Wednesday of Cantate: What is Righteousness?

Image result for jesus at right hand of god

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: … concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer.

When the Holy Spirit comes, He will prove the world it’s wrong about righteousness. What will He prove? That righteousness is Jesus going to the Father. Righteousness is man restored in fellowship with the Father. If sin is Adam’s rebellion against God, righteousness is Jesus’ obedience to God. If Adam was barred from Paradise, separated from God, and this separation was represented liturgically in the tabernacle and temple worship by the large curtain, Jesus is granted entrance into Paradise, restoring full communion with the Father, and this manifests liturgically as well.

An angel barred the way into Paradise, and angels proclaimed the opening up of heaven when God became human flesh and was born of Mary. “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace goodwill toward men.” This is the hymn testifying to a new situation regarding our being barred from heaven.

Significant in this canticle is the phrase, “for you only are the holy one.” Only Christ is holy. Only Christ has fulfilled the perfect obedience and righteousness God’s Law demanded. It is on account of His holiness and righteousness that we can glorify God in His presence, surrounded by the angels, who don’t stand there with flaming swords, but who communicate this situation to us by declaration, through a new flaming sword, the sword of the Spirit. And what is this declaration: Jesus is our righteousness!

What exactly is the Holy Spirit “proving wrong” to the world about righteousness? Again, if we go with the Moses background, He’s proving it wrong about what righteousness is typically seen to be. Under the “Law code,” righteousness is perfect obedience to the Law. Now, this remains true, of course. But where the world gets it wrong is believing this is within our capabilities. How can it be, if “Jesus alone is the holy one”?

Because Jesus alone keeps perfect obedience to the Law, Jesus alone fulfills it. Jesus is our righteous fulfillment of the Law. If anyone were to deny the importance and validity of the Law, we merely need to point to Jesus and say, “If the Law isn’t important, why is the fulfiller of the Law sitting right there at God’s right hand?”

In any event, the Holy Spirit delivers to us by declaration what Jesus possesses, which is the righteousness He attained by sitting down in fully restored fellowship with the Father. He proclaims to us our righteousness, or as St. Paul would put it, our justification. Again, it’s not necessarily that justification specifically has to be preached in every sermon, but that the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God (Scriptural words), builds a cosmic architecture assuming a “justification” posture. This is the liturgy. The entire premise of liturgy is that we, by declaration of the Holy Spirit’s Word, are caused to be standing righteous in the presence of God through Christ.

Now, here’s an interesting detail. Whereas Jesus has said, in this week’s Gospel, that sin is to not believe in Him, He does not say that righteousness is to believe in Him. We’d think that would be the case. “The Holy Spirit will prove to the world that sin is to not believe in Jesus; and righteousness is to believe in Jesus.” That’s not how it’s put. Rather, sin is to not believe in Jesus, and righteousness is Jesus at the right hand of the Father.

In other words, while our sin is that we do not believe, our righteousness is not that we believe. Jesus at God’s right hand, not our faith, is our righteousness. This challenges St. Paul’s formulation a bit, where he says, quoting Genesis, that God credits our faith as righteousness. But it need not.

First, Jesus doesn’t downplay faith at all. If to not believe in Jesus is sin, clearly, to believe in Him is the opposite of sin. Our believing may not necessarily be our righteousness per se, but it’s certainly our access to that righteousness. Second, St. John’s Gospel is emphasizing what in Lutheran theology is called “objective justification,” whereas St. Paul is emphasizing what is called “subjective justification.” Our righteousness is Jesus at God’s right hand. That is true whether I believe it or not. My faith is not the cause of me being righteous in Christ. But, my faith is the access to that righteousness.

What I love about what is revealed in John’s Gospel is this idea I refer to as “building the cosmic architecture of our faith.” That’s the Holy Spirit’s work, just as it was in the beginning, to create a new creation. He does it through the Word. And the foundation of this cosmic architecture is Jesus at God’s right hand, the basis of our righteousness.

The Church and its liturgy is the manifestation of this cosmic architecture crafted by the Word. Like the ark, it’s there floating above God’s judgment, and our engagement with its various structural elements is important, but not the cause of our salvation. So yes, babies can be on that ark. Babies exist in the cosmic architecture created by the reality that Christ at God’s right hand is our righteousness. And they grow into that.

Finally, we need to introduce a concept that marks several Old Testament passages relating to Jesus assuming His throne and His righteousness. There’s a phrase, “scepter of righteousness” or “scepter of uprightness” that’s related to the idea that the Lord will rule in righteousness. This passage from Jeremiah is typical: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Now we know what this means. It means, having restored into fellowship with the Father, our Lord will send out the Holy Spirit to declare the truth about righteousness. It centers in Jesus and what He has restored for us. This too is a bit part of the liturgy – “Oh Lord God, heavenly king” – as well as a foundational part of the Church’s proclamation: Jesus reigns, and those who turn to Him for salvation will receive it.

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