29 July 2018

Power in Weakness


John 10:11-18 and 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The moralist and historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote these words in a letter to his friend, Bishop Mandel Creighton (1843-1901), professor of church history at Cambridge, in 1887. Lord Acton was not the first to say something like this. In a speech to the House of Lords in 1770, William Pitt (1708-1778) the Elder (who later become Prime Minister), said, “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds that possess it.” Both quotes assume that inherent to power, itself, is something that tends toward abuse and corruption. We often hold negative associations of power, as something bad (or that can quickly go bad).  There’s considerable suspicion of anyone with power, or too much power, or people who become tyrannical or authoritarian in their use of power.  We are distrustful of powerful corporations and institutions, governments, and even churches—often for good reasons.  It’s been said that the church is called “to speak truth to power in love,” which is a noble calling.  Yet, even in this mantra we hear the concern that power has a way of speaking untruth or misstating the truth or obscuring the truth or avoiding the truth altogether.

Power doesn’t have to be bad.  A lot of good has been done and can be done in the world through the effective use of power, when power is pressed in service to something other than power itself.  In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Professor Dumbledore says, “It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”[1]  Unfortunately, there are too many people in power these days who are only there because they sought it; all they want is power and more power.

Power is a potent elixir. It’s like a drug. Power in the hands of sinful, broken, fearful women and men can be catastrophic.  That’s why human nature, being what it is—John Calvin (1509-1564) was right about human depravity—it’s important to put a check on people in power.  Our Presbyterian polity is built on a system of checks and balances, so that power is shared by congregation, session, minister, and presbytery.  Our own Federal government borrowed the concept of checks and balances from us, from Presbyterians.  The Founders were nervous about absolute power being invested in one person or one branch of government.  They weren’t na├»ve.  They knew what could happen if any branch assumed too much authority or if one branch, in the desire to gain more power and control, became authoritarian or tyrannical. 

So, what is Christian power? I was asked me to preach on this question as part of our summer sermon series. Yes, another easy question to tackle. Where does one start?

Unfortunately, Christianity has a built-in ambivalence toward power. Theologian Kathryn Tanner, who teaches at Yale University, notes that Christianity “oscillates between unequivocal hostility and ready complicity with the ‘powers that be.’”[2] The Bible gives witness to the supreme power and might of God, of Jesus’ authority over demonic forces. The Bible also tells of God’s divine mission for the world that culminated in the weakness and humiliation of the cross, which was God’s victory over the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12) through Christ’s magnificent defeat.

The first followers of Jesus were a tiny minority within Judaism, which was a tiny minority within the Roman Empire.  They had no power or influence or respect in Roman society. The Church eventually became very powerful. First, the Edict of Milan in AD 313 granted Christianity a legal status in the Empire. Some view AD 313 the year that marks the collapse and erosion of the Jesus movement, when Christianity was absorbed by the Empire and became an extension of imperial authority. Second, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in AD 380, under Emperor Theodosius I (347-395). In many respects, it’s been all downhill from then.

Brian McLaren reminds us, “Before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society.”  Christianity emerged and thrived on the margins of society, not at the center.  Then, as now, people on the margins have little power, they reside far from the center of authority and influence.  Maybe that’s why they hold a special place in the heart of God.  When the church became an arm of the state, all hell broke loose. Whenever church and state collude, it’s rarely good news for either the church or the state.  This is not to say that the church should have nothing to do with the state, it should—the gospel is political.  The gospel is always political, but never partisan.  The gospel has a political nature because it has something to say about power and how power is to be used for the sake of the common good.  When the Pope is also Emperor, when the King rules by divine right, when church and crown merge into one, when those in leadership, whether in Parliaments or Congresses, seek to establish theocracies or hope to form a “Christian” nation, it never ends well—as history has shown, time and again.

