The Reading is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 2:16-20
BRETHREN, you know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Today, in the Epistle reading from St. Paul, we come face to face with the prescription for life in the Church. St. Paul is telling his readers that it is not works it is not following all of the rules that justify you, it is your faith that does that. It is not enough that you know and understand all of the rules and regulations of the faith, and we sure do have them, but you need to have true faith, the faith that will move mountains, that is what is required. But it does not end there.
If we take this passage on face value, some might say that since we think we don’t have to do anything else. Some believe that if I come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ as my “personal savior” I am saved, and that is it that is all I have to do. Salvation does not happen in an instant, as Metropolitan Kalistos Ware is fond of saying, we are not saved we are in the process of BEING saved.
It is not simply enough we have to do something with it. St. Paul is right that we are not justified by the works that we do we cannot earn this or purchase our way in, it does not work that way. The faith that St. Paul is writing about is the faith of Christ and that is the Gospel, and not just the parts that we like. It is the faith of Christ, His beliefs, His trust, His obedience that makes all of this possible. Christ’s faith is seen in His entire life on earth, not in just a few isolated incidents. It needs to be that way with us as well.
St. Paul is not saying that works are not required. We read in the Letter of St. James that faith without works is a dead faith, and some have added to that to say that works without faith is dead. Our faith requires us to put that faith into action. Jesus did not just sit around and preach to people, Jesus not seek the high place of honor at banquets and other meetings, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He healed people He fed them, He listened to their stories, He genuinely cared for all He came into contact with, even those who were trying to kill Him. This is what faith is all about! When St. Paul and others speak of the faith of Christ this is what he means. Jesus says it himself, Love God and love your neighbor and we love them by helping them.
St. John Chrysostom, whose liturgy we celebrate on most Sundays, is known as the golden mouth. He gets this title, not because of his great dental work, but because of his ability to speak the truth in love and make the faith alive in the people who listened to him. St. John was an orator of the first caliber. In his writings on faith, he has many nuggets of wisdom that it would be appropriate for us to hear today, one of those nuggets is
“Help me Lord to lead a holy life and to do good works, so that those who see me may praise Your Name”
What St. John is reminding us is that we do these things, not for our own benefit, we do not do these things, so we can say, “look at what I have done,” we do these things to bring honor to God and so they will know we are Christians. If we do anything for our own benefit, we are not fulfilling the mission of Christ. Jesus did not do what He did for himself, He did what He did for others, He healed people so that they could be whole, but also that others might believe, and that is what we need to do.
Years ago, I lead a team of people on a work trip to Romania. We went to work in a neighborhood that was not the best of places to work in Bucharest. We worked alongside Romanians who had been beaten down by the Communist system for far too long. They system provided for most of their needs, and they had lost enthusiasm. We worked alongside them, we did not do the work for them, but we helped them and showed them how to get things done. The program was called, “work and witness.” We were there to work, but we were also there to witness, witness to the love of Christ and to our faith. We were not standing on the corner telling them they were going to hell unless they repented of their wicked ways; no we rolled up our sleeves and helped them to make a difference in their own lives. That is the essence of the Gospel. That is what it means to be a Christian.
But this is not easy especially in a world that is all about the individual and not the community. During the summer when I was a kid, and I am sure this is the same for most of you, I would leave the house in the morning and go out and play in the neighborhood. My mother was not worried about what would happen because people watched out for others and ensured that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing. My mother knew, as did I, that if I did anything wrong one of the neighbors would call and let her know. In this day and age if you do that you might get sued, that is if the kids even go out of the house! We have lost that sense of community; we have lost that sense of helping others and keeping an eye out for the wellbeing of others. We are becoming a society of individuals that are only concerned with what is good for the individual.
In order for us to truly live the Christian life we have to die to self. St. Paul says towards the end of this letter today that he has been “crucified with Christ, it is no long I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” This is not the crucifixion of human nature that is what Christ was crucified for; this is the crucifixion of our flesh of our passions and of our desires. Just as Christ willing accepted His crucifixion we have to do the same. We crucify the self, we die to the self, and we begin to live a life that is centered on someone else.
Life in the Church is what helps us to live this life that we are called to live through our baptism. On the day we were baptized we were marked with the “sign of faith” and set apart for a holy work. And the life in the Church is what helps us with that.
The faith that we have, the faith that we practice is not for punishment but for edification. All of the fasting and other such things are designed not to punish us or make us miserable, but to awaken in us that desire to follow Christ closer than we are. And it is this close walk that we have that will cause us to love those around us and to care for all.
Mother Maria of Paris, a nun in the Russian Orthodox Church and a convert to the faith, had a monastery with an open door to anyone who needed help. Times were difficult for people in her neighborhood, and even though she had little she shared what she had with others. I have used this quote of hers before, but I think it fits with the reading today,
“At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, how many bows and prostrations I made [in the course of prayer]. I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison’. To think that He puts an equal sign between Himself and anyone in need…”
This is the very essence of the Gospel to live for someone else, and we have Christ as the example of this. But in order for us to do this we need to die to self, we need to get out of the way and let the love of Christ shine through us to the world.
That is our mission, and it is the most important thing we can do.