Works without Faith are Work

Jason Micheli —  November 18, 2018 — Leave a comment

Galatians 5.1, 16-23

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Peace?

In a little over 4 months as your pastor, I’ve only mentioned it once— maybe you know. 

Three years ago, after emergency surgery, my family and I learned I have a rare, ultimatley incurable cancer in my marrow. I’ll never be in remission. Even now I keep it at bay with maintenance chemo and quarterly scans. I feel like Lazarus, having escaped death to hear you’ll die again. 

So last Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo. 

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer. 

Cancer doesn’t feel very funny when you’re staring at the bell curve of the time you’ve likely got left. Until. Leaving my oncologist’s office that day, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner in my former congregation. He was a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear and now he was dying.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill- in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him. 

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Peace? Peace? Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list because then I’d have to be honest with you. 

I’d have to tell you: I don’t have peace.

How about you?

How are you doing with this list?

      Generosity? 

      How about we pass the offering plate again and then ask you to answer?

Gentleness?

I’ve read some of your anonymous comments in the Way Forward survey.

Patience? Self-control?

How about I ask your spouse? 

What about love? You love your kids, you say? 

Of course you love your kids— they look just like you. 

How you doing with this list?

And before you answer, you should know that Paul puts the fruit in the singular. Meaning, it’s all one fruit. You can’t pick and choose. It’s not love or joy or peace or patience or kindness or generosity or faithfulness or gentleness or maybe self-control. It’s singular. The fruit of the Spirit is Paul says.  

It’s love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. 

It’s singular. You’ve either got all of them or you’ve got none of them, said John Wesley. 

So let me ask you now— how you doing with that list?

I know I drive some of you bonkers with my relentless emphasis on grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone rather than good works. 

I know I’ve got some of your sphincters all twisted up because of my stubborn refrain about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ instead of what we must do for God following Jesus Christ— but, honestly, when you’ve got what I got every day is Ash Wednesday. Each day is a reminder that the dust whence you came is the dirt to which you’re gonna go. 

And all it takes is to see the bell-curve of time you’ve likely got left and suddenly the prophet Isaiah’s Advent words hit you like a brick between the eyes:

Compared to the holiness of God all our good works— our best deeds— are no better than filthy rags. 

When every day is Ash Wednesday, you realize:

Your problem before a holy God is not that your sins are too egregious.

It’s that your good works will never be good enough. 

Nor will they ever accrue for you enough enoughness. 

Or, as the Apostle Paul put it at the begining of this epistle: If our good works could ever be good enough, then Jesus Christ was crucified for absolutely nothing. When you see your death sketched out in sharpie somewhere along a standard deviation, you take stock. You do an inventory. You count your fruit. And you realize how your basket of produce looks so bare nothing but blind faith could ever lead you to believe it won’t always be so. 

———————- 

I’m not the only one counting, the only one who knows their lack. 

Dorothy Fortenberry is a Hollywood screenwriter who writes The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. In post-Christian California, Fortenberry is also unabashedly religious not spiritual. In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she explains her odd habit of going to church every Sunday. 

She writes: 

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. It must be so comforting.” I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it. It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands.

Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and every Sunday I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily.

Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket.

Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting. I come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction because we’re all broken individuals united only by our brokenness, traveling together to ask to be fixed. It’s like a subway car. It’s like the DMV.

Church is like The Wizard of Oz: We are each missing something, and there is a person in a flowing robe whom we trust to hand over the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided.”

Note the passive voice.

We’re all missing something, and we’re here to receive the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided. 

————————-

     When we hear this list as telling us who we should be or what we ought to do— in Paul’s terms— we twist this from Gospel back into Law. 

     As a Christian, you should be generous. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you ought to be patient and kind. Become more gentle and joy-filled!  That way of hearing turns this list into the Law. 

     And that’s my first point: This list is not the Law. It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. 

     Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” 

     As Law, this list just reinforces the message you see and hear in ads 3,000 times a day: You’re not good enough. 

     If it’s Law, then this just accuses us because there’s always more money you could’ve left in the plate, there’s always someone for whom you have neither patience nor kindness, there’s always days- if you’re like me, whole weeks even- when you have no joy. 

     But this list is not Law and your lack of joy or gentleness does not make you an incomplete or inauthentic Christian. 

     Because notice- 

     After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do, Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ No, they’re not equivalent clauses. Paul changes the voice completely. He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit. 

     He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith. 

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue. The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. 

