Pentecost +19

It’s once again football season, which for me is like a 5 month series of holy days. Saturdays, Sundays, and sometimes Thursdays hold such promise; football is one of those games in which players can demonstrate the nobility of man. Loyalty, courage, fortitude, endurance; we can witness these week by week when the best square off. But like the rest of us, the best, at times, fall. Who among us hasn’t cringed when watching a player do the chicken dance after catching a pass? Who among us hasn’t recoiled at the sight of a linebacker running off to celebrate by himself after sacking the QB? It’s hard to watch people, especially people that may otherwise be looked up to, make such a big deal out of doing their job. Receivers are supposed to catch the ball. Safeties are supposed to tackle people. Even Jesus had something to say about this.

“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Jesus asked. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” We have done only what we ought to have done. Just like the wide receiver who actually managed to catch a pass, when we do good works, when we forgive others or give to the poor or even fulfill our work duties with integrity, we have done as we ought, we have only acted as Christians ought to act. Getting worked up about it, it seems, is bad form.

Not that the worthless servant thing doesn’t get overblown. Calvinists fully embrace the idea that mankind is worthless, totally depraved, without intrinsic value. Calvinists, who are essentially good Presbyterians (Presbyterians are bad Unitarians, who are, in turn, bad Muslims), love to devalue themselves and their works. Filthy rags before the Lord, they say. “In his novel “The Blood of the Lamb,” author Peter DeVries skewered his Calvinist upbringing in many ways. In one particular scene he shows a group of devout men talking with the pastor in a living room of someone’s house. The men seem to be having a grim contest to see who can outdo whom in belittling their own spiritual works. No matter what act of service got mentioned, it was immediately decried as no more than “a filthy rag” that could not but stink to highest heaven compared to the shining glories that God alone possesses. The narrator of the novel observes this scene and then wryly comments, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can imagine what we made of vice.”1

So there must be something between doing a jig to celebrate doing your job and declaring your works to be filthy rags before the Lord. Jesus is very clear in saying that just doing what the Lord commands us to do is no reason to go nuts over ourselves, but at the same time he can’t be saying that the work of the Christian, the Lord’s work being done by nurses and teachers, missionaries and nuns, shelter workers and hospice volunteers, Jesus can’t be saying that work is worthless, that those people are worthless. And of course, He is not. If fact, such work is worthy, worthy of praise earthly and heavenly, worthy, in fact, of a crown. Our faith, that faith in the Lord Jesus that spurs us to good works, that faith is woven together with action, with good works. St. Ambrose wrote that “Faith is profitable, therefore, when her brow is bright with a fair crown of good works.”2 A crown! Crowns don’t sound like filthy rags. We run, St. Paul wrote, we struggle in faith and in good works and against evil and for the people of God, we run to achieve an incorruptible crown, the crown of salvation. Jesus told blessed John that “…all the churches shall know that I am He which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. (Rev. 2:23)”3 By our faith we attain to everlasting life; by our works, we will be given unto blessings or curses, according to the animation of our faith.

So again, there must be something between doing a little dance to celebrate doing your job and declaring your works to be filthy rags. We know our works crown our faith, so how do we fulfill Jesus’ command to do what we ought and not make a big deal out of it? That in-between space, that middle ground, I think, looks a lot like a mix of gratitude and humility. Gratitude for even the possibility of being of service to the living God, humility when coming face to face with His majesty. Gratitude shown in working for God and to the benefit of His people, humility in letting those works shine to His glory. May all of your races be well run and may all your crowns shine bright.

1- This Week

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