Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Faith and Works: A Riddle

I have disclosed in a few comments on Facebook and in a few hints in blog posts that I am not a fan of John 6. Actually, I love John 6; I just don't like spending 5 lectionary weeks in a row on it. The bread of life is spiritually nutritious, but, like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, I'm tired of eating this bread, this bread! I'd rather have cucumbers and leeks, like a miracle or a parable. The funny thing, of course, is that a preacher like me, who would rather skip more quickly through John 6, is probably the exact person who needs some extra time wrestling with the text, and, this morning, I'm grateful for another opportunity to focus on the transformational work of believing in Jesus.

Last Sunday, I preached on the feeding of the 5,000, and I played up the tension between those who come to us seeking free food without really investing in the mission of the church and the responsibility that Jesus gives us to feed them anyway. In my mind, I wanted to expand that point and mention that their encounter with the church is still transformative. I wanted to allude to this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:24-35), in which Jesus says to the crowd, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." Because St. Paul's will not be reading this gospel lesson this week as we celebrate, with the bishop's permission, the feast of the Transfiguration as a sixth baptismal Sunday, I wanted to make the point that the church is in the feeding business because the act of being fed is a vehicle for deeper transformation. Anyone might be welcome just as they are, but God isn't going to leave them there. But Sunday's sermon was already long enough, and I had to leave that transformation bit out.

Jesus urges us, "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." All of us come to Jesus for cheap calories of comfort food. We want today's need to be met. "Give us today our daily bread," we say, but we mean it not as an expression of determined satisfaction with whatever we will have for the day but as a craving for the day's sustenance. Yet Jesus always encourages us to pursue the sort of sustenance that will last--the kind of confidence (i.e. faith) that changes us from one who fears whether there will be enough tomorrow to one who lives with no anxiety about our daily provision.

To get this point across, Jesus anachronistically engages in a little Pauline, Protestant repartee. Jesus tells the crowd to "work...for the food that endures for eternal life," and the crowd replies, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answers them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." And, with those words, the distinction between faith and works collapses, and we discover that the work is the faith, and our collective mind is blown.

Having faith in God is the work that we do. It is literally the "toil" or "labor" or "action" or "deed" that we endeavor to undertake. The Greek for "work" is "ergon," from which the CGS measurement for work, the erg, is derived. In physics, work requires force over distance, which, as my former roommate Tim Gilheart explained to me a long time ago, if you push all day against a brick wall as hard as you can but the wall never moves, it isn't work. In a similar way, the work of faith must move us. Even in Jesus' pre-Pauline day, the distinction between faith and work was a part of second-temple Judaism. Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees and scribes over sabbath observances suggests that there were different interpretations of what really mattered--faith or works. In his encounter with the crowd, however, Jesus suggests that the dispute may be unfounded. Our work is our faith--not a sitting on a couch thinking about God but a life-changing, life-moving occupation and effort.

Again, we're not focusing on John 6 this Sunday, but, if we were and if I were preaching, the work of faith would likely be my focus. Faith is not easy. It is not easy to be in the wilderness and trust that God will provide. It requires effort to believe that God will carry us through the trials of this life and into the next. To pursue faith like that is to pursue a transformed life, and that transformation--that movement--represents the foundational work of our relationship with God.

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