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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Faith and Works

Lent is a season of renewed commitment to discipleship. This is our work, yet we recognize it is God Who has accomplished all that we have done. This Sunday I preached on Abraham. In Genesis 15 we  have the famous verse which Paul uses in his argument for faith. Abraham believed  the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. My point, tying it into Fr. Rene's homily the week prior (on lies, see  yesterday's post) was that Abraham may have had faith, but it was not of such sturdy stuff to be unassailable. In fact, in Genesis 16 Abraham, following Srah's lead, impregnates her hand mainden Hagar to assure an heir. Abraham may have had faith, I explained, but he also had Plan B in the event God did not act quickly enough. The Genesis text never says that Abraham doubted or lost faith. However,  he certainly acted like someone who did. And while his faith was reckoned as righteousness, his works (outside of that faith) brought great suffering to many. Had Abraham done the works of faith consistently world history could be different!

In my two weeks of preparing to preach on faith and faithfulness, I found that "faith-works"  was a sort of background noise in my soul. [It is hard not to think about such things through the prism of the Western Church's Civil War (reformation).] To make it more intense, last Friday we discussed the book of Hebrews, where the words faith and obedience are used interchangably. One almost is led to think that they are, in Hebrews, one and the same; or at least two sides of the same coin.

With that in mind, it was interesting as I prayed on the exercise machine at the YMCA yesterday. (We  have computer screens so I went to Bible Gateway) So as I am doing my aerobics I can also read Scripture privately in public. Anyhow, we are now reading Romans in MP so I went back to review the first chapter. There I read among the opening words this phrase "to bring about obedience in faith" [ ἐλάβομεν χάριν καὶ ἀποστολὴν εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως can also be translated obedience to the faith]. I was struck by the close connection I  had seen in Hebrews. Later as I prayed some psalms I was reminded of the centrality of faith in the Jewish Bible (Tanak). The ancient covenant texts emphasize faith so often. Psalm 32:20 steadfast love surrounds those who TRUST in the Lord; 33:18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love. Psalm 34 picks up on similar theme, proclaiming the salvation of those who seek the Lord, who take refuge in the Lord, fear the Lord--yet clearly sees a behavioral component as it says those who keep from evil, do the right and are righteous will find salvation.

All of this stirred up rabbi Leman's answer to a question on our retreat day the first Sunday of Lent, "How do Jews think they are saved?" His answer (including the discalimer that there is not a single Jewish belief) was that they believe that all who "cling to God" as part of His people can trust in His salvation. I think that such trust is at the core of Paul's teaching on faith. And I think such clinging includes the expectation that one is busy with the works of obedience, justice and faithfulness. In the Jewish Bible and in the early church it seems faith and works were seen more organically.

I am not much troubled with the faith vs. works debate any more. I think it is a false argument. It misleads. It is like debating what keeps us alive when breathing: inhaling or exhaling? Bringing in oxygen or expelling carbon dioxide? Failure to accomplish either is deadly, we must achieve both to live. Sort of like faith and works, trust and obedience, faith in mind & heart and faith in word & deed. In Lent we pray for faith and commit to more faithful works. We see both as composite parts of the life of discipleship. Rather than ponder the relationship and engage in theological debates about it, we are better off to trust God, hope in Him and believe. And believing we should then do the works of righteousness which also save!

1 comment:

  1. I love your comparison to trying to determine which part of the breath gives life. So many of our problems in theology, ecclesiology, and other areas of life come from not seeing life organically. Von Balthasar wrote, "Anatomy can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements." I think a lot of our trouble comes from trying to dissect too much. We end up killing and contorting the things we're trying to understand.