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“Faith or / and works?”
(Based on Matthew 22:34-40)
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!
This is such a rich text, there is so much we could reflect on, so much… I was really agonizing trying to decide on what to preach and which questions to leave out. So today we will focus on – the relationships between faith and works. Or we could say – between what we believe and how we live.
People of faith… have you heard this phrase? You, people of faith! It is often used referring to Christians. People of faith… What do you think about this phrase? I think it is really misleading. It kind of divides humanity in people of faith and people of … I am not sure how would the rest be called.
People of works? Or people of reason? Or people without faith? I don’t know. The point I want to make is this – we all, every single human being is a person of faith. Yes, all people are people of faith. What do I mean by this?
See, we all assume, or we could say, we all believe that there are some foundational things that are true. But those are not things that we can somehow check or verify or prove that they are true. We just choose to believe them.
A few examples. Some people choose to believe that there is some higher being, we usually call Him God. Others choose to believe that there is no such being, that matter is all that there is.
Yet, others choose to believe that this world is just an illusion, and the real world is the spiritual world. Some choose to believe that we live only once. Others choose to believe that we keep returning back again and again.
Some choose to believe that there is no purpose and meaning for us being here. Others choose to believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. This I think is really strange idea. For how can you come to such conclusion if you honestly observe how hard and challenging and often miserable our lives are?
But the thing is, these all are … just beliefs. None of them can be proved in the strict sense of the word. What does this mean? That all human beings, indeed, are people of faith. This is a very important insight.
If you meet someone who says that they are not people of faith, you can assure them that they most certainly are, the question would only be – whether what they believe is true or not.
This is very important to understand because what we believe to be true about this world, about God, and about ourselves shapes our lives. It shapes our allegiances, priorities, values, attitudes, our choices and decisions, and so on.
For example, the belief that we are accountable for how we lead our lives will result in different life than the belief that we are not accountable. You will live differently if you believe that this life is about fulfilling your sexual desires, comparing to someone, who may believe that this life is about serving others.
You will live differently if you believe that the main purpose for you is to be happy, comparing to someone who may believe that this life is about dutifully taking on the many responsibilities that we all have.
The bottom-line is, we all are people of faith, and what we believe to be true, shapes how we go about this life. Our today’s reading also helps us to reflect on exactly this point. The question the Pharisees asked:
“What is the great commandment?” How could we put in different words? What they were asking was – how to live if you believe what the Holy Scripture teaches about God, about the world and about ourselves?
Or we could put it this way – how should we live as Christians? Jesus answers: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
There are so many misunderstandings among Christians when it comes to the relationships between our faith and our lives. We cannot examine them all in this sermon. But that is a worthy topic for a longer Bible study. One day…
On the one end of the spectrum there is the idea that we can earn God’s favour and whatever else He may give us by being good people. Of course, according to our definition of what is good. But the Holy Spirit says the opposite: “All are born dead in their sins, there is none who is good, none who searches for God.”
On the other end there is the idea that because of what Jesus did, we don’t need to do anything anymore. That sounds really sweet… It almost sounds like the Gospel has saved us from good works. But the Holy Spirit again says the very opposite, that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)
The first extreme can be compared to a dodgy deal, where someone attempts to exchange their dirty underwear to beautiful, priceless treasure. The second can be compared to abusive relationships, where one side, our God, does and sacrifices everything, and the other side, we, just shamelessly parasitize on it.
Now, what does Jesus’ answer mean for us? Jesus teaches us His way, the proper relationship between faith and works, based in the most wonderful mutually caring and respectful relationship we can imagine. Let’s see.
Yes, we are people of faith, and yes, our faith should shape how we live, it should manifest itself. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Paul’s letters are saturated with exhortations for our new lives in Christ. James, brother of Jesus, speaks about two kinds of faith, one that is faith only in theory, the dead faith, and the other is the faith that manifests in good works. Luther famously said that we are saved by faith alone, but that the saving faith is never alone. It is living and active. And in our today’s reading Jesus teaches us how our faith should shape our lives. He gives us the two Great Commandments which contain also the rest of them.
