I Believe in Good Works
I’m coming off of five weeks preaching in the Letter of James; Martin Luther’s so called Epistle of Straw. And I’ll admit there are plenty of problematic pieces to James’ letter. But I like problematic pieces… if we avoid everything problematic than we are left with:
1) A very small canon within a canon (scriptures we actually read as having authority)
2) Something of a Mr. Potato head God who we get to dress up as we see fit.
So I dove into James head first to swim around a bit in the straw… and I have to say I liked it. I’m kind of a James guy in fact. Oh I agree he is a too incendiary, shame is far too high on his list of rhetorical devices, and his world view is a far too polarized for my liking, but none of those prevented us from having great conversations. And what they helped me to realize is that I’m really kind of into the whole “works” thing.
I think most people want to avoid it because James’ rhetoric often comes close to espousing a theology of works righteousness that says we are saved by our works (or someone else’s) and not by grace alone. (And to be honest there a couple places where James flat out goes there… like his closing thoughts on prayer in James 5.) And yet… I think our fear drives us away from an extremely important message: that our works are important… maybe even essential. (The whole prophetic tradition is based, after all, on the idea of encouraging us to do what God created us to do… works.) And why is the whole notion of good works even scary? I mean why do we avoid a message that it’s good to do good works?
First off all let me lay one notion to bed right now (at least for myself). I’m not about to think I’m God. I’m not even close to falling prey to thinking I’m saving myself or anyone else for that matter. Regardless of what James may or may not be prone to, I do not believe I’m securing salvation. I’m not in the salvation business. The work and knowledge of salvation is beyond me. I am, maybe, into what Paul calls, “working out my (your) salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) And yes that text goes on to say that it is God at work in me…. But work is a part of it whether we like it or not.
Secondly, whatever we may say in the name of theology the Bible is absolutely FILLED with declarations by God, God’s prophets, and Jesus with the need for us to make choices – and good ones at that. And those choices are usually about action and not thoughts. Choose today who you will serve… pick up your cross and follow me… do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.
Choices that lead to actions… works. Furthermore throughout the Bible there is an element of court room drama. We are called to be witnesses – literally those who testify to the truth. And the nature of good witness is that our actions speak louder than words… and this gets me to the heart of why I’m convicted we all need a bit more of James. Because right now there is a lot of conversation about the fact that a lot of Christians are a lot better at talking about Christianity than we are at living it. (That’s not new, not new for me to say it today nor really new to our current state of affairs. That critique has been around for a very long time.)
Somewhere along the line we got content that we could behave in a certain way outside of church so long as we worshipped on Sunday and said all the right things. Somewhere along the line we divided our lives into our creedal beliefs and our actions/works in the world. And far too often they don’t measure up. And when I say that let me be clear: I’m not worried about the people who are trying to make them measure up and are struggling to do so, God knows and so do you – I fall short all the time. I’m okay with that. What I’m not really okay with, and don’t believe any of us should be, is the willful ignorance that we aren’t even trying to live coherently with our stated beliefs, that we aren’t even connecting the dots. (And in case that sounded a bit righteous on my part let me be honest I fall into this category too. I’m grateful for many good friends who continue to help me see my blind spots by the way they live their lives. Their good works are helping me build greater perspective – thank you for being you… and more importantly for visibly living your beliefs as a constant reminder to me.)
I have a list of examples… I’m sure you can think up a whole list too so I’m don’t think I need to spend any time with that here. But the one clear message I think we all really could use to spend time with is that we cannot divorce our actions from our beliefs or vice versa. This is (regardless of the moments he transgress into full on work-righteousness) what I hear James really driving home to us. What we really believe is communicated through what we do in the world whether we consciously think those things or not. If we are recipients of grace and love and we believe in that, and believe in a God who is love, then our actions need to preach it. But when our actions preach a different message – than at the heart of our lives regardless of what we wish to say of ourselves, we actually don’t believe in grace and love.*
An essential part of our life together, our discipleship of each other, needs to be holding each other accountable to living in the way of Jesus Christ. Not “right thought.” But making sure our lives serve as our Affirmation of Faith… and the creeds and confession we use liturgically simply put words to a reality we are already living. When someone says to us, “What do you believe?” Our answer should be, “What do you see happening around us?” (I’ve heard that before now that I think of it… it was Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples on whether or not he was the “one to come”.)
Salvation. I’m not really interested in it – at least in an eternal sense (whatever that is I figure it will take care of itself and it’s clearly a God-thing and not a me-thing). I am, however, interested in an imminent and tangible sense of it, the sense in which it’s better understood as healing and wholeness. And in that sense it is a work in progress. It is something we cannot simply receive but have to work at, in our life and the life of the world. Our lives cause ripples in creation, and so much the better when those ripples are good news to those who encounter them. So thanks be to God for ripples of love… for working out salvation with a tad bit of fear and big dose of trembling… and for good works. Amen.
*For more thoughts on what our lives preach as opposed to the truth we claim to preach go spend some time with the books and videos and blog posts of Peter Rollins who can express that better than I can and has greatly aided my thought here, though Kierkegaard blazed those trails in my mind long ago. With regard to Peter Rollins if you want some guidance I can point you to some of my favorite examples of his work… though if you want to really get provoked along these lines just start here: http://peterrollins.net/?p=2864.)