Thoughts on the Second Reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

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Good Works

Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense. To repay each for what he has done. Revelation 22:12

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. I Corinthians 13:3

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:9

Christians are saved by grace through faith; justified by faith not by our works, but the great Prophet John tells us as Word from God that when Christ returns He will repay us for what we have done. John offers a list of those who will be lost: the cowardly and faithless, but also murderers, adulterers, and all liars. These are partly actions in the world, partly the failure of virtuous dispositions, partly actions that represent a rebellion against justice or acquiescence in the lure of evil. Those whom the prophet condemned for doing such things are condemned for the injustice of such acts, but more so because each represents a failure of love. “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (I John 5:3). “Whoever keeps His word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in Him” (I John 2:5).

The moral worth of every action is found principally in its intention. That the road to hell is paved with good intentions is only part of the story, for the road to heaven is likewise paved with good intentions. It is not what goes into a person but what comes out that matters (Matthew 15:11). “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). The entire purport of Matthew 5:17 following is to teach that good and evil belong to the will. Not only must the disciples of Jesus abandon seeking the death of the enemy but must also give up hate and revenge and indeed love that enemy and pray for him. Not only are we called never to seek the use of another person for unlawful pleasure but to root the concupiscence that encourages such desires out of our hearts. Purity of heart and a deep desire for the good of others does not come easily in a fallen world. Paul cries out in a despairing moment that he fails to realize the good that he intends. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it” (Romans 7:18). “Who will deliver us from this body of death” (7:24)? And the answer is: God who has given us His spirit, and who is greater than our hearts (I John3:20).

Paul wrote in Ephesians that we are created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of doing what God has prepared for us to walk in. Jesus prayed for those who believe and who will believe, “that they may all be one as you Father, are in me and I in you, that they may be in us” (John 17:21). It is the will of the Father that we share in His Son; that we have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:8). But the Gospels are full of accounts of those who have been given the gift of God’s presence as it is described in today’s Gospel, who have been given a new heart, but who are lost along the way. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 18:25:14–30) and the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23) are both about those who have been given gifts or opportunities, the symbolic talents in one, the Word sown in the field of the world in the other. And consider the Parable of the Unprepared Wedding Guest (Matthew 22:1–14), which seems in a sense cruel. The guest has been brought by the ‘force’ of grace into the banquet, but he is unprepared. And there is the unfruitful fig tree (Luke 13:6–9). God sows the seed of His grace, He prepares the way for us to walk in, but then the Landlord expects fruit. Invited to the banquet, we are ever ready to take care of business, to inspect the new-bought land, try the oxen, or give attention to a wife (Luke 14:15–24). Our moral lives are lived between the renewing Gift of the Holy Spirit and its realization in what we think, say, and do. And that realization is, as John says, a battle in which we must conquer (Revelation 21:7).

The most important deed for any Christian is the keeping and care of his heart so that it is literally inspired by love for God and His Son Jesus Christ. Thus Saint Augustine will say. “Love God and do as you will.” If our love for God were perfect, if we had the fullness of the love that overcomes the world, Saint Augustine’s advice would be enough. But because we live in a world in which sin so stubbornly clings to us, our greatest project, the care and keeping of our hearts, is surrounded by exigent reminders, realistic threats, promises, questions, and examples. There is the great example of Matthew 25:31–46, which teaches that the way into the kingdom is through care for the poor, the lonely, the hungry, promising retribution to those who neglect these things and rewards to those who do them. There is the threat that if we fail to make peace we will wind up in prison, not to be released until we have paid the last farthing (Matthew 5:26). There is the teaching of Saint Paul that on the Day of God “the fire will test what sort of work each one has done…though he himself shall be saved, though only as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:15). In his First Epistle John the Evangelist asks this question: “If one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

When Christ returns He will judge our hearts and the reality of our love by the lives we have made. The criteria will not be simply what we ourselves have done, for Christ is in us and with us. To offer good works to Christ as simply our own would be ‘works righteousness’ of the most Pharisaic kind. But our good works are Christ working in us, and we will be judged as to how we have used His gift of grace in the Holy Spirit. Love is not enough, for we and the world are, like the Incarnation of the Word of God, real, and God’s love in us will or will not be realized in the words and deeds that make the texture of our lives. The fate of adulterers and liars that John describes so graphically is obvious and terrible. It is the judgment upon willful sinners. It may be the judgment upon those whom God calls but who refuse to answer. John’s advice to those who belong to Christ, who have the faith, who are yet on the way, is to be found in his letters to the churches in chapters two and three of his Apocalypse. He is encouraging, but he also warns. There the Ephesians are reminded that they have lost the love they had at first; that if they do not repent their lampstand will be removed from its place in the presence of Christ (2:4–5). The Church at Sardis has the reputation of being alive but is in fact dead. “I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember what you have received and heard. Keep that and repent” (3:22–23). And, famously, the Church in Laodicea was “neither cold nor hot…. Because you are lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing, not knowing that you are poor, pitiable, and blind” (3:16–17). These are failures of love in the elect who have become negligent, of the lazy, double- minded, knowing, falsely confident, those who have been given the gift but who are failing to allow it to bear fruit in their lives; those who were baptized but who have not realized the gift.

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