We see this seductive fantasy at work among our sisters and brothers on the Christian Right these days—and it’s important to remember that the Christian Right is still part of the body of Christ.  That said, the Christian Right in the United States is obsessed with having political power.  They want to control Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court, and turn the U.S. into a “Christian” nation—with their own definition of what it means to be Christian, of course.  They are also obsessed with strength, with being strong and appearing strong, because they are afraid to appear weak.  Among their fold, especially in their leaders, there’s a clear connection between their obsession with strength, and authoritarianism, and patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, which results in misogyny.

Take, for example, the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC.  While the breakfast invites a diverse group of Christians each year, there are strong ties with the Christian Right.  The breakfast was organized by a group called The Fellowship, back in 1935.  It’s founder Abraham Vereide (1886-1969) said that God told him that Christianity had been getting it wrong for nearly two thousand years by focusing on the down and out.  God wanted him to build a movement for the “up and out,” and for “key men” with power to shape whole societies for Jesus.[3]

There have been excellent articles written over the past two weeks exploring the Christian Right’s long-fascination with Vladimir Putin and Russia and even Russian Orthodoxy. There’s a reason why Maria Butina, the Russian spy recently indicted, was at the National Prayer Breakfast last year. The Christian Right respects Putin’s strength, his use of power, they also like his anti-GLBTQ+ agenda.  They view Putin and the Orthodox Church as defenders of “Christian civilization” against a secular, decadent West.[4]

In 1888, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote a scathing polemic against Christianity, titled The Anti-Christ. Son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche saw the nineteenth century expression of Christianity as the source of all that was wrong in the world. He asked, “What is good?­­­—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?­­­­—All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? –The feeling that power increases…Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency, … The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philosophy….  What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak—Christianity.”[5]  All this from a man who saw actively caring for the weak in society as a weakness, a weakness that had to be overcome.  The weak had to be removed from society. Is it any wonder that Nietzsche was suspicious of democracies and became the poster-child, ironically, for middle-class Protestant Germans that elected Adolf Hitler to power in the 1920s and 1930s?[6]

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30).  If we strip away the patina of Christianity that has accumulated over millennia, all the tarnish and corrosion of centuries, we find in the New Testament an altogether different view of things.  We find Paul struggling (again) with the stubborn Corinthians who accused him of boasting and thus questioning his authority. He didn’t respond by reasserting his position or authority. Instead, being faithful to his conscience he offered a counter-intuitive argument. If charged with having a boastful spirit, let the judge declare him guilty; guilty, not for boasting of his strengths, but of his weaknesses.

And, then we are given a window into something that happened in his past.  Paul had some kind of “thorn in the flesh” as he put it, that pinched and frustrated him.  We’re not sure what it was.  Three times he asked the Lord to remove it. Each time he heard back, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).  We’re told that Paul eventually became content with this weakness, along with other hardships, because he discovered that “whenever I am weak, I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). This sounds so irrational, so counter-intuitive. It’s not the way the world works.  Instead, we hear that God’s grace is sufficient, which means that everything else can be insufficient and still be okay. Power is made perfect in weakness, which means that God’s display of power is known most profoundly not in expressions of brute force or strength but in those moments when we acknowledge our weakness, our frailty, our fragility. Paul takes this approach, not because strength is inherently bad (it’s not), and not because he’s celebrating weakness, but because he knows that when we think our strength and individual resources are sufficient there’s no perceived need for God’s grace. If we rely upon our strength, we effectively move God out of the picture. When we are counting on our own resources and wisdom, then we push God to the side. Why does Paul boast in his weakness?  He says, “So that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul discovered God’s power perfected in weakness in Christ, who was put to death by the powers of the world. Power—God’s power—was displayed in a unique and decisive way through Jesus’ suffering on the cross, through his weakness.  In love, God chooses to reside in the weak, in the fragility of a human life, in our moments of weakness.  Christ takes up residence when Paul is weak. Weakness is the place where Christ’s power is manifest.  Pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), writing from a Nazi prison, was even bold to suggest that “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”[7] This is a different kind of power, this is Christian power, which looks ineffective and weak from the perspective of the world, yet God chooses to love the world this way, in and through our weaknesses, in those moments when we have lost our strength, when we’ve been defeated by the powers, even to the point of death.

