Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost / Thirteenth Sunday of Luke, November 27, 2016
Ephesians 2:4-10; Luke 16:19-31
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Many people who are introduced to the Orthodox Church for the first time, especially if they come from a Protestant background, may be rubbed very much the wrong way by some of our beliefs and practices. For some, the respect and veneration which we show the Virgin Mary or other saints can make them stumble. Others don’t understand why it is we fill our churches with icons—isn’t that idolatry? Others don’t like the idea of being accountable and obedient to a father-confessor.
When I was introduced to Orthodoxy almost twenty years ago, none of those things were a problem for me. My own special issue was much more doctrinaire, and it’s an issue that has its origins in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation in Western Europe.
The question is this: What is the relationship is between faith and good works?
When Martin Luther began in Germany what became a splintering rebellion against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, fracturing Europe into numerous religious sects and movements, one of the things that bugged him the most about Rome’s practices was the shape of its piety. Although Rome never officially taught this, the popular belief was that doing good works or making monetary donations could somehow buy salvation in the next life or at least time out of Purgatory, that intermediate place of suffering and purgation that Rome teaches is necessary before the faithful can be admitted to Paradise.
As a Protestant, I was raised with this idea about Roman Catholics, that they believe you can earn your salvation. (They don’t believe that, by the way.) When I encountered Orthodoxy, and I saw all the rituals, the piety, the monasticism, the pilgrimages, the ornamentation in the churches, and all the many things Orthodox Christians do as part of their practice, I couldn’t help but think about faith and works.
There’s just so much to do in our church. Why do we do it all? Can it be that we think that, if we come to church enough, serve enough years on the parish council, give enough money, work at enough fundraisers, take enough classes, teach enough classes, read enough books, sing enough hymns, believe hard enough, fast enough, say enough prayers, go on enough pilgrimages, or buy enough religious articles, somehow, God will count up all our religious points at the end of life and be obligated to let us into Heaven?
Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus and addresses this question. In the second chapter of this epistle, Paul writes, “by grace you are saved through faith; and that is not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” He spells it out clearly here: salvation from Christ is a gift of God, the result of the action of grace. It is not the result of anything we do.
And what’s more, God began the work of our salvation even while we still were ignoring Him, abusing our fellow creatures, and betraying Him. As Paul writes, “God, being rich in mercy, through His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through the trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Even while we were dead through trespasses—our sins—He was working to raise us up from such a death.
We can never do enough to earn salvation from God. How could any of us buy entrance into the Kingdom of God? If the Kingdom of God is worth more than the whole world, what can we possibly give? But some people actually do believe this through their actions, even though the Church does not teach it. If they just contribute this or help with that, that is “enough” to merit salvation from God—they’re a “member in good standing” by fulfilling a requirement.
But you can be a member in good standing of a local church without being a member in good standing of the Kingdom of God.
But do we even begin to understand just what salvation actually is? If we think that salvation consists merely in getting a ticket to Heaven that we can “buy” cheaply with some little human effort, we are sorely mistaken. Salvation is so much bigger than that, and if we even begin to see that, then we will realize that a whole lifetime of good works could never amount to a single drop in the great ocean of worth that is salvation.
Paul says that salvation is being “made… alive together with Christ,” being “raised up together with Him, and made to sit together with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages He would show the exceeding riches of His grace, in kindness toward us, in Christ Jesus.” Salvation is far more than a ticket to Heaven in the afterlife. A cheap “salvation” limited to getting that ticket is not what Christian life is about. The Lord tells us not to be “pretty good” or even “very good,” but to be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
There are two reasons why Christians do all the things we do. The first is gratitude. If we see what salvation means, we fall down in gratitude before God and offer Him everything, not because what we offer could ever repay Him, but because someone who experiences God wants to do anything for Him. We should have this especially in mind during this season when we talk about pledging to Christ our time, talents, and our treasure. We are saying “thank you” to Him for the stunning, glorious, beautiful and healing gift of our salvation.
At the same time, what we do in the Church is not only to say “thank you.” It actually accomplishes something, though it’s not earning “points” that will take us to Heaven if we only get enough. Rather, when we come here to pray; when we fall on our faces before God; when we sacrifice our time, our abilities, and our resources; when we fast; when we seek to know God’s word more deeply; when we teach it to our children; when we change our whole life, bit by bit, so that it is defined by the rhythms of Church life and not secular pursuits; then what we are doing is cooperating with divine grace.
When you go to the doctor, you have to hold still for an injection or swallow the pills or do the exercise. But doing those things does not heal you. Yet if you don’t do them, then the regenerating power of healing cannot work in you. Although it is grace that accomplishes our salvation, our cooperation with God is critical for our salvation, because grace does not heal the unwilling.
Yet unlike going to the doctor, we cannot be healed by grace just because we do certain things—we have to do them with fervent faith. Because grace is the actual presence of God Himself, when we acquire grace, we are acquiring nothing less than God. We are becoming one with Him. And like any intimate relationship, we have to want it and believe in it and throw ourselves wholly into it.
As we enter more deeply into that oneness, it becomes clear how Paul can say that we are “raised up” with Christ, that we even sit with Him in the heavenly places! Since the Ascension, our humanity is seated on the very throne of God! Will we join with the humanity of Jesus so that we can also participate in His divinity?
I am sometimes asked what it costs to be a member of this church. The answer is that it costs nothing. There are no set membership “fees” to belong to this holy gathering. But it also costs everything. Being here and being really engaged costs something. It will cost you your time. It will cost you your money. It will cost you your talents. It will cost you your prestige. It will cost you your comfort. It will cost you your convenience. It will cost you your life.
But it will gain you not only life in eternity but an earthly life marked by eternity, a life even on this Earth that shows the power and the glory of the King of Heaven.
The Lord Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:12 that the “violent” take the Kingdom of Heaven “by force.” Are we ready to storm the gates of Heaven with our prayers? Do we want salvation that much?
Will we keep our involvement on the petty, easy, convenient level, with a cold, anemic commitment to salvation, such that we will be unrecognizable to God on the Day of Judgment as being ready for the Kingdom? Or will we make our faith and our good works the fiery crucible for our perfection in Christ?
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.