The Usual Daily Wage

Exodus 16:2-15 / Jonah 3:10-4:11; Phil 1:21-30; Mat 20:1-16
(for Sep. 24)

We modern Christians get hung up on the whole salvation by works vs grace thing. On the one hand while Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8f). On the other hand there are over two dozen passages that say that in the end, God will judge us by our works, including that rather amazing passage in James 2:14-24 that appears to be an explicit corrective to how Paul’s teaching on grace and works was understood by the church.

The process of salvation is a far more rich and nuanced issue in scripture than our binary of grace and works allows for. This week’s Gospel lesson is a wonderful example of this richness. A landowner needs workers, so he goes to the workers’ market early in the morning to hire a van load of workers. He returns to the workers’ market a few more times, the last trip being around 4:00 pm to pick up his final load of workers for the day. At 5:00 pm, when he pays everyone for their day’s work, everyone gets paid the same, no matter if they worked 8 hours or one hour.

“How’s that fair?” complains the group who worked all day. And indeed! How is this fair at all?

And of course, isn’t this rather the point about the Gospel that Jesus is making. The Gospel isn’t fair nor is it just, it is instead excessively good for everyone involved.

Back to our original question of grace and works, we must start with grace because that is where the New Testament starts. But once we have been given new life in Christ, totally by divine grace, then we have responsibilities to use the gift wisely. What do you suppose would have happened if one of those workers who was hired at 8:00 am just sat around all day instead of doing the work assigned to him? Getting the job implies the responsibility of doing the job. Similarly, receiving the gift of new life means we have several responsibilities: being “a workman who is not ashamed” (2 Tim. 2:15), “enslaving” our bodies (1 Cor. 9:27), “growing up in every way … into Christ” (Eph 4:15), etc. Paul goes as far as to say that if he failed to do these things he feared that he would be “disqualified” (NRSV) or “a castaway” (KJV) (1 Cor. 9:27).

At this point – the point of being good stewards of the new life that has been graciously given to us – the grace/works binary breaks down and ends up being more harmful than helpful. Work is not what you do or don’t do, it’s a frame of reference. Instead of a binary of opposites (grace/work) which James clearly rejects in ch. 2 of his letter, we need to think in terms of complimentary responses. Divine grace draws out human gratitude. God’s mighty work draws out my own labor.

Furthermore, work (in the positive context) has less to do with actions and more to do with expectations. True love expects nothing in return. Like grace drawing out gratitude, so our work in God’s vineyard should be the result of God’s love for us. As soon as we begin to think that we’re becoming a special Christian, or even, God forbid, someone that God simply can’t do without, then our expectations have misled us and we end up being like the laborers who worked all day. We think that God needs us and fail to understand (as the landowner says in the parable that God is simply generous. (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Mt. 20:15)

The parable ends with a common theme in the parables: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We must always remember that there is nothing fair about the kingdom. Everything is upside down. If you go about your life seeking justice, then you are not seeking God. God’s generosity (the word from the parable that is a synonym for divine grace) is not fairness; it is not payment for what is owed. Thinking about life in terms of fairness, justice, and becoming a powerful Christian because of how my life has been transformed will get you nowhere in the Kingdom of heaven.

Can we delight in God as God delights in us or will we fall back into the trap of expecting even more for all the “good” things we have done?


The Ladder of Divine Ascent

In my previous essay about our inability to “go up” and grasp hold of grace, I was reminded of the oft misunderstood advice of John Climacus (a monk at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai a very long time ago) in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book is so important in Orthodox spirituality that there is a Sunday during Lent dedicated specifically to it and there is an icon depicting the ideas of the book that hangs somewhere in most every Orthodox Church. At first glance The Ladder of Divine Ascent may appear to be saying exactly the opposite of what I said in that essay. Since the icon, when viewed with a Protestant sensibility, looks suspicious, it’s worth looking closely at the icon so that we can see what is and what is not depicted there.

