Sermon - Ordinary 9 - Year A | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Acting in faith

There is some tension between the reading from the gospel today in Matthew Chapter 7 and passages we read from Chapters 1 and 3 in Paul's letter to the Romans. One is about taking action and the other about faith alone being sufficient. At first sight it might appear to be the old conflict between faith and works: is it enough simply to believe, or are judged by what we do? We say, after we have thought about it, that we are put right with God through faith, but we add that faith without works is dead; and that is quite right as far as it goes. But there is something here both more subtle and more simple, and it is helpful, encouraging and important for Christian living, day by day. If we grasp the words of Jesus about acting on what he said, as Matthew gives them to us, Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock, we will be developing an attitude, a way of living, in which we act in faith. That is not the same thing, exactly, as having faith, or believing something. Believing in Jesus as Lord and God, which Christians do, is of fundamental importance; but there is a question about how what we believe makes a difference in our lives, and in the world, so that living by faith, we act in faith. Acting in faith is the most creative and interesting way to live. Let us see if we can dig a little deeper and unearth the foundations of this new way of life in Christ.

First a word about harmony in Scripture. When Christians see apparent contradictions in Scripture we are often inclined to try to harmonise them. So when it seems that one part of Scripture says that it is not good enough just to agree with what Jesus said, that you have to act on it, and in another place it seems that we are being told that nothing we do can make any difference, that we only have to believe, we then try to put those ideas together in some such way as I suggested about having a living faith which is shown in what we do. But we might lose something if we too readily remove the tension between conflicting ideas. Sometimes we need to live with the tension on the surface of our understanding for a while if we are to discover a richer vein of truth beneath. In any case, it should not threaten us to allow that there might be some conflict between New Testament writers. They had different tasks in different situations, sometimes they relied upon different witnesses, and they wrote for different audiences for whom they needed to emphasise different aspects of the gospel. And, like Peter and Paul, as reported both in Act and in Paul's letters, the apostles and evangelists might sometimes have been in open disagreement about some implications of the gospel. We always struggle in the community of faith to come to grips with the truth. It goes right back to the beginning and it is still with us. We can explore and ask questions without fear, and we can trust the Spirit of God to lead us. We do not need to be fearful and defensive in regard to the Word of God which is far stronger than us and does not need our protection. Actively seeking the truth without fear or favour is indeed part of acting in faith, as we live out the kind of life that makes sense of the message from today's readings.

In his letter to the Romans Paul speaks strongly of how believers are justified by faith, while Matthew reports Jesus teaching the wisdom of acting upon his words.

(Matthew 7:24-27)  "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. {25} The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. {26} And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. {27} The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!

These dramatic words of Jesus emphasise action: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. He was not talking about having faith in himself or his teaching, but explicitly about acting on what he said. At first sight at least it appears to be quite a different emphasis from that of Paul in Romans and elsewhere:

(Romans 1:16-17) For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. {17} For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."

Here is the major theme of Paul's letter: in Christ God has acted to give new life to all peoples who will receive it in faith; it is a free gift, not something to be earned or achieved. (On justification by faith, see also the sermon for two weeks hence, Put right with God by faith.) It is something that has been revealed about the nature of God, revealed in Jesus Christ and consistent with what has been know for a long time from the ancient prophets. Where Paul says, "it is written" he is quoting from the prophet Habakkuk, who wrote:

(Habakkuk 2:4) Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith (or faithfulness).

The context in Habakkuk (Who was he, and whoever reads Habakkuk? But don't forget that Paul is citing Scripture) makes it clear that living by faith in God is contrasted with trust in one's own wealth and power. It is a matter of everyday living in the world. When people take pride in their possessions and strength, something is wrong. It is basic stuff, not sophisticated religious language about the sort of things we need to believe, but about what people trust in the way they live. The spirit of people is not right when they trust in things that are not trustworthy, just as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount a little before the passage we read today,

(Matthew 6:19-21) "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; {20} but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. {21} For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Paul appealed to similar wisdom when he called upon people to trust God in Christ rather than our ability to do the right thing, but you might say that obeying the moral law and doing good is a little different and more acceptable to God when compared with trusting in wealth or material possessions as a means of our own salvation. However, Paul would say that it does not matter what justification we might seek to give for ourselves, it is useless where faith is required. In Romans Chapter 3 as elsewhere in his writings Paul speaks of the free gift of the grace of God which comes through faith:

(Romans 3:22b-24) For there is no distinction, {23} since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; {24} they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

(Romans 3:28) For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

So we are justified, put into a right relationship with God, through faith in Jesus Christ, our Saviour. We are now in a new covenant relationship with God, sealed in the sacrifice of Jesus, which we make ours through faith in him, rather than remaining in the old covenant in which our relationship to God in maintained in keeping the law of God. Quite apart from all that we might achieve by keeping the commandments of God which are required under the old covenant in which Moses led the people of God, and no matter well or how poorly we might do under those requirements, we are put into a right relationship with God not by what we do but by having faith. It is a comforting and liberating doctrine, and we believe it to be true. It is faith, not keeping the commandments, that will save us. But what about those words of Jesus about obeying his commandments which are also the will of God? We often say that the faith is most simply expressed in saying "Jesus is Lord"; that is, we believe that he is God (Lord) and put our trust in him, but, according to Matthew, Jesus said:

(Matthew 7:21) "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

Or we might add the witness of John in the farewell messages of Jesus to his disciples:

(John 14:15) "If you love me, you will keep my commandments".

