Archive for September 2017

Works Versus Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Works Versus Faith? You're Asking the Wrong Question
Which is more important – works or faith? Christian leaders and theologians have been fighting over this question since the beginning of the church.

Even in the pages of the New Testament, you find an intense conversation about the role of faith versus works. The Book of James seems to argue for the supremacy of works as the path to being in right relationship with God. Paul in his epistle to the Romans makes a strong case that faith, not works, is the foundation of life with God.

Why would the apostles hold such diverse views of what it means to live in faith? How could the early church lift up writings that seem to contradict themselves on this subject? Which is the true path to God – works or faith?

There must be something deeper going on here. Contrary to the opinion of some skeptics, the Bible is not riddled with contradictions. Not when it comes to substantive matters of faith and morals. However, it can often seem that way at first glance, because the witness of scripture is rich with paradox.

The core paradox of the Christian faith is that God is at once utterly transcendent and overwhelmingly powerful, yet he took on the form of a slave, suffering shame, agony, and death. The eternal Word of God, through whom the world was created, became a weak and helpless baby, and was nailed to a cross by sinful men. These two truths, as outrageously contradictory as they seem, are at the heart of the gospel.

These things don’t make rational sense. It’s the kind of truth I have to accept in order to understand. This kind of truth requires humility and submission to God. To receive it, I’m forced to abandon my own defenses and rational arguments. I’m forced to recognize that God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts.

All this makes me wonder if the apparent contradiction between works and faith might be a similar divine paradox. What if faith without works really is dead, and good works without faith are hollow and sterile? Alternatively, could it be that neither “faith” (in the sense of right belief) nor good works (in the sense of right action) are sufficient for life in the kingdom?

Can someone to believe all the right things and do all the right actions, and still be lost? On the other hand, what if someone believes all sorts of wrong things and acts wrongly on a regular basis, but still finds themself walking in the way of Jesus?

In my experience, this happens. All the time.

Rather than pitting faith against works, it may be better to think of them as two sides of the same coin. Both works and faith point to something deeper.

I think that the story that best illustrates the holy center that animates both works and faith is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee held all the right beliefs. He also did good works – even tithing a tenth of his income. But he lacked all humility, all real trust in God. He thought that through his beliefs and his works that he had God figured out.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knew that he had neither works nor faith. His job was rooted in extortion and collaboration with foreign occupiers. His faith was limited to coming to the Temple and asking God for mercy, knowing that he didn’t measure up in any way.

Yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God, not the pious Pharisee. The tax collector had something that the Pharisee, with all his orthodox beliefs and righteous actions, did not. The tax collector demonstrated sincerity of intention. Despite his lack of works or faith, his heart was aligned towards God. He wanted to know God, to draw closer to him. He longed for God’s mercy, and was acutely aware of his need for God.

God readily moves into this broken space of humility. When we become aware of our need for grace and mercy, the Spirit intervenes. Our lives are filled with energy for good works. Our hearts are opened to faith. Sincerity of intention before God opens up the possibility of both faith and works. Through our living relationship with God, we discover the way of Jesus.

This is a liberating realization for me, because it means that I don’t have to fret about belief or actions. Instead, I can focus on opening my life to God and seeking him with sincerity and a willingness to change. He will give me faith I need, and he will direct me in all good works.

What is your experience of faith, works, and the role that God plays in both? Has God given you the gift of faith? Has he directed you to do right actions? Have faith or works seemed more important to you at one point in your life or another? What have you found to be the source of them both?

Related Posts:

How Can I Ever Measure Up?

Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?
Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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Is Your “Justice” Just Revenge?

Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?

Is Your "Justice" Really Just Revenge?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15 & Romans 12:9-21 & Matthew 16:21-28. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

They say that to achieve mastery in something, you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. You’d think that after spending more than a decade learning about God, going to seminary, doing ministry out in the world, and trying really hard to follow Jesus – you’d think after all that, I’d have more than 10,000 hours of practice put in. You’d think I’d be good at this by now.

