I love the Bible, for more reasons than I could possibly write in one blog post, but I will stick with one reason here: I love its oddly-angled continuities. I could be describing my old house, literally, but I am describing the ways in which the coherence of the Bible takes its shape by winding and meandering in different directions only to arrive at the same location. The readings for Sunday in the ninth week of Ordinary Time make this geometric reality clear. The second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans 3:21-25, 28 (I include vv. 26-27 also):
23 Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
The focus of this passage from Romans is apparent: grace and faith justify, not works of the law. The followers of Jesus are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not through works for “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” On its own, this is a beautiful and powerful reality. But let’s juxtapose this reality with the Gospel reading for Sunday, from Matthew 7:21-27:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’' 24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
Here, though, we are faced with the starkness of another powerful and beautiful reality. The one who will enter the kingdom is “only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” The heart of this passage is not grace and faith, but doing! Doing what? Justification is gained by faith, not by doing the works of the law, as Paul says, but it also seems that even those who prophesy, cast out demons, and do many deeds of power in Jesus’ name might find themselves outside of the kingdom, unknown by Jesus. It is only those who do “the will of my Father in heaven” who enter the kingdom, but it was Jesus himself who sent his apostles to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). Are these very deeds not the “will of my Father in heaven”?
It is a curious and stubborn reality we are facing. You must have faith, not the works of the law. Deeds, acts of doing, seem excluded. But then, you must do, but not necessarily the deeds which Jesus elsewhere extols. One of these hard curiosities seems amenable to cracking. Faith is not a passive reality, a simple intellectual exercise, but a way of life for the follower of Jesus. Still, though, why are those who seem to act in Jesus’ name and do deeds which he has otherwise celebrated excluded from the kingdom?
The key seems to be building on the rock, which elsewhere in Matthew (and the other Gospels) is the name that Jesus gives to Simon, Cephas in Aramaic, Peter in Greek. But it is not that Peter himself is the rock, it is that Peter the rock represents the Church of Jesus Christ. The theme of building on this rock runs throughout this passage. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (vv.24-25). Think of Matthew 16: 18, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The followers of Jesus need faithful action and a part of this faithfulness is to build on the rock, the Church of Jesus Christ.
When you read Paul it seems that faith is opposed to works, but it is works that are done for one’s own benefits or from false motives. True work is an act of faith completed as you build on the rock which Jesus established. This is one reason I love the Bible: you think you are being taken in one direction, but then it seems you are being taken in another direction and then it seems like as you arrive at both destinations, you are in the same place: amongst the followers of Jesus in Church.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens