Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Faith and Works

This week's scriptures are Matthew 22:34-46 and James 2:14-26.

Among many christians the tension between "faith" and "works" creates significant problems.

On the one hand, we believe that faith is what saves us; faith being the trust that God is going to do what God has promised. That promise is captured in what has become my favorite benediction (those of you who are at church on Sundays will spot it immediately) "go in the knowledge that in the goodness of God we were born, by the watchfulness of God we are kept all the day long, and in the love and mercy of God we are all being redeemed and made whole." God is about the process of drawing us all into the Great Celebration, the party to which we are all invited and all are welcome.

On the other hand, we hear calls to justice, care for the poor, and the equating of our response to those who are 'hungy, naked, homeless, sick and in prison' as being a response to Christ Himself.

I want to do something that I don't usually do: I want to throw a really big word out here. It's a word that I don't use, but it's the only one that I can find that helps with the issue at hand. The word is "antinomy." According to Webster's it is an 'apparent contradiction between to valid principles or conclusions that seem equally necessary and reasonable.' This 'apparent contradiction' has many christians who believe in "faith alone" struggling with the role of works; and others wrestling with how their view of behavior and free will knocks heads with their faith in salvation as an act of God's Grace.

Do I have an answer? No, not if you mean, by an answer some absolute final word on this tension. I, personally, live in that tension on a daily basis. I believe in salvation as the result of God's Grace which we accept through faith. I also encounter behaviors which are truly acts of horror. Not to mention my own sins which, to quote David, "are ever before me."

But I do have a response to this 'antinomy' that lets me sleep at night and do the work that I do as a pastor and a therapist.

I believe, first of all that God is 'sovereign.' By that I mean that 1) God will have the final word; 2) that God understands the twists and turns of our lives...knows the places that pain and fear take us.

Which leads to my belief that God is compassionate. This understanding, loving God is at work (Revelation tells us) from the foundation of the world to redeem all of creation. And since God is sovereign, I have to believe that God is-finally, in the end-going to bring all of creation home.

In the meantime, (and I frankly don't know how long "meantime" is) I believe that I can refuse to participate in all, or part of, the Great Celebration that God began at the foundation of the world, made manifest in the incarnation of God's Self in Christ Jesus, and calls us to on a daily basis. I can refuse to come to the party because I don't like the other people there....and God's not going to re-write God's party list just to suit me. I can block myself from parts of the Celebration by cutting myself off from the tasks that living as a 'family member' in this New World calls me to. It's hard for me to "inherit the kingdom" as Paul puts it...enjoy all the benefits of being in God's family....if I'm treating my brothers and sisters like garbage. Because it is in these very relationships that Christ comes to us in the here-and-now.

A final thought. These acts of relationship: love, mercy, care, openness, understanding, patience, etc. They are responses of love and joy to the gift that I recognize in my own invitation to the party...my own salvation. They are demands of love, not of law.

My salvation does not (nor does yours) depend on my behavior. I am not so powerful that I can finally shut down the power of God's love and longing for me. Neither are you. But I can make right now a living hell by my refusal to join the party, or participate in the celebration. And my refusal has consequences in the lives of others as well.

A lot of my counseling work, both as a pastor and a psychotherapist, is helping people remove the barriers to coming to the party. Sometimes those barriers are extreme guilt that blocks faith that God could really want them at the party. Sometimes it is pain so deep that the heart's ability to trust has been crushed. And sometimes it is behaviors which, by their very nature, erect a wall between the individual and God in their cruelty and victimization of Christ as He comes to them in other human beings.

I take sin very seriously. But I take God's Grace even more seriously.

This is not a "final answer." It is, for me, an "answer in process." Maybe it will trigger some thoughts for you. Maybe it will give you some comfort. Maybe you will totally disagree with me.

Maybe on Sunday you'll let me know what you think. I hope to see you then.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful thoughts and message, Stephen! Sadly, I did not read the blog before Sunday (school and all that) but I wished I had. It would have been the most sensible thing I had done all week (and most sensible thing I have read all week, too).

I would only add something on a much more basic, epistemological level that I think helps perpetuate this disagreement (?) or debate between faith and works. I'm coming to think that much of what we do is about creating difference, and the necessity of it (to a certain extent in our larger culture) in hashing out our individual identity. Because of this, we like binaries - either/or situations, clear definitions. This kind of thinking if very much connected to the Enlightenment (i.e. Western) thinking. I just know how much more comfortable I feel when I know where I stand with someone, or can point and say, "That is a red car," "That is my book," or "That is wrong." We like clarity and routine, right? How do we determine thing things though? Through difference-making (or distinction, if you like).

Anyway, just some random theoretical semi-nonsense here.

Sermon uploaded Nov. 5.