God. 

Righteousness might be aspirational, but grace is real. God showers upon us the gift of grace. The more we bathe in its cleansing waters, the more we wash off the power of sin. And the more we are able to position ourselves to partner with God to bring the state of righteousness to all Creation.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash.

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