But for me, the process of discipleship, of becoming a follower of Jesus, has been all backwards from what I expected it would be. As funny as it sounds, I think that I peaked, as a Christian, a few months after I decided that I could be one. In a way, it’s all been downhill from there.

When I first became a Christian, I was super excited about everything. I thought that my generation was going to change the world. I was sure that my ministry was going to be really impactful and important. I felt the power of God in my life, and I assumed that this meant that I was on the right path. I didn’t really take into account the stories I was reading in the Bible about how God often shows up in the most desperate of times, when things are at their worst.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve been going through a process of continually realizing that I’m way less awesome than I thought. The further I get down this path, the more I realize that not only is the world not the way I’d like it to be; I myself am not in the condition that God created me for. I’ve got anger issues. I’ve got selfishness issues. I’ve got all kinds of problems with my character and my behavior. And every time I see those traits in others, it’s a reminder that they’re present in me, too.

It’s amazing how much is hidden from us. It’s like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, but much harder to notice the log that’s stuck in my own eye! This is one of the most powerful things that the Holy Spirit can do for us. She exposes our selves to us. She shines light in the dark places where we don’t want to look. All those selfish, hateful, fearful tendencies that we hide beneath layers of excuses, justifications, and imaginary virtue. The Spirit has the power to cut right through that. If we’ll let her.

I knew, during my first week at seminary, that there were deep, dark places of my soul that I wasn’t even ready to look at yet. The Spirit was revealing them one piece at a time, at a pace I could handle. Years later, I know that this is still true. So much of my psyche – my subconscious will and motivations – lies like an iceberg beneath the surface.

I’ve got all sorts of hidden ice inside me that gets in the way of following Jesus. Of being fully human. Of completely giving myself over to God and allowing him to guide my life. One of the biggest of these submerged blockages is my instinctive need for vengeance.

I like to call it “justice.” That’s how I’ve been able to carry this iceberg around for so long. I take my need for vengeance – which God denies me – and name it “justice” – which God demands of me. As if a change of vocabulary could sanctify my thirst for retribution.

This is an old human problem. Ancient. Every human culture that I’m aware of has established a way for people to deal with the need for violent retribution against others. In most times and cultures, this has taken the form of ritual sacrifice, often of animals – sometimes of people. That’s a big reason we still have the death penalty in the United States. It’s why so many Americans got very excited when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. Deep down, we have this primal need for blood.

For us as followers of Jesus, we have access to blood. The blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross, has the power to take away the sins of the world. This isn’t some esoteric religious jargon. It’s practical and actionable truth. Without Jesus, without his sacrifice for us, we are trapped in the cycle of violence. The only justice we know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for life. Our spiritual ancestors often mitigated this by sacrificing animals instead of people, but these rituals could never remove our visceral human need for something that we like to call “justice,” but which is more properly called vengeance.

The God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, is a God who says, “Vengeance is mine!” These are the words from the book of Deuteronomy that Paul references in Romans 12, which we heard this morning. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul repeats Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He reminds us that the way of Jesus is to feed our enemies when they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. As followers of the risen Lord Jesus, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is far easier said than done. I know it is for me. I’m still carrying around this deep, hidden iceberg of fear and vengefulness inside me. It’s hard for me to trust in God’s power when there are people who threaten me, threaten my ideals, threaten the people I love. I want to protect myself and the ones I love. I want to punish the evildoers.

All this reminds me of a scene from Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean has recently been released from prison. He’s hungry, he’s desperate. He’s cut off from all human society. And in the midst of his despair, he is taken in by a local bishop, who feeds him and gives him a place to stay for the night.

And how does Jean Valjean repay the bishop? By acting like an animal. By stealing all of his silver and running off into the darkness of night.

But with all that clanky silverware, Valjean is a pretty obvious target for the police. They bring him back to the bishop in shackles the next morning. Jean Valjean has told them that the bishop gave him the silver, which they know is a lie. But to their shock, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story. And he takes it a step further: He insists that Jean Valjean has forgotten the silver candlesticks, and insists that he take them with him. Valjean is released, a free man with a bag full of silver.