Divine AscentIn the icon one sees the surface of the earth, a monastery (there is an angel above the monastery, which is a sort of short hand saying, “this is a monastery, and not a government building and certainly not the abode of Satan) and a ladder. Approaching the ladder, climbing the ladder, and falling off the ladder are monks from the monastery. At the base of the ladder is John Climacus holding a scroll on which is written, “Ascend, ascend brethren.” Along the way are demons trying to pull the monks off the ladder (and often being successful) and at the top is Jesus the Pantocrator (i.e., Ruler of all, the Defeater of Sin and Death and the giver of life and grace) greeting the monks who have managed to ascend all thirty rungs.

John says he used the story of Jacob’s vision of a ladder as a metaphor for thirty things that monks ought to do as they seek to enter into closer union with Christ (compare the Rule of St. Benedict). It’s worth noting what’s not in the icon. Hell can be found nowhere on the icon. When the monks fall, they fall to earth, and no doubt they can then begin to climb the ladder again. Jesus is not depicted as being in heaven in this icon. To the left are a group of angels or saints. This is the heavenly host looking on at the scene from heaven and praying for the monks (essentially cheering the monks on). Jesus is separated spatially from that heavenly group. The point is that the monks are not going to heaven, but rather they are growing closer to Christ as the residents of heaven look on. In short, this is a depiction of our Christian life here on earth with it’s temptations, victories and failures.

While The Ladder of Divine Ascent has become foundational in Orthodoxy and very popular among Christians in general, it also needs to be said that it is a handbook for monks, and thus the advice sounds strange and sometimes outrageous to those of us living a secular life in the world. The Ladder, it must be remembered, is not a set of rules, but rather a set of monastic guidelines that should be seen as a sort of ideal.

How ought we to live our Christian life? I was hit up last Sunday by an Episcopalian asking if I wanted to join an organization that is seeking social justice in the world. After visiting with her it was clear that she’s sees this as her highest form of Christian life, that is a life of service that leads to systemic change and justice. When I was involved with a group called the Navigators, it seemed that memorizing the Bible, being in small group studies, encouraging others, and evangelism were the highest calling. In the Orthodox Church the highest calling is seeking our union with God in Christ. The icon (and the Sunday in Lent) are all reminders to us that this is the primary manner in how we Orthodox ought to approach our sanctification.

But whether we seek social justice, success at evangelism, or communion with Christ, all these efforts are not possible and make no sense if you don’t begin with Christ coming down to earth (incarnation, death, and resurrection) so that we can be made alive by the Spirit and begin our Christian journey through Christ and to Christ.

Works and Cicada Christians

Probably the most difficult thing to explain about Orthodoxy is its emphasis on effort and how that differs from salvation by works. I ran across yet another Martin Luther quote that helps to frame the question. (It’s hard to imagine, by the way, a theologian more opposed to salvation by works than Luther.) (And, yes, I’m still studying Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith.)

The medieval scholastics (as well as the Protestant spiritualists, the original form of what we would call Evangelicalism today) described salvation as human love striving after grace. It was earthly human love striving upward (toward heaven or toward transcendence) to grasp hold of God’s grace. Luther rejected the idea as yet another form of works salvation. Luther insisted the direction was wrong; the only option is for God in Christ to come down to us.

That is indeed precisely the point of justification if it is to mean anything at all. We can’t strive for it; it must be a gift.

We are coming to the end of cicada season in northeast Nebraska. There is a cherry tree just off our back patio that the cicadas like to sit on. Earlier this summer I had the privilege of watching a cicada molt. It had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the too-small old shell. It would pause every now and again to rest and then struggle again. Eventually it worked it’s way free and then it spread its wings wide to let them dry. The whole process probably took an hour, and then it flew off to do cicada stuff leaving the old empty shell stuck to the tree trunk along with about a half dozen others.

There was nothing the cicada could do to make itself grow. It’s life and growth process was not of its own making but was pure gift. But for that gift of growth to continue normally, the cicada had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the old shell. I’m guessing if it would not have done that, the old shell would eventually constrict it so much that the cicada would die.

