Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Labors of Faith

Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 18, Preached on Sunday, September 6, 2009.

Labor Day is all about work so explain to me why we celebrate it by not working. Today we focus not the many complaints and frustrations which the job may provide but the privilege of work and labor. We give thanks for the usefulness of our efforts, for the gifts applied in labor which we call vocation, and for the rewards which this labor earns. For those of you who do not think labor is a privilege or a gift to get up and go to work, talk to some one who is unemployed or underemployed. But this is not a stewardship sermon and we are going to focus on another kind of work. As good as it is that God has given us the gift and opportunity of work, today the work that we are talking about is the good work that is born of faith, the labor that produces good works that are the fruit of this faith, that are in keeping with this faith, and that come because we are connected and rooted in Jesus Christ.

James speaks bluntly to us: Faith without works is dead! Period! As Lutherans we are far more accustomed to the justification language of Scripture than to James. We love those sermons which tell us that salvation is God’s work, not ours, and that nothing we can do can earn us forgiveness, life and salvation. We can go home from church secured in the knowledge that we don’t hafta do nothin – God has done it all from daily bread to the bread of heaven. Well, yes and no. The work that justifies us before God, that earns forgiveness for our sins, that makes us God’s own and declares us righteous – that has been done for us and we cannot add anything to it no matter how hard we work. But the works that flow from this renewed heart and life, these belong to us. Works that flow spontaneously and with prompting from those whom God has redeemed, in whom His Spirit works, and who know Him by faith.

James is speaking here to people just like us – people who are so comfortable with what God has done that they forget the purpose of justification is sanctification – what Jesus did was to make it possible for us to do what God desires. Faith and good works are not in antithesis here but one begets another. Faith without works is dead. In other words, faith without works is an anomaly – something that should not exist at all. For faith born of the Holy Spirit always produces fruit and this fruit is the good works that prove faith and glorify God. We don’t need a to do list or a committee to make these good works happen – they happen under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who has transformed our hearts into willing spirits.

Now we make it clear from the get go that these good works are not done to earn God’s favor or merit salvation or pay for His grace. Not at all... Like the proverbial come back, if you have to ask the price, you don’t have enough money... we cannot afford the cost of our redemption. Only Jesus can afford its price and it cost Him His life poured out for the life of the world. So whatever good works we do are not for reward or to earn God’s gracious gifts – these are His alone to give as a gift which cannot be bought. Nor are these good works done for God’s notice. We do not do them so that we look good in His eyes. No, that is not the reason we do these good works, either. We do them because it is what we do as His people.

We do them because it is our nature to do them. Once we could not do them but now God has planted us in His Kingdom, given us the new birth of water and the Word, placed His Spirit in us and now, our new nature that lives in Christ, is able to do what God bids us do in His name. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and through the grace of this new life which God has given to us in Christ, good works simply flow from us as the sign or mark that Christ lives in us, that we are people of faith, that grace has found its home in our hearts, and that we get what God has done for us in Christ. Good works are the fruit of faith just like a plant and its fruit are the result of a seed planted and tended. Faith is the seed, grace is the power, and good works are the fruit.

James has heard those who say “look at me and my faith.” Show me your faith, says James, and I will show you my works. This is not at odds with Jesus but perfectly consistent with our Lord. The two are not at odds with each other. They go together. These things belong together not because we think they go together – faith begets good works just as the Spirit begets faith. Where faith labors, good works are produced. It is the fruit of the Spirit at work within us. We do not consciously plan them but they flow from within us, the fruit of the Spirit and the mark of Christ living within us.

We do not look at the poor to think whose responsibility they are, we love them and serve them because He who was rich became poor for our sakes. We do not look upon the wounded to wonder what anyone can do, we embrace their hurts as our own – just as God was wounded in Christ for our healing. Like James reminds us, we cannot just send these folks away saying “Peace be with you,” we are driven and compelled by the love of Christ to address them as God addressed us and extend His love to those in need. We are mirrors then of God’s love and compassion toward us – but the reflection is aimed not at heaven but at those around us who are wounded, hurting, hungry, poor, and in need.