After the police have left, the bishop says to Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

There’s this supernatural, unexplainable love of God pouring out of the bishop. Like his master, our Lord Jesus, the bishop is willing to be wronged rather than wrong another. He blesses those who persecute him. He seeks after the good of his enemies. He sees the thief as a brother who is not beyond the love of God, whose life can be redeemed through the way of the cross.

The bishop has “done the work.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishop has spent decades wrestling with the part of himself that demands vengeance. Now, as a true follower of Jesus, he is able to accept the passion and the blood that frees him. God has released him from any need to violently balance the scales. Trusting the Spirit, he has the strength to leave justice in God’s hands. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he has become a loving imitator of the Master. Where once there was hunger for retribution, the bishop is filled with compassion and concern for a man who abused his hospitality and robbed him.

Wow. Awesome story. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were like that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t want to be presumptuous. Maybe there are some folks here who are at the “some dude just robbed me so I told the police I gave him the stuff” level of holiness. But I’m not. Apart from a lightning bolt-level intervention by the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine myself doing what the bishop did. That big iceberg of vengeance inside me bristles at the thought!

God is calling me to be more like the bishop, more like Jesus. But I’m also realistic about the fact that this is a really hard road to go down. It was for Jesus’ original disciples, too. In our gospel reading this morning, we heard about how Peter reacted when he heard Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Peter took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Come on, Rabbi. What’s this crazy talk? We’re not following someone who’s about to die. You’re going to win! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, the king of Israel! You’re gonna rule the world, and we’re coming with you!”

Now, if you look at the Scripture in context, just a few minutes before this, Jesus was praising Peter. In fact, it was just before this moment that Jesus called Simon Peter “Peter” for the first time. Peter means “rock” – as in, “upon this rock I will build my church.”

So imagine how shocked Simon must have been when Jesus turned around and let loose on him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s quite a turnaround, from hero to zero in about thirty seconds!

Jesus was inviting Peter to go much deeper, to embrace the real meaning of Messiahship. The disciples were expecting Rambo. They were expecting a hero of violence to bring about the vengeance that they thirsted for. They believed in a God who punched Romans and made it go viral on Twitter. It was hard for them to hear that Jesus really meant all this stuff about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. The iceberg of darkness, vengeance, and fear cried out within them. Their hearts rejected the way of the cross that Jesus insisted he must go down.

Two thousand years later, not much has changed. I want to consider myself a follower of Jesus, but just like Peter in our reading today, I’m still a long way from truly accepting the way of the cross. Loving my enemies is a heavy lift, especially when they’re real enemies who want to harm me or the people I love.

In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” There are no secrets anymore between us and God. Anything we want to know, all we have to do is ask. We know that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of yielded love and gospel nonviolence. The dark icebergs that dwell within us are still there, but Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to illumine us, to melt our hearts, and empower us to walk in the way of compassion and love with him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as holy as the bishop from Les Miserables. I’m grateful that I don’t have to earn this kind of love. Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples based on our performance. He calls us first in our brokenness, violence, and sin. And then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God begins the work of transforming our hearts.

God already knows the full depth and breadth of that iceberg within. He’s not scared to look at it, and he won’t turn away from us. The question is, are you and I willing to see what he sees? Will we let God shine his light on us, so that we can recognize that darkness that so desperately needs a victim, a sacrifice, a violent resolution to our trauma?

Through the gentle, persistent, and powerful leading of the Spirit, we can become people of the cross. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, we can learn to accept Jesus’ sacrifice as the only justice we’ll ever need. Through his cross, we can gain the strength and confidence to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Through his sweet spirit, we can embrace a love so powerful that we are compelled to work for true justice in the world, which is the healing and restoration of each person – a society that reflects that love, justice, and priorities of Jesus.

Related Posts:

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies

It’s Hard to Love When They’re Trying to Hurt You