Sermons & services

Sermon for Trinity III

Published Monday 14th June 2021, at 7:46 a.m.

As you may know, one of the great debates at the time of Reformation was the controversy of faith versus works. Put simply – and way too simplistically – the Reformers argued, with St Paul, that it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. We are justified – put right with God – by faith and faith alone. Whereas the Roman Catholic side argued that, yes, it is faith that saves us, but with St James insisting that faith without works is dead. So works, what we do, are vital to working out our salvation in fear and trembling, as St Paul put it. Now, the truth is that both sides exaggerated the position of the other and the whole argument got tied up with other stuff, and we’ve been paying the price in Christian disunity ever since. Nevertheless, the debate is still with us and will probably never go away so it’s one we need to think about if it ever comes up in conversation or debate. Now I could make this a really short sermon by saying simply this: faith versus works should never be an either/or debate, but a simple fact of both/and. Unfortunately for you I’m not going to stop there. But rather I want us to go back to the Old Testament and think about this question using the idea of the covenant. We hear the word a lot. So, what is a covenant? And remember, when we say testament – as in old or new testament – the more correct term is covenant. Well at its simplest a covenant is a set of do’s and don’ts which govern a relationship. So, for instance, families and relationships are covenantal. Members of a family, a marriage, know there are do’s and there are don’ts. The do’s keep relationships in the family healthy and creative. Whereas the don’ts run the risk of being damaging and destructive of the relationships. You can extend the idea to all sorts of ways in which human beings come together in communities and association. Think of the livery companies: they all have their do’s and don’ts that help give the company shape and identity. As you’ll remember from your reading of the Old Testament, God made a number of covenants: first with Noah, then Abraham, then Moses, then Joshua. And there’s one vital fact to remember about these covenants. The Jewish people weren’t any better than anyone else. They weren’t more powerful or more worthy of God’s love. God just chose them, unconditionally. And then God says, if you do this and this, and don’t do that and that, you will be my people and I will be your God. So covenant is about fidelity in human relations with God, and in God’s relations with humans. It is an act of partnership and affirmation. Covenant is the word that joins heaven and earth: God with His people. And unlike the politics of power, and empire, covenant is the free agreement of a free people with their God. The most famous of these covenants is the one made at Mount Sinai in which an entire people, under Moses, commits itself to live under the sovereignty of God. And unlike other covenants in the ancient world, it was not confined to external actions: the do’s and don’ts of the commandments. It was to govern the entire internal life of the people as well. It would become their moral and spiritual code. So when first century Judaism talks about the law, and works, we have to be careful. It was not saying that sticking to the laws and doing good works put them right with God. It was saying that God had already chosen them, and sticking to these laws and doing good works was a sign of their membership of the covenant with God: that they were inside the covenant. If you were part of the covenant, this was what you did: and this was what you didn’t do. All this was put forward by a scholar of St Paul called EP Sanders who argued in a book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism that the decisive guarantee of salvation for the Jewish people was that, first and foremost, God had chosen Israel as his people, and that they maintained their status within the covenant by their obedience to the Law. If you’re interested, it has a posh name: covenantal nomism. Let’s fast forward this to the New Testament, and the New Covenant sealed by the blood of Christ. Here too there is election. As St Paul tells us: God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him. God has called us by name: we are His. Our ‘yes’ to this new covenant is entering into it not by adherence to Jewish Law or circumcision or birth: but by faith in Jesus Christ, and only by faith. Nothing I can do can put myself right with God. This is only done through faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me, as St Paul puts it. Faith in the covenant sealed by the blood of Christ on the Cross and re-represented in each Eucharist. As Christ tells his disciples at the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper: “Take, drink: This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for the remission of sin”. St Peter begins his first letter with these words: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion … chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood … (which in the Old Testament was how you sealed the covenant). He goes on: As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Here is the covenant, now re-written for the followers of Jesus, and open to all people, of all nations, of all times. And so we are now faced with the tantalising possibility of a solution to the issue of faith versus works. Because here there is no versus. Our works, our good deeds, what we do, are the signs of the Spirit at work within us, doing those things which define who we are as Christians within the new covenant, and not doing those things which would go against the New Covenant. It is why St John writes in our first reading: My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. Love is faith and works indissolubly linked as one. Why? Because that is what it means to live within the covenant defined and shaped by a radical love of God and neighbour. The kind of love we see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth who came not to be served but to serve. In other words, what we do for others, we do out of love, and only out of love because love is the bond which binds us with God in the New Covenant.