Faith and Faith Alone.

“But what do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ His son replied, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and told him the same thing. He replied, ‘I will, sir,’ but he didn’t go. Which of the two did the father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes will get into God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, but you didn’t believe him. The tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. But even when you saw that, you didn’t change your minds at last and believe him.”  (Matthew 21:28-32)

This is the passage that we read and discussed this past Tuesday morning at Bible Study.  For many of us, it is difficult to imagine that this short parable is anything other than a story in support of works righteousness.  After all, the one who does the will of the Father actually “does” something, right?  Given the story, it’s obvious that just saying you will “do” something is not enough.  Action is required.

But if this is true, then salvation becomes a matter of our doing, or not doing, certain things.  The latter being especially true of the church of my youth.  You want to be saved, the church seemed to say, then don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t go to the movies or play cards, and especially do not dance, and never, ever swim with members of the opposite sex.   While me may have sung the song “Jesus Paid It All.”  we acted as though the debt of our sin was still before us, and that this mountain of debt could only be moved little by little by our own feeble attempts to be good and to do good works.  Thank you Jesus for your grace, now please get out of my way while I try to whittle away at the evil within me and become good by the force of my own will.

And at first glance, the parable above appears to support this view.  Doing is the be all and end all of a life lived in Christ.  But as Robert Farrar Capon points out in his book “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment:”  a “works-versus-words reading is a mistake.  Jesus is on the subject of faith in his own exousia (authority), not on the subject of legalistic fine slicing by which a  no that turns into a yes can be construed as a more meritorious work than a yes that turns out to be a no (page 444).”

Capon goes on to add that though this is a parable of judgment, the judgment in this parable and in all the parables of judgment falls only upon unfaith.  To make his point he refers to the ending portion of the scriptures above which refer to John the Baptist.  Capon asks what the basis of salvation is for the tax collectors and prostitutes.  And by doing so, he makes it clear that salvation comes, not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding citizens, but because they believed (The tax collectors and prostitutes believed…).  Finally Capon brings this reasoning to the parable in question by rephrasing the question Jesus asks.

Q:  On which of these two sons will judgement fall?
A:  On the second.

Q:  Why?
A:  Because he did not do the will of his father.

Q:  And what then is the father’s will?
A:  [I quote from Jesus himself, in John 6:40]:  “This is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him may everlasting life, and I while raise him up at the last day. (Page 445)

Saved by belief, by faith, alone in Jesus.  Saved just because they believe in him.  How much easier could it be?  Of course that’s the problem.  If it is too easy, we tend not to trust it’s efficacy.  How can that be all that God wants or desires.  It can’t be that simple, can it?  And what does that mean, if it is true, for all the wonderful and good things that I do in my life?  Are they nothing . . . worth nothing?  And does this mean that anybody can waltz into the pearly gates just by believing in Jesus?  They don’t have to do anything else?  Well, that’s not fair.  Even worse, it is wrong.  Terribly, terribly wrong.  This kind of “injustice” can be downright infuriating.

This attitude reminds me of a story in a book written by Louis Evely that I have.  The book is That Man Is You, and in it Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:

The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”

For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this …” “I just cannot get over it!”

Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment.

And this brings me to the most powerful couple of paragraphs in Capon’s book, which in fact serves a summary of sorts for much of his teaching on Jesus’ parables so far.  So please pardon the long quote that follows, although I think you find it an amazing read if you just take the time.  Writing about the parable, Capon says:

And if you then expand upon the parable, you get an instant application of it to the life of the church in all ages.  For no matter how much we give to the notion of free grace and dying love, we do not like it.  It is just too . . . indiscriminate.  It lets rotten sons and crooked tax collectors and common tarts into the kingdom, and it thumbs its nose at really good people.  And it does that gallingly, for no more reason than the Gospel’s shabby exhaltation of dumb trust over worthy works.  Such nonsense, we mutter in our hearts, such heartless, immoral folly.  We’ll teach God, we say.  We will continue to sing Amazing Grace in church; but we will jolly well be judicious when it comes to explaining to the riffraff what it actually means.  We will assure them, of course, that God loves them and forgives them, but we will make it clear that we  expect them to clean up their act before we clasp them seriously to our bosom.  We don’t want whores and chiselers and practicing gays (even if they are suffering with AIDS) thinking they can barge in here and fraternize.  Above all, we do not want drunk priests, or ministers who cheat on their wives with church organists, standing up there in the pulpit telling us that God forgives such effrontery . . .

