Thursday, July 30, 2015

Funny Kind of Work

Earlier this week, when I read Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:24-35), I felt drawn to the tension between Jesus and the crowd over the nature of the feeding of the 5,000. Is it merely a miraculous provision (as the crowd seems to think), or is it a demonstration of something bigger (as Jesus strives to make clear)? I'm preaching a funeral sermon on John 6 this morning, and that element came up there, too. But, yesterday, as I read the gospel and wondered what it might be saying to a preacher this week, I was drawn to the line, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." I come from the Protestant, Reformed part of the Episcopal Church (yes, it still exists...somewhere), so this sentence about work and belief touches on a central part of my theology of justification--how it is that we are made right with God.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about "Works vs. Work," emphasizing that the crowd wants to know what works (note the plural) need to be done in order to do God's will, but Jesus' reply is simply singular--the work of believing in the one whom God has sent. I hope you'll go read his excellent piece first because, as I so often do, I'm using his work as a jumping off point. (Isn't collaborative ministry fun?)

Steve's piece gets right to the heart of the law vs. grace dichotomy of the Christian faith. To put it simply, are we reconciled to God through what we do or through what God does for us? I'll suggest to you that it must be one or the other. There is no mixture of the two. As soon as the slightest bit of "what I bring to the table" is included in the justification equation, we've given up on grace completely. It's got to be up to me or up to God. It can't be both ways. Human nature, of course, leads us to ask what we need to do about it. "What must I do?" the rich young ruler asked Jesus. "What must we do?" the crowd asked Jesus. The answer in the cross of Christ is simply nothing. But, as Steve puts it so well,
The work of God is impossibly simple. Believing in the one whom God has sent seems to easy, and can be so hard to maintain.  So we look instead for works, for things to keep us busy, to keep us preoccupied over and against or worries whether or not this Jesus can be trusted.  It happened even as he walked the earth, and heaven knows it happens now.
Exactly right, of course. Even after we've accepted that there's no work for us to do other than to believe, there's more we need to hear. As Steve points out, partly that's because we can never fully accept the magnitude of God's grace, and so we must be reminded of the gospel message each and every day--even every second of every day! But there are also two additional distinct problems that grow out of this grace-alone theology of justification--neither of which is inherent in the theology itself but only as it is misunderstood, and that's what I want to focus on today.

The first error is to undervalue the significance of believing. It is not easy to believe that a God who is perfect could love us--we who are nothing close to perfect--despite our gross, repeated, and intentional imperfections, which we call sin. We must stand at the threshold where life becomes death and cling to nothing but God's promise. We must, as Kathy Grieb put it in her commentary on Romans, have faith like that of Abraham. Justification by faith, which Jesus points us to in this critical passage from John 6, is not easy. Faith like that is believing in the preposterous. Just as Abraham believed that God could make him the father of many nations despite being a childless 90-year-old, so, too, must we believe that God can make new these tired, old, broken, sinful bones. (God help our unbelief!) Don't underestimate, therefore, the challenge of faith. Faith like that cannot come from within. It must be a gift. And therein lies the second error.

The second error is to make a work out of faith, and that's where I get a little nervous reading Steve's post--not because he suggests that faith is a work (quite the contrary) but because I myself struggle with the idolization of perfect faith. "What must we do?" we all ask Jesus, and he replies, "The work of God is this: believe." In my experience, the only way that can truly be a liberating statement is if Jesus isn't setting up faith as an attainable yet unattainable goal for humanity but if he is with a heavy dose of irony flipping the question of the crowd on its head and saying, "Work? No sir! Faith alone!"

The crowd expects works, and Jesus replies faith. He uses the singular "work" to surprise them and us--to tease out of the circumstance the peculiarly non-work that is believing. Belief is the gospel's radical answer to our work-focused expectations. And the requirement--faith like Abraham--doesn't come from within. Faith in itself is a gift from God. There's the true power of grace. If it were up to me to work my way into heaven, I'd fail--that's easy to accept. The harder but truly liberating truth of John 6 is that even my faith is not up to me. "I am the Bread of Life," Jesus says, "whoever comes to me will never be hungry." That's a gift--all gift.

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