1 Corinthians 3:1-9
I went on a few silent retreats when I was a teenager. It would be a weekend or a week when we would gather for common worship – two, three times a day, and would have one hour with our pastor or spiritual director, the rest was silence and solitude.
It’s not easy to be silent. There is so much going through my mind that it takes a while to become silent, not just on the outside. The point of this is to rediscover our own soul. Think of the story of the Prodigal (Luke 15). He only had pigs for company and although they are intelligent, they allowed for solitude. And it was in solitude that the prodigal came to himself. And when he came to himself, he began to understand his relationships and inter-dependence, and he returned to his Father.
And so, our silent retreats were a time to come to ourselves so that we would also come to the Father, that we would make room, and learn to pray, and learn to depend on God, rather than on ourselves.
After high school I spent a year with a Lutheran monastic community, about 10 men of varying ages who felt called to celibacy, poverty, and obedience. Their community was located in a beautiful old monastery, dating back to the 13th century. A beautiful place in beautiful surroundings. One may have thought that just to be there was to be close to God, closer, I thought, than most other places.
But that was only half the truth, because I brought with me my distractions and anxieties, and whatever else that burdened me, and so did the brothers. It took me a while to figure this out, but eventually I did. And so the question became not, where can I find a place where my faith will happen on its own, but what can I do to embody what I believe? How can my relationship with God enter into every fibre of my being?
We now have local ministeriums. In our case it includes Dunbar, Redeemer, Spirit of Life, St Peter’s, Benediction, and Our Saviour. We try to meet once a month. This week there were only three of us. As we read the readings for this Sunday, two out of three felt there was little Gospel, little Good News, little grace but much law.
It was perceived that way because our readings place demands on us, some of them appear to make them conditions for promises, and so it seems there is no grace, but rather one may feel that this is a set-up for failure, for the things Jesus commands are even more difficult than the commandments themselves and all of us have – at one time or another – failed to live by them.
But I am not sure that our assessment of these readings as bad news instead of Good News is correct. There is, for one, Luther’s bias toward anything that sounded like works. And it seems to me that where Luther was most right, – in regards to grace – he was also most wrong, in regards to works.
Remember the verse about letting our light shine before others, that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Luther interpreted this as being about the right teaching and not about works at all (ironically, here teaching becomes a work). The Swiss New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz says about Luther’s interpretation that it is not possible to misunderstand the text more thoroughly.1
We also know that what we do matters, or we would not speak about role models, about empty words, or putting our money where our mouth is.
That, however, is not about works in the way that Luther feared it was, but rather about transformation. Personally, while I am plenty good at condemning myself, I have never doubted the grace of God. What I long for the most, is not the forgiveness I know God will grant me, but the transformation of my being, that I may more and more be restored in God’s image.
That, I believe is what Jesus is about, for Jesus always turned to the whole person, addressed the whole person, and healed the whole person. Following Jesus and does not require perfection or understanding but it s intended to lead into deeper knowledge of God and to the transformation of the lives of the disciple in the presence of Jesus and in communion with Jesus and one another.
Dallas Willard has said, that grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. I think that Willard is right.
I stayed with the monastic community only for one year. And I admit that I eventually lost touch. But what applied to the brothers and to me, and to anyone who visited the monastery for a retreat, was that the life in God did not just happen, but needed to be sought, that such seeking is possible I call grace.
When Jesus speaks of murder and anger, and adultery and lust, of being reliable and trustworthy, he says these words not to scare us, but to invite us to be honest with ourselves, to examine what we truly desire and what truly is desirable, so that we may no longer seek for God to be our servant but seek to be God’s servants, giving ourselves completely into God’s care so that when things do not go our way, or even what we perceive to be God’s way, we need no longer be angry, but let God reign, not only outside of us, but inside of us.
This takes practice and it is a practice we can engage in together, so that our responses be automatic and be our second nature.
Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on our passage from Deuteronomy, tells of the Christian community in Le Chambon in France that hid Jews during WW II from the Nazi efforts at extermination. Among the remarkable features of that brave and faithful community was an inquiry after the war by a Jewish adult who was kept alive there as a child. When he interviewed his protectors about their reason for taking such risky actions on his behalf, they only shrugged their shoulders and indicated it seemed obvious from their faith. They had no dramatic explanations or theological interpretations to offer him. It was rather a “habit” of neighbourliness that was at the centre of their embrace of the gospel; and it was enough! (See Romans 10:6-8)2
In this sense choosing to obey the commandments is really about baptismal identity, about being who we are. I think that Luther could agree with that.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus was not a very good Protestant.3 But that there is grace and that is that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. She says it’s like being given the t-shirts before we have even run the marathon. But knowing God’s Word is no substitute for doing it.
And doing it, is also grace, it is a gift, to be co-workers in God’s Kingdom. May we seek nothing more than that.
1Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1 – 7, A Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg 1989, page 253
2Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, Nashville: 2001 Abingdon Press, page 270