Where God’s sees good works, He will find faith laboring away under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Good works can’t exist apart from faith; faith begets good works. This is not so hard for us to understand. Neither excludes the other but they come in order – faith first and then the works that attest to that faith alive and at work within the heart, mind, and body of the individual Christian. It is never the other way around. Faith is never the fruit of good works but good works always the fruit of faith. It is not because we are busy that we produce good works but because Christ lives in us and the Spirit is at work within us. Where these two things happen, good works happen.

But you and I are not the best gauge of good works. We look into the mirror of our souls and often are frustrated because we do not see what we want to see. We want to see progress in holiness, we want to see improvement in life, we want to see distinct and radical change in life. Good works are not progress in holiness nor are they the mark of an improved life. Good works are the fruit of faith and the work of the Spirit who plants Christ in us that we may live in Him, as branches to the vine, that produce the fruit the vine makes possible. Good works flow simply and yet by God’s design from our encounter with grace, from the gift of the Spirit, and from the heart that believes the Gospel.

When Jesus speaks of the faithful being surprised by their good works in Matthew 25, this tells us something about good works. We do not focus on the works but on the people who are in need and we are not aware of our good works either. We are surprised that God has noticed them for we are only doing our duty – love’s duty. If it were otherwise, we would build up a false pride within us that would work against the purposes of God and His kingdom. We are surprised by what God sees in us because we do not see them clearly ourselves. We do not them not to feel good about ourselves or to impress God or neighbor – we do them because these we were created and redeemed to us as the Spirit’s work in us.

God does not need our good works – He does not need anything we do. But the world does. God displays His kingdom to the world through these good works that we do not see – but God and the world see. God uses these works to show forth His grace and power to the world. Good works prove that faith is real and not an illusion, that love works and is not just a word or a feeling. James is not at odds with Paul but speaking to a different situation. Paul corrects the lie that says we can buy God’s favor and James corrects the lie that says God has done it all so we are free to do absolutely nothing in response to what He has done.

So this Labor Day weekend, we consider not the work that produces a paycheck, but the works that display our faith to the world, that address the world with Christ’s love and truth, and that reflect back to Him what He has done for us. Good works are the lights we raise to extend the Light of Christ, to show forth the surprise of His grace, and to extend the reach of His love and mercy. From these good works, we Christians take no holidays or time off. The call to let Christ live in us and through us, to let the Spirit work in us and through us, this is the fruit of our justification by grace, the purpose for which we were created and then redeemed. We do these works of love because God has taught our hearts and they flow naturally from us, as the fruit of faith and the work of the Spirit living within us. In this way faith and life are connected... this is the privilege of faith... that we might do the good works that God has set us free to do... for His glory alone. Amen


Stephen said...

Pastor Peters, Thank you. I wonder if you can explain further, "We want to see progress in holiness, we want to see improvement in life... Good works are not progress in holiness nor are they the mark of an improved life." Do you mean that progress in holiness is not something we can pursue? Or is that in ourselves we will always be sinners, thus the point is not to improve ourselves but to let Christ live in us?

Pastor Peters said...

Progress in holiness is for God to see and judge; we do not see ourselves well through the lens of holiness or improvement. What I was distinguishing are the good works that flow from every faith (weak, young, mature, strong) and the progress in holiness and improvement that are known to God and the result of His life at work in us over time and generally through peril, trouble, and trial (St. Peter's tested by fire)... Others may glimpse this in us and God sees accurately but we are poor gauges of our piety and life. In addition to this, progress in holiness and improvement in life are not goals we set for ourselves. They are the results of a life lived in Christ and the fruits of living Christ's righteousness and not the pursuit of our own righteousness. We aim to live in Christ, faithfully, and the result is that God works in us holiness and goodness -- one that is generally invisible to us but clearly apparent to Him... If this helps...

Stephen said...

Pr Peters, Many thanks, this is helpful. So our job is to look to Christ in faith and live in him, doing those works which are placed in our path, and not worry overmuch about progress in holiness - which we can certainly entrust to God. At first I thought you meant that the concept of improvement was suspect - I have heard Lutheran accounts saying as much, on the grounds that the righteousness we have in Christ is already complete - but I don't think you are saying that.