Luther is correct that we cannot strive upward to get grace; that movement is all wrong. Grace happens only when Christ comes down and indwells us as Luther described. But when Christ does come down and indwell us, true life occurs and growth begins to happen. This is the place where Christian striving becomes a necessity. Like the cicada, we must put off that old shell so that the new life gifted to us has the opportunity to grow and expand. Spiritual growth and divine grace always remain pure gift, but the effects of that grace (ie, spiritual growth) creates a situation where we must strive in order to make room for it – and note: not to grasp it, but to make room for it. (A completely different biblical metaphor with a rather different emphasis, but compare to quenching the Spirit; one might think of it as a passive action – verb tenses simply cannot do justice to the process.)

2 Timothy 2:5 compares the Christian life to athletics. If you don’t strive for it, you don’t get crowned. This is the sort of striving the Orthodox are fond of talking about. It’s not striving for justification. It’s not reaching up to heaven to take hold of God, because we can’t; it is God that takes hold of us. It is rather the hard work required to let go, to work our way out of the old skin that constrains us so the new can grow and do what it is supposed to.

Let me be clear that this is not Luther’s view (nor is it the view of Formula of Concord style Lutherans today). Luther tended to view things in black and white and as either/or. My description of proper Christian effort doesn’t fit into that stark view of things. In his Lectures to the Galatians (Mannermaa, p. 40), Luther says, “This attachment to [Christ] causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ and into his kingdom.”

There seem to be no cicada Christians struggling to get out of their old skin in Luther’s view. They remain helpless until Christ “pulls” them out. Lutherans (and Protestants in general) and Orthodox differ on this point and I won’t pretend the difference doesn’t exist. But with the differences noted, there is a definite distinction between the striving upward after grace (ie, works salvation) and the striving to put off the old skin of death after new life and growth has been graciously given.

And thanks be to God that cicada season is nearly over!

Considering Our Own “Works of the Law”

Yesterday’s Epistle in the Daily Common Lectionary was Gal 3:1-14, which is Paul’s diatribe against the Galatians concerning their “works of the Law.” As a brief aside, I have covered at great length through the years the fact that the Pauline corpus as a whole isn’t opposed works. We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). We should adorn ourselves with good works (1 Tim. 2:10). He commends others to “be rich in good works” (6:18). And of course, there is his warning about people who “profess that they know God, but in their works they deny him …”

Paul’s beef is with a very specific problem: “the works of the Law.” The culture in which Christianity began was Hebrew culture where the Old Testament system of life and sacrifices, as dictated by the Law, had become the means of appeasing God. (As Paul clearly points out, this wasn’t authentic Hebrew religion, which was actually one of faith in God, it was a bastardization of Hebrew religion.)

Reading this text yesterday I couldn’t help but think of the standard things that my fellow travelers in men’s group say about what they have to do in order to maintain their faith. If they don’t go to church … if they don’t come to men’s group every week … if they don’t take time read the Bible and pray every day … then they are no longer close to God. That’s the stuff that makes their relationship with God tick. (This is not limited to men’s group, by the way. This same attitude goes back to many years of pastoral ministry.)

It’s what Paul is talking about, except it’s clothed in a different religious culture. One might call it “the works of Feeling Good About God” or “the works of My Spiritual Pick-Me-Up.” It niggles at me that when we live this way, we’re not living by faith at all, we’re living by works (or in this case feelings) that support a sense that I’m okay with God.

I’m not okay with God because of the Hebrew Law, men’s group, daily prayer, etc. I’m okay with God because of Jesus was incarnate, lived with us, died for us, and offers life to the world. It simply requires faith to believe that fact and accept it. Don’t get me wrong. We are “created in Christ for good works,” but all of that other stuff doesn’t make me good with God; God has taken care of that. All that other stuff should be aimed very specifically at incorporating this God-given life into my being so that I am transformed into the divine life to which I’m called, or, in Paul’s words our “upward calling.” It is in Christ Jesus (and nothing else) that the blessing of Abraham comes upon us, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (v 14). Amen.

