This past Sunday, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, the Epistle reading comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 2. In this chapter St. Paul writes that it is not works that will see you a place in heaven for we are chosen by grace and not by what we do, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves” (v. 8). But does this mean that we are not required to do anything? Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and He tells us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit those in hospital and prison. Why does Jesus ask us to perform these “works” if it will not help us and our salvation?
We cannot earn our way in, for lack of a better term, but Christianity requires that we put our faith in action. St. James tells us that faith without works is dead. We cannot call ourselves Christians and then not do anything with it for it is not about us but about others. How we treat others and what we do for them is directly related to our own faith.
But, St. Paul would distinguish between works that are dead and works that are alive.
Dead works would be those of the flesh such as murder, adultery, fornication (that is sexual relations outside of marriage and yes, is a sin) worship of idols (including possessions and money) robbery, etc. These are works that are done for the wrong reasons mostly for ourselves and calling attention to ourselves. We do good not so we can boast but for the good that we do. These are works that would come from a selfish motivation. What is the reason we are doing whatever it is that we are doing. Unless we are doing out of love, then it is a dead work.
My parish has been hosting a Community Meal for the last four years. Twice a month we invite the community into our parish hall and serve them a free meal. The week before Thanksgiving we serve a full meal with all of the fixins for Thanksgiving. I am amazed at the number of people who will call and ask if they can come and volunteer. Although we always need volunteers we need them all year long not just at Thanksgiving. I tell them to come each month for a year and then they can come and help at Thanksgiving. Showing up at the holidays is not helping others it is helping you! Jesus did not tell us to help others only during the holidays but at all times.
Another example is fasting. We fast for the spiritual benefit and nothing else. If, during that fast, someone offers you something to eat that is not part of the fast and you refuse saying, “no thank you I am fasting” you draw attention to your fasting and it becomes worthless. Simply say, “no thank you” and leave it at that. If we draw attention to ourselves and what we are doing, like the Pharisee, then our works are dead and worthless.
Living works ate those works that are done for the nothing else but the glory of God and for the good themselves and not for the reward that we might obtain from them. Sure, the warm fuzzy is okay, but that should not be the ultimate reason we do it.
The things that we do, the works that we perform, should be a natural outgrowth of our Orthodox spirituality. Christianity requires us to move into action and that action is serving others for the glory of God. There is a reward for us in all of this and that is the things we do contribute to our faith, when we put our faith in action, when we live the Gospel in actions and not just in words, this contributes to our faithfulness and our spirituality. Putting our faith in action extends the Kingdom of God and contributes to our faith.
Works themselves will not get us into heaven, we cannot earn our way in that price has already been paid, but the works that we do, or do not do, directly relate to our spirituality. If we are living a spiritually balanced life, that is a life that is lived not for us but for others, then we will be moved to do something relying on the strength of God springing from our spirituality but it is something that we have to work at.
As Christians we are to dedicate our lives, each and every day, to the work of God and the building up of His kingdom by loving those around us. Showing care and concern for others, not expecting anything in return, is living the Gospel with actions and not just words and is done for the Glory of God. If we can do this then are works are living otherwise they are dead.