Dear Working Preacher,
I suspect that the difference between heresy and orthodoxy is at times a lot thinner than we imagine.
I am part of a Christian tradition that cherishes the promise that not only do we not have to earn our salvation, but that we actually can’t. It is, as Jesus declares in Luke’s gospel, God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Gifts, by definition, cannot be earned but only generously given and gratefully received. The simple promise that God unconditionally gives us God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness is the heart and soul of the gospel.
As comforting to anguished souls as this promise may be, however, at times it’s also debilitating. Worried that any talk of “what we should do” might be interpreted as “works righteousness,” the confident declaration “there is nothing we have to do” too easily slides into the anxious assertion “there is nothing we should do.” At its worst, this skewed understanding of the gospel balks at talk not only of good works but of the Christian life at all, believing that any assertion that God does indeed want us to do things risks jeopardizing the Reformation assertion that we are justified by grace through faith, apart from works of the law.
Which begs the question: what do we do with what Jesus says next? After all, right after his promise, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” he goes on to instruct, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” Why, we might ask; to which Jesus answers, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Uh-oh! If we take this seriously, what happens to our “don’t do anything” mantra? It falls apart, of course, because it was based on a false dichotomy and faulty premise. Saying “we don’t have to do anything” to earn God’s love is not the same at all as saying “we shouldn’t do anything” in response to God’s love. In fact, we will do something. We can’t help but act, will, be, do. Human beings are forever creatures in motion, restless from birth, finally still only in the grave. The question, therefore, is not whether we will do something but instead what and why.
Before you raise too many objections, let me assure you that I recognize that our penchant to justify ourselves is alive and well. Because humans are at heart insecure and always a little desperate to assert our independence, God’s promise of acceptance and forgiveness can be unsettling, even frightening. Admitting need feels like death to the self-made man or woman. So much better, therefore, to have something of our own to fall back on — a spark of goodness, the claim that we invited Jesus into our heart, a few good works, a hefty bank account — than depend completely on God’s sheer mercy.
But asserting God’s unconditional grace is only one half of the story. We are not only freed from anxiety regarding our relationship with God. We are also freed for life in this world. This, also, is the heart of the gospel promise. We are freed from fear of scarcity so that we can be generous with others. We are freed from the fear of condemnation so that we can forgive others. We are freed from the fear of falling short, of failing, of being unacceptable so that we can live for our neighbors, sharing with others the good news that God is pleased to give us — all of us — the kingdom.
Faith, as attested not only in this Sunday’s gospel passage but also in the first and second readings about Abraham, creates the courage to risk, to dare, to do — not because we have to, but because we can, even because we want to.
Which means that maybe we working preachers should give a little more attention in our sermons to what God would have us do in this life and world. Maybe we might even suggest that what we do actually matters…to our neighbor and to God. And maybe by inviting our hearers to imagine the shape and import of our Christian life, we might give them another reason to come to church. Yes, of course, we come to hear that God has done all things for us in Christ. But we also come needing to hear that God has something for us to do as well, something that matters, something that gives us the sense of belonging and purpose that all people crave.
So there it is, Working Preacher, my invitation to you to consider not only proclaiming the content of our salvation in Christ but also to lift up the character of our Christian lives by reminding us of our freedom in Christ to — with a nod to Nike — just do it: to love our neighbor, to care for creation, to reach out to those in need, to give for the sheer delight of it, to forgive even as we are forgiven, to embrace the future, and to receive all good things in humility and gratitude. Why? Because we should? Certainly; this is what God wants both from us and for us. But even more, because we can; because this is what God has freed us for.
Sound heretical? Well, like I said, sometimes heresy and orthodoxy are closer than we imagine. So go ahead, Working Preacher, just do it. For you, too, are free to risk, to dare, and to do, not only in your Christian life but also in your gospel proclamation. So remind us, please, that because of Christ we are free to do amazing and wondrous things, living like there’s no tomorrow…all because God delights to give us the kingdom today.
Thank you for this, Working Preacher, and for all that you do for the sake of the gospel.
Yours in Christ,