This understanding of weakness and strength has never been well received by Christians or the Church, as we know, particularly when the Church gets enticed by political, economic, and cultural power. The Church wants to be “strong,” we want to have influence, power, authority, we want to be big and influential.  There was a time when the Monday New York Times reviewed what was preached from the prominent pulpits in Manhattan each Sunday. Those days are long gone.  Still, we want to be liked, and in our long history we’ve had plenty of low moments when the Church sold its soul for the sake of being “popular.”  Notice how our churches are packed on Easter, celebrating the triumphant glory and power of the resurrection; for the most part, they are empty on Good Friday, the day of defeat, when the powerlessness of God is on full display.  We prefer a theology of glory, a theologia gloriae, instead of a theologia crucis, as Martin Luther (1483-1546) called it, a theology of the cross. 

Weakness exuding strength remains at the heart of the Christian confession.  There’s no way around this. It’s a weakness we don’t eagerly embrace because we would rather replace weakness with strength; or hide our weakness behind a persona or mask of strength. Never let anyone see you weak. Many men grew up hearing this message, and plenty of boys and young men continue to hear this message.  Be strong.  But that’s not the Christian way; despising weakness is anti-Christ.

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep…. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (Jn. 10:15b, 18).  This is the proper use of power, this is good power.  Jesus chooses, in love, to lay down his life, chooses to give of himself, becoming weak, giving himself away, suffering for the sake of the other.  Kathryn Tanner suggests, the “shepherd’s power is good power…because it is completely devoted” to the good of the sheep.[8]  It’s a power of care for the well-being of God’s children.  Christian power, then, is motivated in love and serves the good of all.  Power, from a Christian perspective has a distinctive end or purpose: it’s always placed in service to the good, it’s place in service of love.  It seeks the well-being of all.  God’s power, good power can be strong, but it doesn’t have to hide in strength or superiority. In God’s freedom, God chooses to be strong through surrender, free to display power in weakness.  God’s power is love and love chooses to suffer on behalf of the one who is loved.  God’s use of power is for love, even when it chooses in love to suffer in order to save us.

When the thirteenth century German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg (c.1207 – c.1282/1292) began writing her book The Flowing Light of Divinity, she had a vision. She learned that God was helping her write her text, and as she wrote she discovered something about the powerlessness of God, whom she called her divine Lover.  Her Lover says, “Indeed, when two wrestle with each other, the weaker must lose.  I shall willingly be the weaker, though I am almighty.”[9]  God renounces the kind of power that impedes love.[10]  

Mechthild learns that it’s God’s powerlessness and God’s weakness that displays divinity—which is essentially what Jesus was trying to show us, and what Paul experienced, and what we, too, know in our hearts to be true.  Yes, it’s paradoxical.  At some level, it doesn’t make any sense.  Yet, we know in our heart of hearts, it’s the way of grace and healing and love.  

God renounces the kind of power that impedes love.  And if we bear the name of Christ—the same must be true for us.



Image:  Georges Rouault (1871-1958).
[1] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009), 718.
[2] Kathryn Tanner, “Power of Love,” in Joshua Daniel and Rick Elgendy, eds. Renegotiating Power, Theology, and Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 45.
[3] Jeff Sharlet, “Why the Christian Right has embraced Putin,” New York Post, July 21, 2018. 

[4] Jack Jenkins, “The emerging alliance between Putin andTrump’s God squad,” ThinkProgress, July 12, 2017; Katherine Stewart, “What Was Maria Butina Doing at the National Prayer Breakfast?The New York Times, July 18, 2018; Ruth Graham, “Mariia Butina’s Cozy Relationship With the Christian Right Makes Total Sense,” Slate, July 18, 2018 

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, R. J. Hollingdale, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1944), 114-115.
[6] Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power an the Downfall of the Weimar Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 101-107.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone Books, 1997).
[8] Tanner, 45ff.
[9] Mechthild of Magdeburg cited in Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 84.
[10] I’m grateful to Wendy Farley for the beautiful way she articulates this truth, 84.

