Works Righteousness or Righteous Work?

Works Righteousness or Righteous Work?

Gracious God, we thank you for this time of worship, this time of Sabbath, in which we gather together in your loving presence. Here in this time, in this place, and in this community, may we find rest and renewal, inspiration and instruction, nurture and nourishment.  Amen.

On this Labor Day weekend, we are invited to celebrate and offer our gratitude for all who labor for our common good in various ways.  Labor Day in the United States began in the late 19th century because workers and labor unions organized an effort to bring awareness to the societal contributions of the working class, in particular.  It was intended to be a holiday for all workers.  And they hoped that raising awareness would bring broader commitment to those workers, ensuring they had safe working conditions, reasonable hours, and good wages.  This is still an ongoing effort within our society.  And so, perhaps this Labor Day invites us to ponder this issue for ourselves and consider how we support workers in our communities.

As I was thinking about work – the many types of work people do in the world and their contributions to our collective life (especially those essential workers on whom we depend), I was also thinking about our work together as a church, and our work in collaboration with other communities of faith and organizations that are doing good and important work in our city and in our broader world.

In some ways Christianity has had a complicated relationship with work throughout history, particularly how good works and faith are related.  Some people over the centuries have expressed concern about the danger of focusing too much on “works righteousness” which is essentially the notion that we are required to do certain things, follow certain rules, engage in certain rituals and practices, to earn God’s grace and love.

It’s a fair question to ask.  And it is important for us to remember right off the bat that God’s grace and love come first.  We don’t have to earn God’s love.  God just loves us.  That’s what God does.  That’s who God is.

Some of this concern about “works righteousness” developed because Paul, James, and other leaders and thinkers of the early church were trying to figure out how the practice of the law within their own Jewish tradition (the practices they inherited from their ancestors) and their newly developing Christian tradition fit together.  And they weren’t all in agreement.  One of the really sticky issues was whether or not Gentile converts needed to follow all of the Jewish laws and customs.  Paul said they didn’t; but others disagreed.

This concern popped up again during the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther was passionate that each individual was a recipient of God’s grace through faith.  He and other reformers questioned whether the church hierarchy of their day was putting too much stock in being an intermediary between the people and God.  Were they putting up roadblocks by requiring certain practices from people in exchange for assurance of God’s grace?  Were they taking advantage of people at times?  These were legitimate questions and led to reforming movements in both the Protestant traditions that developed and within the Catholic church in the period of time that followed.

Unfortunately, some of this concern about “works righteousness” has also had some ugly side-effects throughout history.  At times it has been accompanied by anti-Jewish rhetoric that misunderstands the role and purpose of the law within the practice of Judaism.  It’s been accompanied by anti-Catholic rhetoric by some Protestants whose knowledge of the practice of the sacraments within Catholicism is pretty shallow.  Neither of these are helpful for building interfaith respect and collaboration.  So, we ought to treat this question with care.

Nevertheless, this theological question of works and faith has persisted throughout time.  We may not believe in a God who requires something of us in exchange for God’s love and grace.  But the founder of our faith (Jesus) and one of his biggest PR guys (Paul) both do offer some clear ideas about the kind of good and loving work we ought to do.

There is a difference between “works righteousness” and righteous work, or good work.  We don’t engage in the good work of love because we expect to earn something from it.  God’s love is already there.  God’s love is the starting place for our work.  Our work is a response to God’s love and an illustration of it.  We engage in good work from a place of gratitude and a desire to share and serve.  God’s love is amplified and experienced through our good work.

This is at the heart of the practice of our faith.  We don’t set out to earn God’s love by doing good work, but often we do experience God’s love in the process and so do others.

The Apostle Paul knew and experienced this, and he wanted to encourage and inspire the church in Rome.  It wasn’t one of the churches he helped form, but one he hoped to visit.  Like all of his letters, he writes to this community with some urgency and passion, calling them to be the church in the world.  He urged them to live into the vision of the Reign of God within their community as if it were already here on earth.  Paul called them to embody the values of the Kingdom of God, even as they lived under the difficult reality of the Kingdom of Rome.

The values that Paul lifts up in chapter twelve are the values Jesus embodied.  And they are countercultural values in many ways, especially since they stand in contrast to the cultural conventions of hierarchy and social stratification.

“Let love be genuine,” Paul says.  Hold fast to the good, practice mutual affection, honor one another.  Love is where Paul starts because love is the foundation for everything that follows in his litany of good works.

Paul urges them to be passionate in their faith and service.  He encourages them to find joy in hope, patience in suffering, and perseverance in prayer.  Help those in need.  Practice hospitality to strangers.  Express compassion and solidarity with each other in joy and in hardship.

Life is not always easy; Paul definitely knows that as he’s writing.  He knows that from personal experience and from the experiences of the various churches he’s helped form.  Difficulties and conflicts arise.  So, how the Roman church members choose respond to and manage their personal challenges, their interpersonal conflicts, and their societal struggles matters.

