At Your Service

SJF • Proper 25b 20006 • Tobias Haller BSG
God will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.
In today’s Gospel, a blind man is brought to Jesus, and the first thing Jesus says to him is, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man’s response, quite naturally, is “My teacher, let me see again.” This morning, however, I’d like to turn the text around a bit, in light of our other readings, and pose the question another way. When people come to God, as we do week by week, and day by day, we often come to him with an implicit or an explicit need, something we want God to do for us.

But among us are also mature Christians, committed and dedicated members of the church — as opposed to those still on soft food, like the new church members described in the Letter to the Hebrews — and these dedicated church members approach God more like a soldier reporting for duty, or a worker reporting for an assignment, and ask God, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now this question, revealing as it does the idea that we can do anything at all for God, is at the heart of one of the hottest debates of the Reformation, the question of faith versus works. The radical reformers insisted that works were useless for salvation — and they used part of the Scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews to support their argument. Our reading today affirms that repentance from what it calls “dead works” is a foundation of the Christian faith. The radical reformers insisted that nothing we do could earn us salvation; that all works, whether liturgical works like prayer or worship, or corporal works of mercy like visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, all of these were so many worthless nothings in the eyes of God. Faith alone mattered, faith and God’s grace that snatches us worthless sinners from the jaws of Hell.

And to a certain extent the reformers were right. We are not saved because we pray and worship. We are not saved because we do works of mercy. God saves us because God loves us, not because we have earned his love, but because we are his, purchased with his own blood on Calvary’s tree.

However, where the reformers went too far was in making it seem that the works of prayer and the works of mercy are worthless, not just as means to purchase salvation, but worthless period. And this most surely goes too far — as radicals often do! And it is surely not going far enough — something radicals also often fail to do. For if you read on in the passage from Hebrews, on a few lines past the reference to “dead works” you find this important witness to how much God values what we do on his behalf, as servants in his kingdom: “For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.”

The reformers went too far when they discounted all human worth, insisting on humankind’s total depravity and God’s unmerited grace, to the exclusion of the very clear scriptural witness that when we approach God with the question, What do you want me to do for you? he has a whole long list of things he wants us to do, starting with, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself! And that takes work!

Where the reformers were right, of course, is that we are not saved by our works. But strange as it may seem for me to say it, salvation shouldn’t preoccupy Christians all that much, since we believe we are saved by Jesus already. Because I often travel on public transportation wearing my clerical outfit, from time to time I’m asked the question by a well-meaning evangelical: Are you saved? Now, by that question they mean, have I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. In any case, I always answer, Why yes I am! Then they will usually ask, When? meaning, when did I accept Jesus. But since I don’t think my salvation depends on what I do with Jesus — but with what Jesus did for me — I will say, Well, I was saved about two thousand years ago, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. For my salvation is not hinged, thanks be to God, on my poor ability to respond to God, but on what God did for me: I believe all Christians are saved, because that is what Jesus came to do! It is not for me to call my Lord a failure! So the important question for us as Christians, given our assuredness of salvation in Christ, is not, when did it happen, but what are we going to do about it!

Some years ago, I heard about a famous Southern Baptist preacher, imbued with the strict reformed theology, who was asked what he thought about Mother Teresa. As he sat comfortably behind his gigantic desk in his richly furnished office, He said that if Mother Teresa hadn’t turned accepted Jesus as her Savior then all her good works amounted to nothing at all. Well, maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that we should assume that on the basis of her life of humble service, she must have turned her heart over to Jesus, and then went about doing a lot more than just sitting behind a thirty-five-square-foot desk! We might rather well echo the words of John F. Kennedy in a religious context: Ask not what God can do for me — but what I can do for God!

Salvation — what God has done for me — is an unmerited gift, but anyone with good manners knows that in response to a wonderful gift, at the very least you send a thank you note! How shall we show our love to God — what shall we do for God — in thanksgiving for the precious saving gift we have received? How shall we do as God asks: how show our love for our neighbor, whom God has given us as a means to witness to and practice God’s love, to make God known throughout the world, so that every corner of God’s green earth can sing, My God and King!

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We are saved by grace and justified by faith. The blind man who knelt at Jesus’ feet heard the word of salvation: “your faith has made you well. “ But in gratitude for his salvation and justification, he responded by following Jesus on the way, walking in the holy and sanctified way that Jesus laid out for him and for all of us, the royal road of love of God and neighbor. When we follow in this road, having already been saved and justified, when we take up the tasks God has prepared for us, we are sanctified. Justification by faith prepares us for this burden, just as soft food and milk help a young child to mature to the point where solid food is suitable. Salvation is the gracious act of God picking us up from where we have fallen, healing us so we can get back to work, just as the healing of the blind man’s vision enabled him to see, and seeing, to follow.

And this following is the life of sanctification, the life of holiness, in which works are not worthless, but necessary if we are to “stand up, stand up for Jesus, as soldiers of the cross,” walking in the way and along the path that Jesus has prepared for us to walk in — like good soldiers who have reported for duty, and who have received their marching orders. Strengthened and equipped by God, we take up the tasks God has given us to do, the works of righteousness, the works of service to the saints. The saints, you see, serve each other, as well as serving those on the outside, the strangers and sojourners who haven’t yet heard the good news, or who have heard it so badly preached or practiced that they want nothing of it.

This is a great responsibility: to do the works of prayer and mercy in such a way as to let light shine where it has never been seen. God cares about what is done upon this earth that he created and redeemed. And the great honor that God has done for us and with us, since Christ first put on human flesh, is to adopt us as his children, to commission us as his servants, working together with Christ to extend the reach of grace.

For God does care about what goes on upon this earth. God saw, as Isaiah says, how little justice there was upon the earth, how there was no one to intervene. And so God intervened himself, with his own arm winning the victory, putting on righteousness like a breastplate and a helmet of salvation upon his head.

But that was then. This is now. Since Christ came, we too have been found worthy to join God as commissioned servants — as soldiers of the cross. What does Saint Paul say in his Letter to the Ephesians? That we, yes we, frail creatures of flesh, and feeble as frail, should put on that breastplate of righteousness, that helmet of salvation: God’s armor not only in the sense that God gives it to us, but in the sense that God once wore that very armor himself! God is giving us his own armor to carry on this mission and ministry. So we, we children and servants of God, have a task to do and work to be done.

This is a great responsibility, a responsibility that comes with spiritual maturity, a thankful response to the knowledge of salvation. It is astonishing, but it is true; it is awesome and hard to believe, but it is the gospel truth: God has commissioned us as co-workers, recruited us as soldiers for the spread — not of war — but of peace. As we each appear before God to ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do for you?” may we each and all be strengthened by the Holy Spirit: to do the works of prayer and mercy, until God’s kingdom comes, to love God as we serve him and our neighbors, to the glory of his Name.+