22 July 2018

Faith vs. Works: A False Tension



Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-26

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Are we saved - justified, made righteous, accepted by God - through our faith or our works? This question came to a head during the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the other reformers stressed faith—Sole fide!/Faith Alone!in contrast to the apparent Roman Catholic emphasis on works (doing good deeds, cashing in the merits of the saints). It feels as if we're caught in a cage fight between Paul and James.  Paul, representing “faith,” and James, “works.”  Paul vs. James.  Faith vs. works.  Or, at least that’s how it’s been framed, especially since the Reformation.  Protestants claim that we are justified by faith.  Protestants claim that Roman Catholics believe we are justified by works, by good deeds, and the good works the saints.  Roman Catholic theology suggests that we are justified by faith and works.  But it’s complicated, and I really don’t want to relive the Reformation—and I don’t think you want to either.

But we need to spend a little time there.  When Martin Luther “rediscovered” the gospel in his reading of Romans 3, it transformed his life.  Up to that time he was living under the excruciating burden of trying to earn the favour of a demanding, judging God, working to atone for his sins, wrestle with his guilt, his doubt, the struggles of his life.  He was existentially challenged by the question—how can one stand justified before a just God? Luther said, “I hated the word ‘justice of God,’…the justice by which God punishes sinners and the unjust.”[1]  During a religious experience, in 1519, he came to see that we are justified by grace, freely given by God, which we receive through faith.  Paul wrote to the Christian community in Rome, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:23-24).  Justified by grace as a gift…effective through faith.  We hear this echoed in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).  Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel was more than an intellectual exercise.  It was the result of a profound psycho-theological experience that pierced his soul, offered release from the psychological demons that possessed and bound him, thus setting him free, “fired into the world,” as Luther said, “with a velocity not my own.”

It was because of Luther’s discovery of grace, and the new value that he placed on grace, which led him to be suspicious of any view that diluted or distorted its importance.  For many years of his life he suffered under the thought that he could only be justified in the eyes of a demanding God through doing good works, striving to do good, being good.  As we know, that’s a losing battle.  That’s why Luther was suspicious of the book of James.  Because James seems to convey a different message than Paul’s.  James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:23-24).  Luther didn’t like the book of James.  He wanted it excised from the New Testament.  Luther called it the “epistle of straw.”  The reason he didn’t like it, and wanted it removed was because if James stood on its own, if we had only James and not the rest of the New Testament, we would never hear the good news of God’s grace. 

In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholics gathered at the Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563, to solidify their base, and correct the “heresies” of the Protestants.  Canon 9 from Trent’s Decree of Justification states: “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so that he understands that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.” So, there you have it.

This tension between faith and works didn’t originate during the Reformation, it goes back to the early church; and it's still alive today.  If we return to James and Paul, and their apparent contradictions, we see that this, too, is complex.  We know from the book of Acts that James, along with Peter, were leaders of the church in Jerusalem.  We know that Paul and James were at odds with each other at times. You could say they had issues. James was the leader of Jewish Christians in the land of the Jews, who understood following Jesus as a Jewish thing, and continued to observe Torah (the Law). Paul, a Jew, felt called to spread the gospel to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish communities in the Roman Empire, and never required Gentiles to become Jews, never required Gentiles to follow Torah in order to be followers of Jesus.  James and Paul had to work things out, as the early church as a whole had to work out the Jewish-Gentile question.  But it would be incorrect to suggest that James was written in response to Paul’s radical ideas.[2] 

