Epistle for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost
In the Epistle reading for this Sunday, Apostle Paul speaks about how man is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, he writes, ‘by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.’ Apostle Paul is emphasizing in his letter to the Galatians that, try as he might, mankind cannot earn salvation through his own efforts.
Does this mean that – if we simply rely on our faith in Christ, we are excused from following the law of God, from struggling to bear spiritual fruit by our works, by our efforts? Of course not!
While Apostle Paul correctly emphasizes the necessity of faith, let us hear from Apostle James who complements the teachings of Apostle Paul. The Holy Apostle James teaches: ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works, can faith save him?... Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.... For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.’
These complementary aspects of faith and works, always joined together in the Orthodox understanding of the process of salvation, became something of a stumbling block in the Protestant world, and continue to be a source of much debate even today. For the Orthodox, this question of ‘which is more important – faith or works?’ is an absurdity… for how can a true Christian proclaim faith in Christ without accompanying that faith with good works, and how can a true Christian dare to expect that his good works could merit salvation without the living faith in and mercy of our loving Father?
St Macarius of Optina tells us: ‘One must do good deeds but not place hope in them. To place hope in one's deeds is a sign of self-reliance… … Knowing that deeds are necessary for salvation and striving to perform them, one finds no strength in oneself, one is conquered by the passions, one is troubled and perplexed as to what to do. Of course, placing one's hope in God and on the prayers of those who pleased Him can help much in the work of our salvation, but becoming troubled at one's fall proceeds from spiritual pride. The evil spirits oppose our salvation: ‘our adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8)”.
There is an essential synergy between our striving to do the works of Christ’s law and the presence and activity of faith within our soul. As we strive to do good, to refrain from evil, to observe the fasts of the Church, to attend Church services, to pray for ourselves and others… these deeds begin to work on our heart and to build strength in our soul. And as our heart is softened and our faith is strengthened, the grace of Christ fills us more and more and we respond to that grace with gratitude and a desire to do good, to fulfill the law of Christ.
And so, we venture forward with zeal to do good… and, what happens? As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans: ‘The good that I will to do, I do not do, but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.’
When we stumble, we should not be surprised or frustrated or thrown off track… As St Macarius just told us: ‘becoming troubled at one's fall proceeds from spiritual pride.’ When we fall, we get up again… trusting in the mercy of God. This rising and falling and rising again is precisely the process of salvation. It takes patience… and it requires a determined hope in God – not in ourselves and in our ability to succeed, but in the mercy and grace of God.
In the concluding sentences of today’s Epistle, we hear the key to this cycle of the Christian’s efforts and the merciful grace of the life of faith. Apostle Paul writes, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.’ As our life is infused with God’s grace and as our life is corrected by striving to do the will and the works of God, we crucify our selfish nature and become more and more aware of the presence of Christ within us. Each day we must examine our heart and look with honesty and humility as to who is sitting on the throne of our heart. Is it our own selfish ego or is it Christ?
What is crucified within us is our fallen and distorted sense of self. What is resurrected within us is the true person whom God created us to be. A person living in synergy with God and maturing to the full stature of what it means to be a human being. A person who, out of the abundance of the faith and love within him, strives to do the will and the work of God. It is in this synergistic activity of faith and works that God’s mercy and grace sanctify us.
May we have the faith and love for God to strive to do His work… and may our striving to do His work fill us with faith and love.