Lent is a time in the Church year when we think a lot about what we do. Christians often take up a new sacred practice during this season, like being more intentional with their prayer life or giving more generously to charity. Or, we might instead give something up, like shopping or certain foods. Lent is also intended to be a time to reflect on our past and present actions, confessing to ourselves and God the many ways we miss the mark every day. But as we put our attention more on what we do, there can be a risk of putting too much attention on our actions and thereby missing the point. Just as we saw last week how ritual, miracles, and theological speculation can all turn in on themselves instead of pointing towards God, so too can the practical expressions of our faith — the things we do — distract us from the real point.
And so today’s New Testament readings offer us a reminder of the role our ‘works’ play in the life of faith: they are expressions of our salvation, not means of attaining it. I have to admit this isn’t a message that resonates a lot with me personally. Thinking I have to (or even can) ‘earn’ my salvation is not a strong temptation for me. And yet, it has been a real issue for many important figures in Church history — a message that was rediscovered anew by Paul, by St. Augustine, and by Martin Luther in their own ways — and so it’s important to take it seriously. Today, people are less likely perhaps to think in terms of trying to ‘earn’ salvation, but I think a similar temptation still exists, though framed in different ways. For example, in our Western capitalist society, we are taught to see our value in terms of what we do — our productivity, our efficiency, our contribution, our hustle — instead of in terms of having value simply by virtue of being. It’s the same spiritual issue dressed in secular clothing.
And so let’s look at our readings and allow ourselves to be reminded of what our faith teaches about all this:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
There’s a lot to unpack here. Paul begins by saying that the normal course of things in the world is simply to be swept up in the changing attitudes and whims of both society and our own minds and bodies. He uses the language of ‘rulers’ and ‘powers’, which in the worldview of the time referred to spiritual forces and conditions underlying human society and politics. While we may interpret things a little differently today, it’s actually an insightful understanding: So often, these social forces — systems, structures, group-think, and so on — have a life of their own, and their impacts are deeply spiritual (and mostly in harmful ways). With this context in mind, Paul continues to the substance of his argument: All this being the case, God, has acted — in God’s mercy and love — to bring us out of these ways of being and into a wholly new way. Because of God’s action, we are no longer bound by these powers that lead us to spiritual if not physical death, but are now free to pursue the live-giving ways of God’s Kingdom.
Paul makes it clear: this is all about God’s grace. This is God’s initiative, not ours. This is a gift we have received, not something we have earned. There is therefore no room for boasting. But inasmuch as we have embraced and integrated this new life, it will bear good fruit in our lives and we will do ‘good works’ accordingly. We receive God’s grace — God’s loving, merciful, and creative generosity — and that grace grows within us and thereby becomes our way of living too. We receive grace and then give grace to others. This is the gracious and generous economy of God.
Today’s Gospel reading frames it like this:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3.16-17)
God’s basic posture toward the world is one of love, and as such God has acted to save the world. It is salvation, not judgment, that is at the heart of God’s activity towards us. According to God, justice is not about earning your way or tit-for-tat transactional relationships. No, what is just, according to God, is for the world to be restored in right relationship, to God and to itself. The only judgment we have to fear is the rejection of this offer of salvation and restoration:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (3.19-21)
Again, what we do is not irrelevant, but it is the output of our salvation, not the input. Love is by nature generous, gracious, and life-giving. So inasmuch as we have received that love, our lives will similarly be marked by that same generosity, grace, and generativity.
This is the Gospel. This is the heart of the Christian message. This is what showing up for God and each other in faith means. We receive God’s light and become light for others. We receive God’s forgiveness and so we forgive others. We receive God’s love and become love for others. We receive God’s grace and offer grace to others.
This is how God’s economy works. Our world may teach us our value comes from our hustle and our productivity. Our world may tell us the only thing that matters is the bottom line, that there is a fundamental scarcity at the heart of things. But this is not God’s economy. God tells us our value comes from simply being alive, being made in God’s image and likeness, bearing the spark of God’s creativity, freedom, and life within us. And as that spark is fanned to flame, that creativity, freedom, and life will express itself in our actions because that is what they do. God tells us there is no scarcity at the heart of things, but abundance. And as we come to understand that abundance, we will overflow in sharing that abundance with others.
And so, as we head into the second half of Lent, let us remember that whatever we do, we do it all because God first loved us. May our lives overflow with that love, for the life of the world.