The contemporary popular writer Reza Aslan, who is not a Bible scholar, suggests otherwise in his best-seller Zealot. Aslan suggests that, “…while James and Paul were living, James strongly resisted Paul’s law-free version of the gospel. As Aslan puts it, James “excoriated the heretic Paul for abandoning the Torah.[3]  This might sound sensational, but it isn’t anything new; the idea goes back at least to the early nineteenth century, to the German biblical scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860). Contemporary New Testament scholars completely reject F. C. Baur, and Aslan’s claims.  It’s incorrect to suggest that James was written in response to Paul.  We don’t really know who wrote James, it was probably not the James mentioned in Acts, who knew Paul.  Scholars suspect that the author of James was influenced by James, and the epistle of James was probably responding to the pro-grace/anti-works sentiment that we find in Ephesians, which wasn’t written by Paul, but someone influenced by Paul’s ministry.[4]  I told you it was complex.

While Paul is certainly the theologian of grace, he never, ever said that as a follower of Christ that works are unimportant. Paul never tells people to avoid good works or that works don’t matter; he never says you just have to believe.  He never suggests that participating “en Christos,” in Christ, one of his favorite phrases, exempts one from doing good.  He encouraged his people to care for the needs of the saints (Rom. 12:13), offer hospitality (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 5:10), to suffer with those that suffer and rejoice with those that rejoice (1 Cor. 12:13), he called them to a love that is patient and kind, that bears, believes, hopes, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7).  For Paul, as a Jew, one’s life with God always has an ethical dimension.  There are plenty of places where Paul says that we will be judged for our works.  “Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the conditions of remaining “in” but they do not earn salvation.”[5]

Works matter because, according to Paul, God is working out something through us, through our lives: salvation, redemption, justice.  Doesn’t Paul say to the Philippians, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)? When we are in Christ we become co-workers with the “work” of God in the world; when we experience the grace of God we begin to realize what God is doing in us and through us.  Paul writes to the Philippians, “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

In this sense, what we have in James, in fact, resonates with Paul.  Faith without works is dead.  Faith alone—that is, sterile belief, merely affirming theological ideas through intellectual assent, simply accepting the beliefs of your family or community or nation—doesn’t count for much unless your faith is flowing from grace and is then enacted, embodied, lived out in your life in concrete, tangible ways.  As I shared last week, when we reduce Christian truth to ideas and belief, we can say, “I believe in God” or “I believe Jesus was the Son of God” or “I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” and think that’s good enough.  Then we can go about living our life with little or no evidence that such confessions have made any difference.  This is called functional atheism. 

The great African-American mystic and theologian Howard Thurman (1899-1981) said something similar, “The real atheist is not necessarily the [one] who denies the existence of God but rather the [one] who, day after day, and week after week, subscribes to a faith in God with [one’s] lips while acting on the vital assumption that there is no God.”[6] We need to be reading more Thurman these days.

Faith vs. works?  It’s a false tension, a false dichotomy. As is true with the most profound truths in the world, “either/or” thinking never takes us far.  The tension of “both/and” is the way of paradox, it’s the royal way of the Holy.  The church has always known that faith and works go together.  Cyprian (c.200-258), the Bishop of Carthage, writing in the third century said, “How can a man say that he believes in Christ, who does not do what Christ commanded him to do? Or when shall he attain to the reward of faith, who will not keep the faith of the commandment?”  And what is the one new commandment that Christ summons us to live out? That we love another (Jn. 13:34).

It is grace that justifies us, and that grace then activates something in us that evokes  deeper faith and trust in God and faithful action from us.  Grace is always generative.  It generates further acts of grace, inspires courageous demonstrations of love and sacrifice and even suffering for the sake of the beloved.  When we experience God’s grace we become more graceful. When we accept God’s acceptance of us in our sin, we become more accepting. Grace unlocks the doors of our hearts, hearts that live in fearful, narrow, confined spaces.  Grace flings the doors of our hearts wide open and leads us out to broader place to live and breathe. When we experience the expansiveness of grace, we find ourselves being more expansive in our views and actions. When we’ve been on the receiving end of God’s generosity, we become more generous, we become cheerful in our giving, to the point of hilarity, for God loves a hilarious giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). When you know that God has not withheld love from you—and you know this in the core of your being, the depths of your soul—you find yourself free to give your love away, holding nothing back. When you realize that God’s grace flows from a deep, unfathomable source that gushes up and pours down upon us like a fountain (one of Calvin’s favorite images of God), grace upon grace flowing down upon us, pouring into our lives, we then find ourselves pouring out grace upon all God’s children. I’ve found that it often flows quite naturally, you don’t have think about it, you often don’t have to work at it, it flows almost unconsciously. 

