November 11, 2020

Doers, Not Just Hearers

My sermon in 2 weeks will address this a bit more deeply, but today I want to think about the often fraught divide in the church around faith and works. The rallying cry of the first Protestant Reformation (Lutherans, UCC, Presbyterians, etal) focused on the idea that works (indulgences, for example) could not save your soul. We can’t buy a stairway to heaven (sorry) – it is given to us by God’s grace. Like so many things in life, this argument came out of concern about money – taxation, in a way – and was part of a larger movement of the Spirit. Today, though, I want to consider what it means to be a Christian (I know – easy!).

Many Christians point to the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 3. In this section, which gets kind of convoluted, Paul is arguing about circumcision. Briefly, here is my take on that: there were two reasons Paul, in my opinion, fought against circumcision of new Christians. First, it was a hard sell – how popular do you think that act would be with grown men? Second, it excluded women – it would make salvation an act of inequality. Paul argues that faith comes before outward acts of faithfulness, so our good work, if they are only about checking off a box, is meaningless. He goes on to argue that no person is without sin – no person is perfect – so the only thing that really saves us is the grace of God. Grace is essential – it is receiving a gift we don’t deserve or earn – yet God gives it to us anyway, regardless of how we lived before. Here is the rub, though. To truly embrace that gift, we have to repent.

Repentance is a work that we alone can do. Only we can ask for forgiveness – only we can make things right. In addiction recovery, this is one of the most important steps – make things right with those you have harmed. So, it isn’t just faith or God’s grace that saves us – it is the works that come out of those experiences. This is what Jesus preached – if you don’t produce good fruits, you are cut down. If you don’t feed or house or clothe or visit in prison, you end up in Hell. The Book of James – kind of the antidote to Grace Alone – says over and over that we cannot be faithful without Good Works. These Works don’t have to earn us a Nobel Peace Prize – all they have to do is reach out to help someone. Jesus told His disciples that if someone gave them a cold cup of water because they followed Him, they would receive their reward. Small, random acts of kindness can change a life, or at least, a day, into something beautiful. We never know how we can change someone’s perspective with our love – and we certainly can’t make their day any worse by doing these acts of kindness!

Abraham (my least favorite person in the Bible) was often used by Biblical writers as an example of being faithful before he received circumcision. Most of the people in the Gospels who were healed, or given grace and forgiven, hadn’t been baptized, or even accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Grace is spread like seeds among the good soil, the thorns, the path, and the rocks; sometimes it takes root, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether our good works change the world doesn’t matter – the faithful approach to being believers is to give without expecting anything in return. Forgive without the expectation of repentance. House and feed and clothe without any expectation of being thanked. It isn’t about what we get from those we help – it’s about what we give. Every act of generosity and love is inspired by the Holy Spirit and acceptable to God. That is why, through faith, we do work. Go and do – for God’s sake, for the sake of others – but not for your own.

Prayer – God, breathe into us Your Spirit, so that our lives may be more generous than we can imagine. Help us to make the world better for Your sake. Amen.

Today’s art is “Helping a Wounded Ally,” Harry Everett Townsend, charcoal on paper, 1918, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.