On Allowing Virtue to Minister to our Faith

I have always been fascinated by 2 Peter.

Well, “always” being as far back as when we translated portions of it, along with 1 Peter, in Advanced Greek in Bible College. The first chapter has that wonderfully scandalous (from a Protestant perspective) verse about actually participating in God. When translating it became painfully obvious that the two epistles had different authors. This latter problem was the very reason Mr. Parkhurst made us have a go at translating portions of the two Peters. I have always wondered what he actually made of the book, because he would never say; he would just smile his sly smile and remind us that it is in the New Testament, after all. (The official position of the college – a position that could get one kicked out of school if student, faculty, or janitor dared to disagree – was that the Apostle Peter wrote both epistles that bear his name.)

These difficulties – and the fact that we dared not talk about them outside of class, given the rigid conservative views of Big Sky Bible College, thus creating a sort of secret knowledge club among those of us in Advanced Greek – made me a passionate lover of the epistle. Bible College students are by nature of the Bible College experience a conservative bunch, and so it was that 2 Peter was a key part of what might be called my college rebellion experience.

The downside of this history is that it has always been difficult for me to talk about 2 Peter without descending into a “gotcha mentality” or using the book as a springboard for argument rather than a text of scripture. With the Feast of Transfiguration being recently celebrated (Aug.6) my attention has once again focused on 2 Peter because the first chapter is one of the great Transfiguration texts, but this year I wondered what would happen if I could somehow set aside my long history of 2 Peter as a college rebellion text and take a fresh look at it as scripture.

Even when attempting a new mindset, I am struck by how odd the letter is. It is less a well thought out missive and more a rant and therefore doesn’t lend itself to an outline. It is broadly divided into three sections: (1) Minister to your faith by practicing virtue. [1:1-11] (2) There is good teaching and false teaching; avoid the false teaching – and let’s say lots of bad things about the false teachers. [1:12-2:22] (3) God is patient with our foibles and this should spur us on to zeal in doing good. [3:1-18]

The second section, his rant about and lurid description of false teachers contrasted to his own holy experience, makes up more than 53% of the epistle. The first section is less than 16% of the letter and the last section is less than 31%. In that long section ranting about false teachers, the only thing we find out about them is that they somehow deny the second coming of Christ. It’s not even clear what form that denial takes. It’s a very broad stroke against a rather shadowy opponent.

This middle section is great grist for the mill of college age rebellion. It is vague enough that it can be applied to a large number of perceived enemies, and the language is so colorful and mean-spirited that it provides great sound bytes for any rant that a college radical might want to concoct on his own – not that I ever did anything of the sort. 🙂

But it occurs to me, now that I’ve mellowed with middle age, that this is one of the great strengths of the book. False teaching is very creative and ever changing. If the author were to define his opponents too narrowly we might miss the fact that the type of false teachers he’s talking about are always with us. The specifics may change, but they are typical in that they always deny or distort some fundamental truth of the Gospel. The problem isn’t just these false teachers in particular but false teaching in general.

Similarly, the author spends little time defining our faith, our call, and our election. He has a profound trust in the Church; although it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that there is a place in which one can find trustworthy witness to the Truth. Certainly the truth can be found in Peter and Paul (although  there are things that are hard to understand in Paul according to 3:16), and by implication that line of witnesses and leaders that have remained faithful to this revelation; in other words, the true Church.

In this day and age that is admittedly problematic. There are at least five great traditions of Church life (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Scholastic Protestantism/Evangelicalism, and Pentecostal/Charismatic). Each group supposedly has cause to find heresy in the other four groups (as well as in their own broad traditions). So it is critical that we seek to remain zealous and faithful to both the Living Christ and to the tradition in which we believe that the Living Christ is best expressed — “Lone Ranger Christianity” is simply not an option because we are too prone to interpreting scripture to our own advantage, leading to our being carried away by the siren song of the same self-indulgent false teaching of which 2 Peter rails.