It is always so joyful to reflect on the Commandments. Why? Because they are not some rules. They are the loving will of our personal God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for our relationship with Him and with one another.
The Commandments describe who we are created to be. When we think about the Commandments, first we are drawn to the One, who gave them to us, and reminded about what He has done, still does and has promised to us.
When we think about the Commandments, we first need to think about our God who loves you with all His heart and all His soul and all His mind. These are not just words; He has shown His affection and commitment in the most extreme way – but laying down His life for you, as His dear friend.
He always loves you first, serves you first, commits to you first, and only then He teaches us how to respond to His love. This is where we can test ourselves – whether we truly believe what we say we believe, or perhaps we simply have learned some Biblical teachings, but our lives are guided by different beliefs.
When we believe that God the Father has created you and still gives you the gift of life – how grateful it makes us! When we believe that Jesus, the Son of God has sacrificed His life for you – how attracted to Him we become!
When we believe that the Holy Spirit indwells in us and embraces us in the fellowship with the Trinity – how drawn to Him we are! Just think about this amazing reality, this God comes to us and He pledges His allegiance to us:
“I want to be your God! I formed you! I am with you, always! I want to bless you! I want to have you with me forever so that we can be together and I can share with you what is mine!”
When we believe this, we will love Him more than anything, we will fear to reject, or disappoint Him more than anything, and we will trust Him and rely on Him more than on anyone or anything else in entire creation.
Then we want to grasp every word that comes from Him, we thirst to learn what He teaches about Himself, this world and us. Then there is no greater joy than to enjoy familial conversation with Him and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
When we believe that in His loving care our Father’s ears and heart are always open to us, we will turn to Him with everything that is important to us, as dearly loved children. We will run to Him to share our joys. We will hurry to Him to pour out our sorrows and fears, He will be our safe haven in every situation.
When we believe that He desires to be among us and to bless us, that He Himself comes to speak to us the words of forgiveness and Fatherly love, that He unites us with Him in His Holy Meal – then nothing will keep us away from the Divine Service where all of this is given to us.
When we believe that all authorities are the Father’s chosen good tools to bring His abundant blessings to us, then we will gladly honour and obey our parents, our pastors and many others in positions of responsibility.
When we believe that our God is the source of life, that He forms each one of us in mother’s womb, we will value and treasure the gift of life, we will fervently protect it in all situations, from its conception to the very end of our lives.
When we believe that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and that He has given us the gift of marriage as the place that reminds and teaches us about His love and service to us, then we cherish and rejoice in our marriages and the gift of sexuality, and strive to keep our relationships pure.
When we believe that our Father provides daily bread for us, then we are generous with what He has entrusted to us, gladly supporting the Gospel and the poor in all their needs. When we believe that Jesus wants us to pray even for our enemies, then we too try to explain everything is the most charitable way.
When we believe that we are loved and treasured beyond our imagination, then we appreciative and are grateful for the life that our God has given to us. When we believe that our Father desires everyone to be saved, when we believe that our Brother Jesus sacrificed His life for each one of us – then we are passionate about inviting everyone in the wonderful fellowship with this God.
When we truly believe – then we live this way. Faith and works. This is what we are created for. This is what we are redeemed for. This is what it means to be fully human. This is what we all are to strive for, with God’s help.
Just remember that the commandment “to love” doesn’t actually help us to love anyone. It commands, yes, it may reveal that we don’t do it, true. But it doesn’t actually enable us to keep it. The Gospel does.
When we meet our God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, when He speaks to us and opens for us His kind and friendly heart, when He reveals what He has done for us, and what He hopes for us, when He gently embraces us, that changes everything.
The divine love is kindled. The trust is created. The affection is stirred up. For when we meet our God, when we truly meet Him, we are changed. When we see how passionately He desires us, then we desire to respond with the same.
This is how true faith and true good works relate. We believe and therefore we act. That is like two sides of the same coin. You can’t separate them. They both come from our God, because He loves you first.
I pray that the Holy Spirit would break through our hardened hearts, that He would persuade us that all of this is indeed true, so that our faith would issue in beautiful Christian lives. As a great joy for us, as a blessing for others, and to the glory of our Father.