Do you see now?  We are second sons, elder brothers, respectable Pharisees, twelve-hour, all day laborers whose moral efforts have been trampled on . . .  We are resentful at being the butts of the divine joke of grace that says nothing matters except plain, old, de facto, yes-Jesus faith.  And when we institutionalize that resentment by giving the impression that the church is not for sinners and gainsayers, we are a disgrace to the Gospel — a bushel of works hiding the Light of the World.  We are under judgment. (Pages 446 and 447)

We are under judgment, as surely as those “good people” in Jean Anouilh’s play.  In a great reversal (one of many we see in the Gospel), those we think deserve the judgement and punishme
nt of an angry God get off scot free, while we, who are expecting the loving embrace of the Father, find ourselves outside of his grace.  And not because God has withheld it either.  No, by our actions we have excluded ourselves, we have rejected God’s mercy and grace for others, and by extension, for ourselves.  And it is a grace and mercy that requires one thing, and one thing only. As Capon says, and this will be my last quote I promise:

The Father’s will for you — his whole plan of salvation — is that you believe in Jesus, nothing more.  He has already forgiven you, he has already reconciled you, he has already raised you up together with Jesus and made you sit in heavenly places with him.  And better yet, Jesus himself has already pronounced upon you the approving judgement of having done his Father’s will. But if you do not believe him — if you insist on walking up to the bar of judgment on your own faithless feet and arguing a case he has already dismissed — well, you will never hear the blessed silence of his uncondemnation over the infernal racket of your voice.  “He who argues his own case has a fool for a lawyer” is true in any court.  But in this court you will be more than a fool if you try that trick.  You will be an idiot.  There is no case.  There is no evidence against you.  And there is no courtroom to display your talents in.  It is all quashed . . . the whole thing, you see, stands forever on its head:  the last shall be first — just for believing. (Page 448)

In the end, faith and faith alone is all that matters.

All I Need

steve-martin-jerk One of my favorite Steve Martin movies is The Jerk, in which Martin plays the character Navin Johnson, a white man raised by a black family.  Johnson is also little more than a complete moron, who somehow rises to the top of the world due to a simple invention of his, which makes him a multi-millionaire.  At one point in the film, when he is down on his luck, Johnson leaves his home while claiming that he doesn’t need a thing there (quote below from IMDB)

Navin R. Johnson: Well I’m gonna to go then. And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything except this.
[picks up an ashtray]

Navin R. Johnson: And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one – I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that’s all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.
[walking outside]

Navin R. Johnson: And I don’t need one other thing, except my dog.
[dog barks]

Navin R. Johnson: I don’t need my dog.

It is difficult at times to distinguish between what I need and I want.  The list of my wants is very long and would include items from the silly to sublime:

  • a whole bunch of new books to read
  • several new cds I’d like to listen to
  • more money
  • a minimum of 4 more hours in each day
  • a pair of new black dress shoes that never need polishing
  • a national championship for my alma mater Eastern Kentucky University in football (Go Colonels!!!)
  • the ability to write and finish my sermons before late Saturday evenings or early Sunday mornings
  • a cool new cell phone (since I gave mine to my daughter for her birthday – she needs the minutes more than I do)
  • about 25 less pounds on my body

A list of my needs, however, would be much shorter (and more serious).  I need:

  • to be a good father to Desiree
  • to be a good pastor
  • to be more committed in my following of Jesus

One thing I notice right away when I compare these two lists is that my “needs” list contains not one single “thing” on it.  I already more stuff than I need, and though I may want more stuff, most of what I have already is unnecessary.  The second thing I notice is that my “needs” are all centered on relationships . . . with others and with Jesus.  People are important, not things.

In many ways, I wish that I was more like Paul, who once wrote:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV)

How about you?  What do you really need?

Faith

Another Sunday morning has come and gone, and though the sermon I preached today was not all that great, I, at least, did finish writing it before I preached it (I was busy making corrections on it with a pencil until 5 minutes before I had to preach, however).  I think it “preached” better at the traditional service, where I actually got a few compliments on it.

The primary text I used was from Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (NRSV)

This is such a vivid passage of scripture, and I fear my presentation did not do it justice.  I tried to convey the need to persevere in faith even in the darkest times, even when our faith takes us to places we don’t want to go, and even if our faith seems to be in vain.  I also talked about the fact that faith requires action on the part of the one who has it.  But maybe I would have been better off just reading them a prayer and sitting down.

The following prayer is taken from the book Celtic Daily Prayer (See link below, and thanks to Sonja of the blog Calacirian and the Google Group No Fairy Dust Here for originally posting it here.  I used in the traditional service but not the modern/contemporary one.

Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day’
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though anxious of heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept me safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today, I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though You be silent now,
today I believe.