The thing that 2 Peter does, possibly better than any other single book of the New Testament, is to describe how the relationship between faith and works should actually work in our lives. This brilliant description is found in the first section of the epistle.

He begins by stating emphatically that faith is given by God. We cannot manufacture it within ourselves. We obtain faith in the righteousness of God (1:1). This righteousness is revealed emphatically and with great glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, to which Peter (as well as the unnamed James, and John) were eyewitnesses. They didn’t make it up; they saw it. As witnesses, they reported it. And as we become “partakers in the divine nature” we too experience and know it, not as some feeling or intuition, but as a given reality in which we know through participation.

And then we are called to do something very specific with that faith: we are to minister to that faith that has been placed into our being. Here I am not talking about ministers as “Preachers” or “Priests” or “Ministers of  Word and Sacrament.” Instead, the word “minister” is more akin to servants or people given a specific task. Members of the Canadian cabinet, or as they call it, “the Ministry” (as in many other countries) are “ministers of the crown.” The “Minister of Foreign Affairs” is given the task of ensuring that Canada’s foreign affairs are in order and that Canada’s place in the world is enhanced through his ministry.

In the same way 2 Peter tells us to minister to our faith. That is, we should do things that strengthen, enhance, and deepen our faith. The RSV translation is a bit misleading. In 1:5 it says, “For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue …” The Greek word translated “supplement” is a little used (in the New Testament) Greek word, epichoregeo, which means “to minister to or to assist.” This is what nurses and household assistants do. It is why secretaries are often considered more critical to an effective office than their boss. “Ministers of Finance” don’t have the money, nor do they control the money; but their action or inaction can cause the money supply to expand or contract  in such a way that can make an economy grow or fail.

Similarly our works do not create faith nor are they the same thing as faith, but they do minister to our faith and are so important that they can make that faith grow or fail. Second Peter offers up a list of works or virtues that come straight out of Greek Stoicism: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Paul has similar lists. I suspect the point is not to exegete each one of these terms, but rather to recognize that the things we do in order to minister to our faith must be pretty broad based and involve every part of our lives and thinking. It is not enough to just read spiritual literature, neither is it enough to go out and build houses for the poor. Each of those are excellent activities, but our efforts must be holistic rather than narrow. In the Orthodox Church this effort is summed up by the three words “prayer, alms, and fasting.” The Roman Catholics are especially fond of Paul’s seven virtues. The Presbyterians are especially known for their work in the world, the Mennonites and Methodists for the holy life, and the Evangelicals for their missionary service. All of these are expressions of this singular idea that we must minister to our faith if our faith is to flourish.

James says “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:25). Paul was not especially good at explaining how the two are related. He says that salvation is by faith alone in Romans and Galatians, but in Ephesians he observes that we were “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (2:10). It always feels like Paul struggled with a dichotomy between the two. It is the author of 2 Peter who manages to explain how faith is utterly preeminent and yet completely powerless without the virtues. Our works minister to our God-given faith, making it something useful and salvific.

Striking that chord, which rings from ancient times into eternity, of the perfect harmony of faith and works is one of the great gifts 2 Peter offers Christians through the ages. In this most recent consideration of the book, that is this glorious truth I saw and I revel in. Thanks be to God.

The Fourfold Way of the Christian Life

Kallistos Ware, retired Oxford lecturer and titular Bishop in the Orthodox Church, is fond of describing the Christian life with God in a fourfold way. It is

  1. A gift of grace – not a human inquiry into God, but God’s disclosure of himself.
  2. A mystery – no matter how much we learn there is always more to learn and no matter how well we learn a specific thing, what we say about it falls short of the truth.
  3. A process of purification – God can reveal his inner life/light to us only to the extent that we are pure enough to not be consumed by that divine life/light.
  4. Silence, or stillness of the heart – ultimately, communion with the Living Word (ie, the Son of God) is not through words, but Being communing with being. Communion is not “conversation with,” it is “union with” God (the etymology of “communion”), Busy-ness and talkativeness distract while silence, stillness, and presence promote personal knowledge and experience with God.