     It’s popular to pit Jesus against Paul, but both of them— when they speak of our life lived in light of the Gospel, they shift to the passive image of plants and fruit. Paul calls it the fruit of the Spirit not the works of faith; Jesus says you are but the branches of a vine that is him. 

It’s a passive image.

Just as sheep— unlike goats— do not perform any actual work other than trusting the Shepherd, what you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort. Except the Gardener. 

     Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy.

     Doers like us always want to contradict the Apostle Paul with that line about how faith without works is dead, but with this list Paul counters that the inverse is true. 

Works without faith are work. 

They’re just work. 

They’re exhausting.

And they cannot justify you. 

To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point— his point that, apart from grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, you are as silly and pathetic as a dead plant worrying about what it’s got to do and to produce.  This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel. It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s what the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you in spite of still sinful you.  

Paul’s point here to the do-gooding Galatians is that by your baptism you who were dead in your trespasses and sins have been made alive; such that, now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit

In a quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. On the Left and the Right, Red and Blue— so much of so-called Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit. It’s all about behavior modification. But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. Forget Joel Osteen when you get to Galatians 5. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth. 

———————-

     And that’s my second point: 

    The fruit of the Spirit— they’re for your neighbor. 

     When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is a prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God. But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the commandments perfectly for you. He has by his perfect faithfulness fulfilled the Law for you.

In Christ because of Christ— none of the thou shalts or thou shalt nots can condemn you.

     You are fit for heaven just as you are: impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control. Every work of faith has already been done for you. As gift.  And its yours by faith not by works. 

     No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. 

     Everything. He’s done everything already.

     Therefore- 

     God’s not counting.

     The God who no longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

    God is neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification.  It’s not for you to measure up in God’s eyes. The fruit of the Spirit isn’t for God— God ain’t hungry.  The fruit of the Spirit— it’s for your neighbor. 

     It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you. 

     God doesn’t need your love— don’t flatter yourself. God doesn’t need your your peace or your patience either. God certainly doesn’t need your generosity. God doesn’t need any of them, but your neighbor does. 

     I mean, Paul’s griped it at the Galatians like 100 times thus far: For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     Christ didn’t set you free for fruit. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. Not for a return on his investment. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can clean yourself up and get your act together. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can go out and earn back what he paid for you. And not so you can build a Kingdom only he can bring. 

     Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing. For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     There’s no one else you have to be before God. 

     And there’s nothing else you have to do for God. 

Christ came to us while we were yet sinners and we will return to him while we are still sinners. In the End, the only people you can be dead-certain will be in the Kingdom of Heaven are sinners.

Ergo— the Gospel. 

It’s called good news for a freaking reason.

This is the reason:

There’s no one else you have to be before God. 

And there’s nothing else you have to do for God. 

     But for the sake of your neighbor…

     God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous. 

     You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT What must I do now for God?

     No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?

     And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone. 

———————-

And that leads to my final point: 

The fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience. By faith apart from your feelings.

In no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate. The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science. The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror. 

         Face it:  You’re not always kind or patient or generous. 

     Yet the Gospel promises and the Gospel invites you to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work like a patient Gardener to yield in you and harvest from you kindness and patience and generosity. 

     And that’s a big leap of faith because, as I said, the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest. God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you. Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them. God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word. 

     The fruit of the Spirit is a matter of faith not feeling. 

     By your baptism in to his death and resurrection, you are in Jesus Christ. 

     You are. 

     No ifs, ands, or buts. Nothing else is necessary. 

     And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you. No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications. 

     No matter what your life looks like

     No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

     No matter how up and down, there and back again, is your faith 

     No matter how bare you feel your basket to be.

     If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you. And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm. God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries. The fruit of the Spirit— it’s the pledge of God’s commitment to yield in you.

————————

     Dorothy Fortenberry is on in the mystery and puts it better than me:

“Being a screenwriter in Los Angeles is like being on a perpetual second date with everyone you know. You strive to be your most charming, delightful, quirky-but-not-damaged self because you never know what will come of the encounter.

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting. Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life.  And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that. 

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago. I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally bad and equally beloved children of God.

We are all exactly the same amount of sinful and special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel ashamed by are beside the point.

I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. Even better, I’m not my personality because Church is not about how I feel. It’s about faith. It’s about trusting God’s commitment to do something in us. It’s about looking at the light until our eyes water, waiting to receive the promise that the something missing in us (love or joy, or peace) will be provided.”

     

 

    

Jason Micheli

Posts

No Comments

Be the first to start the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.