I am reminding you, brothers and sisters, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand. Through it you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2
“The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
St. Paul teaches that we are saved by the gospel under a very significant condition: “. . . if you hold fast to the word I preached to you . . . .” Yesterday we reflected on being formed, reformed, and, in God’s good time, transformed by the word of the scriptures. That is, Jesus has saved us, but our responsibility is to receive the form that this gift of salvation gives us and to give form to our life and world according to that form we are receiving. To have heard the word and not “hold fast” to it is, says Paul, to have “believed in vain.”
The Gospel of John has Jesus telling us that one can believe him directly or else believe in him “because of the works themselves.” He also says that the sign of a believer is that he or she “will do the works that I do.” Faith is manifest in the form a person gives to his or her life and to his or her world. Currently, in the United States at least, we are living through a time when so-called faith seems utterly disconnected from the form of life one lives out and acts from. Some so-called believers call those who are living the beatitudes the non-believers, while exalting as messengers of God those whose form of life and way of relating to others bears no resemblance to the works of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of “cheap grace.” Sometimes it seems as if we live in a time of “cheap faith.” As Matthew 7:21 reminds us: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” It is not my self-assertion of faith that manifests true faith; it is, rather, a holding fast to the word and doing the works that Jesus does.
Rowan Williams asks a very challenging question in this regard. Given our presumption of faith, “What does our humanity look like?” Is the by-product of our faith a fuller humanity that expresses in its words an deeds the spirit of the beatitudes? Are we becoming in all aspects of our being ever more what Adrian van Kaam calls “distinctively human?” Or to the contrary are we becoming ever more insulated, prideful, judgmental, power-driven, and mean-spirited? Are we approaching a moment in which the faith of which Jesus speaks is to be found much more in those we designate as non-believers and heretics than in those who assert their orthodoxy and fidelity?
I must admit that this is a life-long question for me. It began for me as I wrestled with the question of whether or not my own father had faith. I knew as a child that he didn’t practice religion. My mother taught me my prayers and prayed with me before bedtime, and my father did not join us. My mother and I dutifully headed off to Mass each Sunday morning, while my father remained at home and cooked breakfast for us. Yet, I also recognized, despite his problems and my typical reactions to him as an adolescent, that he was pretty much unfailingly kind and generous. He really was interested in and listened to other people. He could not see anyone, in the family or out, that was in need and not attempt to do something to help them. He didn’t know the words of scripture, but in many ordinary ways he enfleshed them.
On the other hand, my early exposure to those who stood for the faith was a mixed one. There were those I profoundly admired and began to emulate, but there were others who seemed deeply unhappy and even mean. There were teachings in Sunday school that seemed designed to make one fearful of one’s own body and life as well as of others and the world. There were occasions where, in the name of God, religious teachers would inflict fear and shame on others. All of this made for a very confused and confusing sense of faith and belief.
One of the reasons I am today a member of my religious congregation is that in many of the brothers I encountered as a boy I experienced the human and humane face of Jesus. In at least some influential brothers, I began to see the reality of the Incarnation. God assumes our human form because God loves it, and loves it (and so us) as we are and unconditionally. Jesus’ response to human failing is not shame, but forgiveness. Jesus does not judge the world, but rather gives everything he has out of his burning desire to save it. Jesus so values human life that he desires that it not be covered over by possession, power, or self-indulgence. It is the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the pure of heart, the persecuted who inhabit the kingdom, and so are the ones able to bring it with them to the rest of us.
And so, today, when the name of Christ is blasphemed in justification of prejudice, power, racism and exploitation, what will become of “the” Christian faith? Perhaps it has gone underground. Perhaps, as I intuited as a child, it exists but not in those who declare themselves its representatives. Rowan Williams says that those of us who call ourselves “people of faith” must take a look and see the face we are presenting to the world. Do we look on that world with love, as Jesus did, or do we look on it with a disguised envy manifest as judgment? When Pope Francis shows the world the face of mercy and love, some see that as a threat to “the Church?” But what is the “Church” for? Is it to glorify itself or the One who sent it? It is not “optics” when Francis embraces the world in all of its diverse manifestations; it is, rather, the face of Christ in his works that manifest his continuing saving presence.
In the United States, it seems that the so-called “Christian Church,” in many of its sects, has presented to the society and the world a very ugly face. It seems to have forgotten that Jesus did not come to win a culture war, against those very ones he declared blessed. In its pretensions to be more than human, it has become much less. Instead of washing the feet of the larger world, it rather asserts its own rights and privileges. The so-called Christian nation it espouses looks much more like Dante’s Inferno than the Kingdom of Heaven.
So, says Williams, “what ‘face’ is actually being uncovered in the practices of faith.” Right now, at least in some circles, the face is not a humane or loving one. So, what is the call to us in this “sign of the times”? In the words of today’s readings, it is first to hold fast to the word.” To do so would require seizing the grace of the present moment which may be calling us to center our lives more and more on the word and to give form to our life and our works out of our introjection of that word. As St. Paul admonished the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but continuously be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to determine what God’s will is—what is proper, pleasing, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are inundated with words. Our question, as believers in the present age, is which of those forms our lives. One measure of this is to look at the face the form we are giving our lives presents to the world. Is it one characterized by the beatitudes, or is it one of fear, insecurity, judgment and even hatred?
A second practice, perhaps, is the practice of community. Are we being challenged, in the present time, to alter the patterns and modes of our relationships? We cannot give the form God wills to our lives in isolation. We need the support and the challenge of those who share “the faith” with us. Not those who will always agree with us, but those who, with us, are committed to the truth of the faith, of our lives and of God’s will for the world. We need to be for each other support when we fail and challenge when we become arrogant. We need to deepen our communications beyond surface political and ideological (societal or ecclesial) discourse to the sharing of heart and mind that makes growth in the truth of our own humanity possible.
It is always a mystery to us what God is doing in our lives and in the world. Yet, despite the mystery, we must, as best we can, attempt to discern God’s ways that we might be servants of God’s work. It is the work we do, the form we give to our own lives and to the world, that attests to the reality and sincerity of our faith.
Quite simply, it is very important for people of any faith to know what they look like in the eyes of others. Theirs may not be a fair, reasonable or comprehensive picture, but it is important to see what ‘face’ is actually being uncovered in the practices of faith, rather than simply hoping for the best. This exercise, this challenge, of trying to see what a mature human subject might look like who has been shaped by this style of living, thinking and imagining becomes a crucial focus of energy and reflection both for the well-being of religious communities and for the well-being of the human community (I suspect that people of faith don’t often enough ask with seriousness the question: ‘What does our humanity look like?’) even if we repeatedly fail to wait long enough for the answer.
Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, pp.84-5