All of those challenges must be addressed with love too.

“Live in harmony with one another,” Paul says.  I like that metaphor of harmony.  Play your part and play it well.  Your contribution to the whole makes music.  And you don’t always have to be the one playing the melody, taking the lead.

Differences of opinion and perspective arise in any community.  So, Paul advises the Romans to not be pompous.

And when facing their enemies, Paul implores them not to retaliate, not to enact vengeance.  The only way to overcome evil is with good.  Practice peace.  Feed your hungry enemies instead, says Paul.  Give them a drink of water when they are thirsty.

It’s important for us to remember that Paul is writing this letter to a fringe religious movement of counter-cultural, Jesus-loving people (both Jews and Gentiles) of various socio-economic backgrounds, all living under a very powerful imperial political structure.  Some of them probably wanted to rise up and start a violent rebellion against Rome.  It’s understandable.  But Paul believed that wouldn’t end well.

Paul also had faith that God would work it all out in the end.  He hoped it would all work out sooner rather than later (within his lifetime or at least within a generation).  That didn’t happen.

Paul may have hoped for a quicker resolution that didn’t materialize, but his faith in God’s faithfulness to humanity was right on, I think.  And his advice to the Roman church is important for us to consider, both personally and collectively.

I admit, when it comes to modern international politics, things can get pretty complicated pretty quickly.  But Paul’s perspective is that vengeance is not ours to enact.

The imperial program is not ours to enact either.  We’re not supposed to act like Rome.  Our job is to live out the values of Jesus.

Biblical scholar, Daniel Kirk puts it this way: if we are to be the Body of Christ (an image Paul brings up many times), then we must actively embody the story of Jesus in our lives (individually in our daily living and in community together).  We are to always remember that, as the Body of Christ, we are members of one another.

And if we are to truly embody the crucified and resurrected one, then we cannot act like the crucifier.  We have to refuse to embody the crucifier.  Instead, we must stand for liberation and life; we must embody the resurrecting love of God.

This comes as no great surprise – of course we’re called to follow in the way of Jesus.  But we also know that humanity has always struggled to live in this way – the way of humility, peace, justice, healing.  There is still much work for us to do.

So, if our labor as the church is the labor of life, then we have to find ways to address the forces that kill – those that kill our planet and its creatures (by pollution, by habitat destruction), those that kill people (by violence, by lack of access to basic needs), those that kill people’s spirits (by hate, by lack of respect and dignity).

We must speak life into the places of death, for we are a people who proclaim resurrection.

It’s as urgent now as it was for Paul, even more so in some ways.  He faced the Roman Empire, but we’re facing a climate crisis.  Paul knew plenty of people who were poor and lacked the basic necessities, so do we (even more, in fact) in our own neighborhoods and across the globe.

Did you know that approximately 2 billion people don’t have reliable access to clean drinking water?  That’s a quarter of earth’s population.  We face some challenges Paul couldn’t have imagined.  We are more globally connected than ever before and there are 8 billion of us.  That brings interpersonal and international relationships to a whole new level.  Fun fact: in Paul’s day earth’s population was about 200 or 300 million, probably less than the current population of the United States.

There are 8 billion of us.  Ideologies, theologies, and socio-political policies that are too individualistic are no longer an option, in my opinion.  Our highest commitment has to be to each other.  I believe God’s highest commitment has always been to this world and its people as a whole (not just some).  And God is still calling us to engage in some righteous work.

Truthfully, sometimes I get overwhelmed by these big problems.  I can feel pretty useless in the face of climate change or global poverty.  In my better moments, I don’t dissolve into despair when I remember two things: 1) to breathe and 2) that though I have a part to play, it’s not all up to me.

Sikh activist and author, Valarie Kaur, talks about the work of bringing more love and justice into the world as a birthing process.  And, like a mother in labor, there are moments when we must pause from the hard work and breathe through it.  We can’t sustain the work of love for the long haul unless we take a moment to breathe and find the right balance or rhythm that keeps us going.

Frankly, that’s good advice for no matter what kind of work we are doing on our own or together.  People are always talking about finding work/life balance (and it’s not always easy to do so).

Balance is a fine word.  But, for me, I tend to prefer the word rhythm (maybe because its more musical and dynamic).  So, what is the balance or rhythm of work and rest that sustains you?  How does connecting with God fit into that?  How about connecting with your loved ones?

We have to revisit these questions regularly, I think.  The balance or rhythm we need in different times and seasons of our lives varies.  So, we need to pause and reassess now and then how we spend our time and energy.

In order to share God’s love broadly and extravagantly, in order to engage in righteous work together to address the big needs of our day, we have to ground ourselves in God’s love; we have to practice deep and full living that allows us to be fully present and open to God, to ourselves, and to one another.

So, take this moment to breathe.  Take this moment to rest.  Know God’s love deep within you and let it fill you to overflowing.  Breathe.  Rest.  And when you are ready, continue your good work, my friends.  Labor for love and speak life into this world.  Amen.