In other words, the Christian life is to know God; and to know God – and to be known by God – is to do God’s will and to become like God. Knowledge, action, and transformation are facets of a single activity. There is a wonderful Greek word – perichoresis – often translated into English as “coinherence,” a word essentially invented to express the idea of perichoresis. It refers to the manner in which the divine life flows from one person of the trinity to the whole of the trinity and vice versa. The life of the Father flows into the Word and the Spirit; the life of the Word flows into the Spirit and the Father; the life of the Spirit flows into the Father and the Word.

Similarly, the Spirit indwells the Body of Christ, the Church, even as the Body of Christ indwells the very being of God so that the life of God flows into the Body while the life of the Body is known fully by God. At this point I am uncomfortable with the idea of the life of the Body flowing back into God because it implies that the Body of Christ, the church, is necessary to God’s existence. Extending the analogy that far would be a falsehood. This is why I begin this paragraph with “similarly.” Perichoresis, or coinherence, is properly a doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The analogy of between the Spirit and the Body of Christ is similar to but not the same as coinherence. This is a primary reason why we use the term “communion” to describe the divine/human relationship.

And this is why Ware’s third point, that the Christian life is a process of purification, is so critical. There is a movement back and forth between God and human; it goes both ways. God dwells in me so that I can dwell in God. But holiness and wickedness cannot be co-mingled. So it is that authentic communion (which is analogous in certain ways to perichoresis) is only possible to the extent that the human has been purified.

With this dynamic relationship in mind we realize the poverty of the term “works” when trying to describe the human side of salvation. “Washing” rather than “working” is where we begin. “Serving” others rather than “earning” anything at all (as if that is even possible!) is how we relate to others. Finally, adoration, which ultimately will lead to stillness and pure presence with one another, is how we express our life with God.

[A footnote of sorts: This fourfold way is not original with Ware. It is how the patristics, who generally wrote in Greek, viewed things for the most part. The four facets get translated into English in a variety of ways, but the Greek words at the root of these ideas, for those who want to pursue it further, are charisma (a gift of grace), mysterion (mystery, often translated as “sacrament,” via the Latin, by Roman Catholics – a highly problematic translation, but that’s another story), katharsis (cleansing), and hesychia (silence or stillness).]

The Sabbath Rest of Hebrews 4

One of the curiosities (at least from the American Protestant perspective in which I still function intellectually) of Hebrews 4 (which actually begins in the latter part of ch. 3 … wow, that’s a bad chapter division!) is that the Sabbath Rest (which the author is describing) can only be achieved and maintained by obedience, which smacks of works and not rest.

One of my cousins’ daughters took her children (by herself, without the assistance of her husband) on a nearly week long trip to northern New York to visit relatives. While enjoyable, the trip was exhausting. When she got home she had this to say:

We’re safely back home … together with Martijn, Blaze, and Oreo, our family is reunited and complete once again 🙂 Tonight it’s just us and our pillows–tomorrow will come the unpacking, laundry, mail, groceries and to-do lists.

This is the essence of the Sabbath Rest: We are in our proper place, we are with the proper people. We get to sleep in our own beds. Unpacking, laundry, mail, groceries, to-do lists … I contend that this is a metaphor for everything involved in the Sabbath Rest of Hebrews 4. The Rest is not about not doing things, it is rather about doing things in the proper context. Our wandering is over. (Or, in terms of the author’s other reference, the world is now created and complete in six days.) We can now strive to be obedient within the confines of place and people. This is the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Brenda and I just got done watching Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a movie that Hulu is offering for free at the moment. It’s a Finnish movie (subtitled) which is hard to pigeon-hole. There’s a wee bit of horror genre in it as well as some Hitchcock-style psychological thriller. It’s definitely not a cute little Christmas movie. The ending was very weak – a huge let down.