Matthew had no doubt that acting on what Jesus said was the same as doing the will of God: only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. What is more, for Matthew's understanding of Jesus, such obedience is directly linked to entry into the kingdom of God, if we turn the sentence around: only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven, not everyone who calls me Lord. The word "Lord" can mean only a respectful "Sir", but when it is linked with entry into the kingdom of God "Lord" means "God", which is what the early Christians meant when they confessed their faith saying, "Jesus is Lord", which Paul said later in Romans was sufficient for salvation,

(Romans 10:9) .. if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Perhaps Matthew was warning people not to confuse these different meanings of Lord, a respectful "Sir" is not good enough, you must really believe that Jesus is God, and act on his words as you would on the commands of God if you are to enter the Kingdom. You can see how strongly Matthew is making the point if you compare his account with that of Luke who appears to be reporting the same saying of Jesus:

(Luke 6:46-48) "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you? {47} I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. {48} That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.

There is nothing in Luke's account about entry into the kingdom of God. Perhaps Luke had access to the same source of information on what Jesus said but did not think it important to include those words about the kingdom of heaven, or perhaps Matthew got them from elsewhere, but however it came about it is typical of Matthew to emphasise the importance of what people do. It was Matthew, again in the sermon on the Mount, who made a point of the teaching of Jesus about keeping the commandments of the Old Testament, reporting that Jesus had come to fulfil the law found in scripture, and not to abolish it.

(Matthew 5:17-19) "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. {18} For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. {19} Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

It was Matthew too who passed on the parable of the sheep and the goats, where those who did good deeds for people in need (a cup of water for the thirsty) were rewarded with a place in the kingdom as if they had giving a personal service to Christ himself (as one of the least of these my brothers). They would enter into the joy of the Lord.

(Matthew 25:31-36) "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. {32} All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, {33} and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. {34} Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; {35} for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, {36} I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

(Matthew 25:40) And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

There is no doubt that there was conflict, at least in emphasis, between the Jewish Christians whose understanding is represented by Matthew with its tendency to see Jesus as fulfilling the law of God which the Jews had received in the Old Covenant, and that different emphasis on the grace of God which Paul made when he was working with Gentile Christians who it had been agreed after much debate should not be expected to keep Jewish customs. They were both struggling to work out an understanding of the Gospel which was true to Christ and did true honour to God. For us today, it is no mere academic argument at a time when people in Western societies at least, and increasingly also elsewhere, put great value on personal freedoms of all kinds. Following rules is not very popular. Free people should live freely and not be bound by unnecessary rules and, they say, by outdated rules, laws, ideas or customs - why be hung up on those old things - do what seems right to you, just have the right sort of positive attitude. The technical term for it is antinomianism - being opposed to regarding the moral law as binding on us all. Often it is claimed that such ideas of moral law are only meaningful within the culture of particular groups, that there is nothing God requires of all people, if indeed there is any God to require anything of anyone. So Christians, emphasising the free grace of God, trusting in salvation by faith, rather than the goodness of what we do, should feel free, they say, to live without conforming to any ancient laws. Matthew's presentation of the gospel challenges those easy living preferences, which we tend to think are a modern thing, but which were part of the struggle from the beginning to live as Jesus called his disciples to live. It is also a misunderstanding of Paul's teaching about faith, but an easy mistake to make.

But really, should following Jesus be a struggle? Is there not something in the idea of freedom? Did Jesus not liberate people, setting them free in all sort of ways? Did he not teach that love is the fulfilling of the law? Indeed he did. He might have sought in his own life and in his teaching to fulfil rather than abolish the old law, and even to go beyond it to greater holiness, but he called people to follow him in trust, to enter into a personal relationship which meant trusting God through him. That was in contrast to trusting in themselves, whether it be in their wealth and power or in their moral goodness, which are both tarnished and poor offerings when compared with the great things God has done for us.

The clue to the puzzle, the way out of the struggle, is that if we trust God and especially what God has done for us in Christ, if we have faith in him, then we are set free from the worry of whether what we do is good enough. We are free from that worry because we do not depend upon it. We can act on the words of Jesus because we trust him as God. Trusting God, having faith in Christ, we can act freely and happily in the way that Jesus taught. Having faith in him we gladly act on his words and so live a life that is built on firm foundations, like a house on rock. To trust in our own power or our goodness is like building on sand; lacking secure foundations our lives are likely to fall apart when the stormy times come. Acting in faith is both free and secure. There need be no conflict between faith and action, believing and doing. Faith does set people free, not for selfish indulgence, but in the glorious liberty of the children of God who love to act in faith.

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