September 8, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
Something I’ve always misunderstood – Which Works Work? X2
Sometimes works are good – sometimes they’re bad….
Within our NT readings today we find the tension about what we ought to do and ought not to do.
And whether there ought to be any oughts at all!
As Spike Milligan used to say, “It’s all rather confusing really…”
In the Gospel, the Pharisees were only doing what Moses had taught them, as the rules and works were all there for a reason. I thought…
And James himself is very clear about the works that Christians ought to engage in… and in the fact that faith without works… is dead.
But Mark says… that human traditions, the works of the law, EVEN IF they are what Moses commanded, if they get in the way of your freedom to Love God and neighbour, can be discarded… at will….
So what are we to make of all that?
It is a tension that has confused people for two thousand years that the one thing that the gospel says we ought to do is not be too concerned with what we ought not to do…
Isn’t that what Jesus says in todays gospel after all?
But not so quick!
Moments later in this passage we had from James, (a passage which, by the way, Martin Luther wanted to cut out of scripture altogether), we read:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
And so we’re back to my question: Which works work? And how am I supposed to know?
Well here is my attempt to unlock the puzzle. What if we asked ourselves not which works work or what is more important – faith or works, or what is right balance between human tradition or human freedom.
What if started somewhere else entirely and instead asked this: What is true freedom like?
In particular: Which is a better definition of Christian Freedom?
1. Freedom from laws, rules, traditions, and works or
2. ‘Freedom to’ love God and be loved by him?
In a recent book, the Philosopher John Milbank give us a helpful steer. He says that thinking that our Christian GOAL is to escape something is exactly what gets us in such a muddle.
Christian Freedom – he says – is decidedly freedom to to realise the end God has set out for us. To love God and be loved by him.
In truth this is also a fair description of rabbinical tradition and of good Roman Catholic thought too. It is, sadly, a common protestant conceit, that Christians, and particularly post reformation protestants to believe we were the first ones to notice. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
God desires a true relationship with us. One that is not about either having rules, or traditions, or works, or ritual or not having them.
With that in mind Milbank is also careful to remind us that freedom to doesn’t mean freedom from TRADITION.
What matters is choosing what will help us in grow up into maturity. Neither – lastly – does freedom to mean going it alone… Real liberty in love is about together what best promotes our common good and to learn together and from our common past how loving God and being loved by him may become possible for us today.
If, as the theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, put it: Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living
Then is also true that traditionalism often gives tradition a bad name.
But it is also true, and dare I say more prescient in our own time, that playing too fast and loose with our inherited traditions and practices endangers the very heart of our faith just as much
This balance is what James means – when he speaks of the perfect law of liberty, doesn’t mean ditching tradition, or works, or one another.
If our ultimate purpose is to LOVE GOD AND BE LOVED BY HIM then ANYTHING that promotes that possibility should be sacred to us.
We might then want to take a moment this morning.
To respond to the gospel by remembering what practices, what traditions, and what ‘works’ help or have helped you?
This could be things we do when we are here in CHURCH…
- Kneeling or standing, being silent before the service,
- Bowing a head in prayer or raising our hands
- Or how you are when you are joining in at home
But the practices of the LAW of LOVE are not all overtly liturgical, or religious (The Epistle immediately begins to speak of ‘being hospitable to strangers’, and ‘caring for the widow and the orphan’).
So even simple little practices may have the same sacral quality – like putting others first, making tea, yes, even putting on your mask… or taking it off…
It may well be true that practices uncoupled from this purpose are pointless BUT it is certainly true that pursuing this purpose without practices is impossible.
And because they have about them, a sacred quality, we should value, treasure and defend these little things. And we should always seek to understand them before we look to ditch them or repudiate them.
Jesus said – by their fruits you shall know them – the marks of the law of freedom, that are the inheritance of the saints, are the virtues that St Paul called the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control…
So the question we should ask ourselves is exactly the one I started with: Which works work?
It is not, after all, a post-modern question but a deeply traditional one.
What works, what Christian Practices, do work for me… for us… and for our Common Good?
How do I value them?
And how faithfully do I practice them?
How do I pass them onto others?
Will I be one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being not a hearer who forgets but doer who will act. They you will be blessed in your doing.