Homily: Faith Without Works Is Dead



We
hear in Acts how they opponents of the Gospel in
trying to destroy the Church actually aided in
spreading the Good News beyond Judaism to the wider
pagan world. It’s worth reflecting for a moment
on the fact that the openness of the Church to the
Gentiles was not, humanly speaking, something
initiated by the Apostle. It was rather the
consequence of persecution. The Apostles were in
effect put in the position that brought about the
conversion of pagans. What man “meant for evil;
… God meant for good” (
Genesis
50:20, NKJV). In this case, God used the sinful
intentions of one group to bring about the liberation
from bondage to sin and death (see
Romans
6:16) of another. Painful though it was, the
persecution of the Church was providential. As
Tertullian wrote, “the blood of martyrs is the
seed of the Church”
(
Apologeticus, 50).

All of this suggests something that we already know at
least theoretically. God in His great love for us can, and
does, bring good out of evil. By His grace “all
things work together for good to those who love God, to
those who are the called according to His purpose”
(Romans 8:28, NKJV).

And yet, in the moment, it can be incredibly hard to
remember all of this. As much as I want to abandon myself
to the divine providence, to trust in God and His great
love and mercy for me, the suffering of the present moment
seems to defeat me. I might not curse God but I often do
wonder why His plan seems to require my pain.

Reflecting on the events in Acts that we just heard,
St
John Chrysostom tells us “Look! Not even in
tribulation did they succumb to lamentations and tears, as
we do, but dedicated themselves to a great and good work
and preached the Word even more undaunted.” He goes
on to say, “trusting in the grace of God, they
applied themselves to the work of teaching” the
Gentiles about the mysteries of God and His great love for
all mankind (“Homilies on Acts,” 25 in
ACCS NT vol V: Acts, 147).

The difference between our age and the apostolic age or
our age and Chrysostom’s age is that we, unlike our
ancestors, tend to equate faith with internal emotional or
intellectual experiences. We think faith is about thinking
certain thoughts or having certain feelings. But as
Chrysostom’s words make clear, for those first
Christians, faith was something that was done; it
was an action not just a thought or a feeling.

Our over-emphasis on the psychological dimension of the
faith comes at the good works that we are called to do. It
is this emphasis on internal, psychological experience
that makes us especially prone to doubt and despair.

How often have we heard someone say, how often have we
experienced, doubt melting away at Liturgy? Or think about
what happens when we are caring for someone. In those
moments of active love and sacrifice, even the strongest
doubts are revealed to be a tissue of lies.

My trust in God and His providential care for me wavers
not when I suffer but when I fail to act and instead allow
myself to be swept away by my own, internal monologue. My
own thoughts and feelings—my running internal
monologue—are the enemies of faith. And the cure?
It’s what the holy apostle James tells us in his
epistle: “faith without works is dead” (see
James 2:14-26). We must do good works, we must keep the
commandments.

Understanding the close connection between work and faith
can help us make sense of what seem to the surprising
conversion of the woman at the well.

Here’s this woman going about her business doing one
of the myriad tasks that make up her day. Off she goes,
like she has every other day, to fetch water from the
well. And what happens when she gets there? She meets
Jesus and with just a simple request—”Give me
a drink”—the woman’s whole world is
transformed. Jesus does steps in and disrupts the
Samaritan woman’s expectations not only for her day
but also about the relationship between her people and the
Jews. “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink
of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no
dealings with Samaritans.”

In that one moment, everything looks different. And in
that one moment, she realizes that she can be different as
well.

As often happens in the Gospel, the change comes rapidly.
What began as a less than friendly challenge to this Jew
becomes a curiosity about this Man Who is claiming to be
“greater than our father Jacob.”

Jesus then goes on to demonstrate the sincerity of His
offer to give the woman “living water.” And He
proves to her that, yes, in fact, He is greater than
Jacob. How does He do this?

He reveals the woman to herself. Yes, she knows that she
has had five husbands and that the one she is with now is
not her husband. And no doubt everyone in the village knew
this about her. Unlike neighbors, and likely even herself,
Jesus doesn’t respond to the woman situation by
condemning her; with Him she feels no need to be ashamed.
He knows all this about her, and she knows He
knows all this about her, and yet still He offers her
“living water.”

What is this living water and why does it matter so?

St Cyril of Alexandria says that in making this offer,
Jesus is offering “the quickening gift of the
Spirit” that can restore the woman to her
“pristine beauty.” Jesus has offered to make
this woman, disfigured by her own sins and the sins of
others, “beautiful” (Commentary on the
Gospel of John
, 2.4 in ACCS NT vol IVa:
John 1-10, 150).

Jesus is offering to renew her by
restoring her to a beauty she never knew was
her!

And she says “Yes!”

Not only does she say yes, she leaves behind her old
life—the water jar—so that she is free to
invite others, those who have shamed and rejected her, to
themselves be renewed and made beautiful.

To do this, she has to lay aside what she assumes is the
work she is meant to do.It’s only then that she can
do the great and good work of following Jesus and inviting
others to do so with her.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, there are many reasons
why we all become weak in our faith. Let me suggest that
one reason is because we fail to do the work God asks of
us. Maybe we fail because we’re tired. Maybe because
we’re discouraged.

Or maybe, and this I think is the single most common
reason, we fail because we don’t know what it is
that God has called us to do. As we come now to the final
weeks before Holy
Pentecost, let us beseech God for ourselves, each
other, and the whole Church, that He will reveal to
us—as He did the Apostles and the Samaritan
woman—the work He has called us to do.

Christ is Risen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *