The brothers should wait on one another.
What’s so wrong about actions?
For the last few weeks I’ve been engaging in my reformation tradition by reading some Martin Luther and studying Lutheran Theology. It’s always important to be aware of the traditions that shape you either consciously or unconsciously and to own those thoughts or philosophies for yourself. As I’ve read Luther and touched on other Reformation Theology I’ve re-engaged with the debate over ‘justification through faith or works’. This chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict, written by a Roman Catholic monk has something to say into this debate, particularly to those of us who are suspicious about ‘works’.
I find that we protestants get overly cautious around discussions about living out our faith as in anyway necessary, as though we may slip into talk about justification through works. As a Roman Catholic convert I don’t have this hang up. I find that the Bible is clear that if we do not show, in our actions, our faith then our faith is demeaned or lessened.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:14-18)
I am aware that ‘justification by works’ is a particular thought that divorces our heart from our actions. Some people think that it doesn’t really matter what they believe as long as they do set rituals or actions and that makes them right before God; that the actions of a human make them righteous before God and not the actions of God Himself. The passage in James and what St. Benedict is proposing throughout his Rule says something very different: we need both faith to inform our actions and our actions to reveal our faith.
To err on the other side is to say, “I believe in Jesus and know that he died and rose again and has forgiven my sins” but then to not allow that impact one’s actions. This means that actions have no role to play in your relationship with God. This attitude has led to many ‘Christians’ acting in very odd and non-loving ways. Jesus had something very particular to say to them in the telling of the parable of the sheep and the goats.
We can talk all we like about ‘love’ and ‘hope’ as ideas but what does it mean to live these out? What actions best communicate such conceptual ideas? Our faith is established on the principle of Christ who said,
The greatest among you will be your servant. (Matthew 23:11)
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)
We live out love, hope, faith in actions and particularly in service of others. If we do not serve others then we are not following Christ for he said,
Servants are not greater than their master. (John 13:16)
Being a servant in a Christian community is not about being open to abuse but is a mutual understanding that service is itself the position of power. Service, for Christians, should be the expression of the right use power. We should be trying, in Christian communities, to out-serve one another and rejoicing in the service of others as they act out the character of Christ the Servant King.
In this chapter St. Benedict repaints the picture of Jesus washing his disciples feet. This event must be seen as a modelling of correct behaviour and action within the Christian community. The washing of the feet is, in my eyes, just as important as the Last Supper that follows. To ‘do this in remembrance’ must also be connected with foot washing as it does to the Eucharist. Part of this scene in John’s gospel is Jesus’ exchange with Peter who refuses Christ’s service to him. Jesus rebukes Peter and says that he must allow Jesus to serve him or it’s tantamount to saying he doesn’t want to be in relationship with Jesus. We must never refuse the service of others, freely given and, therefore, freely received. Our actions are, despite what we would like to believe, reciprocal as we enter into the Kingdom of the free exchange of gift from one to another, no one being able to keep a record but trusting that all should give and all receive in abundance.
We must be careful, however, that we do not just perform the servant task but that the action flows out from the correct heart and understanding, by faith, of who Christ is. Our discipleship should lead us to serve others in love not as a duty but as natural response of thankfulness for Christ and who he is and what he did. We should, as well, be encouraging people to grow in their faith so that they can learn how to express that through loving service but we must also direct others and ourselves to ensure that all service is done from a place of faith.
That is why prayer is placed again at the heart of this, clearly sacramental, part of the life of the monastery. Before you begin the task you pray, three times, in front of others,
O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. (Psalm 70:1)
It is why at the end of your time of service you pray, again, three times, in front of others,
Blessed are You, O Lord God, who did help me and console me. (Psalm 86:17)
These prayers should place God at the forefront of our minds as we do them. We ask that we would meet Christ in those that we serve and to know Christ knelt with us as we serve. We seek to recognise that we serve because Christ serves and we follow him.
The life of discipleship is a total experience. What I mean is that it should impact every aspect of your being; physical as well as emotional and spiritual. We cannot divorce our humanity from our spirituality. If we say in our hearts, “Jesus is Lord” but do not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, look after the poor then we lie to ourselves and others. On the other hand,
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Parish ministry continues to show me the many different ways we all struggle to walk the narrow path of Christ. We all fall short and all have our own blindness in our discipleship that is why we need to commit to one another in obedience and faithfulness to practising the art of becoming Christ-like, in heart and action.
Do we require too little of those who see themselves as part of the Church? I don’t mean in terms of time of service but rather requiring a Christ-like discipleship to root all ministry. I see too many churches happily encouraging voluntarily action of their church-goers but where do we require a mature faith to be at the heart of a desire to serve? Church-goers can continue to be physically part of a community and become active members of congregations without their faith being deepened or even properly started. We busy the people who turn up to our churches to get them involved but we rarely ask whether their hearts are in the right place. This then leads to PCC’s and committees being populated with people who have little faith or experience in the transformative power of Christ and the decisions of the Church become worldly rather than that of the Kingdom of God. There are people who do not have a relationship with God that informs all their choices. They look to worldy wisdom before Godly wisdom.
Loving Father of us all, thank you for coming in the form of a servant and leading us to right thinking and right action. Thank you for the model of Jesus who became in very nature a slave and humbled himself even to the point of death. Teach and lead us all to follow in his footsteps the way of the cross, narrow as it is.
Come, Lord Jesus.