But with all that being said, if you want an excellent illustration of the horrors of the doctrine of salvation which doesn’t include pure grace and pure love on the divine side, this is it. That sort of works salvation, when the implications are taken seriously, are pretty horrible, and this illustrates it beautifully.

He’s keeping a list and checking it twice / going to find out who’s naughty or nice …

Believe me, you really don’t want that Santa coming to town.

A Word on Works

I don’t know if this was intended or one of those odd little mistakes that manages to make profound sense, but Fr John Morris, pastor of St George Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, said the following this morning, in relation to the Dormition Feast:

Those who do good works will go to heaven while those who reject Jesus Christ will go to hell to await the final judgment.

Let me be clear that Fr John doesn’t believe you go to heaven by merely doing good works. The statement about good works could have been a slip of the tongue because the Gospel text he just quoted (Mt. 25:35ff) referred to salvation in terms of good works rather than the more “traditional” (in the Pauline qua Protestant sense) faith in Christ. But it juxtaposes two biblical ideas in precisely the right manner.

What saves us is belief in Christ. But belief is not merely an idea or an attitude, it is something that starts in the heart/mind/will and necessarily works its way out into the actions. Claiming to believe Christ (and thus deserve salvation) and not do good works is still a rejection of the real Christ.

I’m writing this on a high school campus in the Presbyterian tradition, so I need to add that good works in and of themselves are no better than embracing an idea (even a good idea like “Jesus saves”) in and of itself. In other words, naked belief is no better than naked works. The two intertwine and ultimately coinhere when either expresses true commitment to Jesus Christ. So whether spoken by accident or intentionally, I believe Fr. John got it just right:

Those who do good works will go to heaven while those who reject Jesus Christ will go to hell to await the final judgment.

On How to Achieve True Treasure in Heaven

Hearing Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I was struck by the hard simplicity of the demand of the gospel. It was the story of the rich young man (Luke 18:18-27) who had kept all the commandments from his youth (at least he claimed he did and Jesus didn’t contradict his claim): “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked. Jesus’ response was simple. “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 22).

The context makes it clear that Jesus isn’t setting up an absolute rule about how one goes about inheriting eternal life. Just a few verses later, in a story that is thematically interlaced with this one, Zacchaeus who was also rich, received Jesus joyfully and told him that he would give away half his riches and repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded. Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus was, “Today salvation has come to this house …”

What must I do to be saved? What must I do to inherit eternal life? They are equivalent questions, but it’s never quite the same answer. There is no one way to inherit eternal life. There is a central issue: we must commit ourselves unreservedly to Jesus Christ, but how that gets worked out is different for each of us because each of us has different sticking points. For the Philippian jailer the response was, Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you and your household will be saved. For the rich young ruler, selling all that he had was the requirement; clearly even holding a little bit back would have been enough to stand in the way of committing unreservedly to Jesus Christ. Jesus discerned that Zacchaeus didn’t have that problem; giving half to the poor was the necessary sign that he was committed unreservedly to Christ’s kingdom.

But in spite of the variety of means that Jesus used in calling people to work out their salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), the simple fact – the very hard simple fact – is that Jesus says to each and every one of us, “Come, follow me.” And the implications of that invitation/command are difficult indeed.

In case we missed that point, the crowd underlines it when they murmured in response to Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26).

In the next verse Jesus answers: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

I think that too often we (and especially those of us who grew up with the easy grace of certain forms of Protestantism) jump from the initial invitation to “the promises of God that find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20) without considering the space between, that is, the path from Jesus’ command to follow to that final Yes of fulfillment. Following Jesus is simple, but it is hard. Whenever we take up our cross and follow it ought to set us back and cause us to murmur with the crowd, “Who then can be saved?” If it’s easy instead of hard, probably we’ve missed the point. And as we face the hard simplicity of the call, if we don’t ask the question, “Who then can be saved?” we’ll never hear the answer: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Those are the promises that find their Yes in Christ.