Friday, March 6, 2020

Lent 2020: Show Me, Don't Tell Me

If you're following this Lenten journal, you'll notice that I don't mention Paul much. There are many reasons for that, but the primary one is that my focus is on the life and teachings of Jesus, which Paul almost completely ignores. Much like the Nicene Creed that skips completely over Jesus' earthly life and ministry, so Paul places his focus on the death and resurrection. In doing so, we lose Jesus' instructions to us to live out the example he set out for us, so that we might build the Kingdom of God on Earth.

More to the point, we lose sight of the fact that our life in Christ is meant to be one of actively following in his ways, of picking up our cross and following him daily. "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to the Father in heaven," Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount. "Whatsoever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me," he says when separating the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25. "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and not do what I say?" he asks in Luke.

Ever since the Reformation, Paul's writings have been used to argue for a sola fide view of religion -- that is, faith alone will save you. Martin Luther emphasized this idea largely in reaction to the selling of indulgences in the Catholic church. The corruption of many medieval priests led Luther to essentially throw out the baby with the bathwater, in the sense that he laid the foundation for a way of thinking that says you can live however you want once you've "accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and savior," to use the modern evangelical lingo. "Sin boldly," Luther wrote. "No sin can separate us from him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day."

Yes, Luther really wrote that. I suppose he could have come to no other conclusion, given that this was a man so neurotic that he spent literally hours in the confessional every single day recounting all his sins. He saw no way out of his predicament, except to conclude that he didn't need to recount his sins at all. And he used the writings of Paul as his escape hatch.

So if you've ever wondered why so many Christians act like such huge jerks, completely antithetical to the ways of Christ, that's why. There is a massive contingent of Christianity that believes once you're saved, you can do whatever you want, because your ticket to heaven is irrevocably punched. More often than not, these same folks are very fond of quote-bombing from the letters of Paul, often to the complete exclusion of the words of Jesus himself. Draw your own conclusions about what that means, but I've had evangelical Christians tell me they had no idea what the Beatitudes or the Transfiguration are -- I kid you not -- while they could cite any verse in Romans from memory. 

Now, of course, Paul never knew Jesus. But James did. And James preached that faith without works is dead. James also said that we should confess our sins to one another, and that's why the Catholic and Orthodox churches have the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession -- the same sacrament that caused Luther such inner turmoil. Luther, not coincidentally, wanted to remove James from the New Testament, calling it an "epistle of straw." One pictures Luther regarding James in the same manner as a child who, unwilling to hear an unpleasant statement from an adult, sticks her fingers in her ears and says "neener, neener, can't hear you."

So why am I bringing this up? Because of the readings in today's lectionary. First, we have God speaking to his people in the Book of Ezekiel:
"But if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. All their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done."  
"Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?" says the Sovereign Lord. "Of course not. I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live. However, if righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things and act like other sinners, should they be allowed to live? No, of course not. All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins. 
Sure sounds to me as if salvation is far from a one-time, one-and-done deal. Sounds to me that if you transgress, God expects you to get right with him again.

Yes, but that's the Old Testament, you say. OK, let's flip over to today's Gospel reading, again from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus sets a high bar for his followers:
"But I warn you: Unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
He goes on to say that cursing another person, even as little as being angry with them, makes us subject to judgment. So if we have a quarrel with someone, we should leave our sacrifice at the altar and make amends first.

This view of scripture is often criticized as promoting a "works-based salvation," meaning that we have to do a certain number of good deeds to earn a heavenly reward. But that's not the point, and it never was the point. The point is that Jesus expects his followers to act with kindness, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness -- to be Christ-like, rather than claiming to follow Christ but then acting nothing like him. It is, in essence, what he asks of us in return for what he's done for us.

In other words, saying you're saved is easy. Anyone can do that. But actually showing me you're saved is another thing entirely.

"Someone may argue, 'Some people have faith; others have good deeds," James writes. "But I say, 'How can you show me your faith if you don't have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds."

You can't act like a garbage human being and expect to be rewarded for it. Actions have consequences. The bottom line is, we have to walk it like we talk it. That's our lifelong homework assignment. Are we up for the challenge?

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