Our heart opens to God and then God opens our heart—or God opens our hearts and then we open our hearts—and then our hearts break with compassion for our neighbour, for “the least of these,” whomever crosses the threshold of our lives.  When we experience God’s mercy, we find ourselves doing “works of mercy,” as Dorothy Day (1897-1980) founder of the Catholic Workers movement, put it.  “The corporal works of mercy,” she said, “are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.”[7]

Yes, there are times when we need to choose to love, choose to be compassionate, that we have work at it—and it’s tough, very tough. There are times when we don’t want to be loving, don’t want to be compassionate, don’t want to be forgiving.  It’s a fight.  We have to choose.  But even these choices are driven by the desire of love flowing through us.  For the most part, it’s not the result of a conscious decision; it flows naturally. 

This, it seems to me, was Jesus’ point in the parable.  The sheep were doing the work of the kingdom without even trying to do the work of the kingdom; they were just being themselves, who they knew themselves to be by virtue of their status in the kingdom, they were caring for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the hungry, strangers, those in prison—not because they had to, not because it was expected of them, not because it was the proper thing to do, not because it was the “Christian” thing to do, not because they were trying to impress their neighbors, and not because they were trying to work their way into heaven. The righteous were unaware that they did anything to merit the kingdom. The sheep were not conscious that they were even encountering Jesus, they were just following their hearts, doing what was right, without working at it.  And in the process of being guided by love, they stumbled upon Jesus—who identifies not with the rich and powerful, not with those with privilege, not with the majority nor the status quo, but almost always with the outcasts, the strangers, the hungry, and the imprisoned, those abandoned by the world, forsaken by society, those society considers “weak.”  For God is—first—the God of the oppressed.  Jesus wants to “open our eyes to a deeper dimension of life” beyond the realm of law, with its rules and regulations, its duties and responsibilities.[8]

I will close with a reading from an early Christian text, the letter of Clement to the Christian community in Corinth.  It was written between the years 70 and 140.  It addresses this works/faith tension and beautifully resolves it. Being justified by grace, our life in Christ yields acts and works of goodness.  Works is evidence of the faith at work in us.  After praising the faith of Abraham and others, Clement writes, “All these, therefore, were highly honored, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of [God’s] will. And we, too, being called by [God’s] will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

“What shall we do?” he asks.  “Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work. For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works ... We see, then, how all righteous men have been adorned with good works, and how the Lord Himself, adorning Himself with His works, rejoiced. Having therefore such an example, let us without delay accede to His will, and let us work the work of righteousness with our whole strength.”[9]

So, let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work—working the work of righteousness, reconciliation, goodness, justice with our whole strength.  For, like Paul, “I am confident that the one who began a good work in us will bring it to completion.”




[1] Martin Luther cited here.
[2] Greg Carey, “James and Paul,” The Huffington Post, 13th November 2013.
[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), 197, cited in Carey.
[4] Carey.
[5]E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
[6] From an unpublished essay “Barren or Fruitful?”  Cited in Howard Thurman, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, eds. Walker Earl Fluker and Catherin Tumber (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 27.
[7] Dorothy Day, Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, ed. Roberts Ellsberg (Maryknollw, NY: Orbis Books, 2005).
[8] From Rudolf Bultmann’s sermon on this text, cited by David Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 95
[9] 1 Clement, chapters32 and 33.