On Salvation and Good Works

Sunday 2nd October 2016
Harvest Festival
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Deuteronomy 28.1-14
2 Corinthians 9.6-15

As some of you know, I am the Chair of RNIB, one of the UK's biggest and most well known charities, so I am, right now, bang in the middle of a major controversy. For some years now, charities have been under attack from ideologically driven neo-Cons not only for paying their staff too much but for paying them at all and this year that attack has resulted in a Parliamentary Act which seeks to limit the fund raising activities of charities compared, significantly, with the sales tactics of businesses; so when charities compete for your cash with companies, the charities are now at a distinct disadvantage. But that isn't the end of it. What is now being pushed is the establishment of a right to be left alone, not by your proverbial double glazing salesmen, but by charity fund raisers. Call me cynical, if you like, but in my experience the richer you are the more you assert the right not to be pestered by people who want to do good!

None of this would be necessary, of course, if we believed in the promises set out at almost inordinate length in the Book of Deuteronomy, about the link between human prosperity and obedience to God. First of all, echoing the Psalmists, we frequently ask why the wicked prosper; secondly, we know from our own experience that goodness is more often punished than rewarded; and, thirdly, we have a rather complex, theological problem with the relationship, to paraphrase Martin Luther, between salvation and good works. If it were that simple, even the rich would welcome charity fund raisers as the door keepers to heaven. In the words of Saint Paul, God might love a cheerful giver but the rich will probably ask themselves how much heavenly insurance costs.

The Harvest Festival, as we know it, was introduced in the 19th Century out of urban nostalgia for an age that had passed but, for all its sentimental limitations, it has the great virtue of being our only great Christian Festival of the collective where we celebrate the work of others for our mutual benefit, a recognition that there is hardly anything that we can do in our lives without the activity or restraint of others.

Activity and restraint are often thought of in our society as contractual, or as mutually beneficial, and there is a fascinating argument about whether altruism really is altruistic or a complex form of self interest.

Our human problem is that our DNA drives us to be competitive about food and mates and that in-created drive has been reinforced by our capacity to generate more output than we need for ourselves and our ability to store it; there were not misers in the age of the hunter-gatherers! There were no doubt struggles with primitive axes over the corpse of a gazelle but irrigation, storage and the invention of bricks required complex organisation which led to the accumulation of power and wealth which, in turn, led to contractual behaviour, most of it imposed by the rich on the poor, beginning with slavery but moderated in more recent times by contracts between labour and capital, and the individual and the state.

But our religious problem is that, unlike the good deal proposed in our Reading from Deuteronomy, the stipulation of Jesus is that we should act against our DNA and behave in a totally uncontractual way, giving away what we have to the poor and trusting in God to care for us in whatever way God pleases; we are, if you like, haunted by the Lilies of the Field.

How, then, should we account for this great contradiction between our God-given createdness and our God-in-Jesus command of unconditional love? This is a question which runs through the whole of Christian history from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2.9) to its reappearance in the final verses of the Book of Revelation ((22.2) but it seems to me that the clue to the solution of our life dilemma lies in that other tree, of Good and Evil (Genesis 2.9). If doing good and being non competitive were in our DNA there would, in a moral sense at least, be no point in them. We are morally imperfect in order to exercise free will and to do our little best to make good the imperfection which, ultimately, could only be made good by the God in Jesus who first caused it to be. Why God wanted to create us imperfect so that we could love freely is the ultimate mystery.

Then the question naturally arises, why did God bother to make something imperfect that only God could fix? Of course this is fundamentally a nonsensical question because from God's standpoint, to use the nearest language we can find, the fault was made and fixed simultaneously. But from our perspective, in the course of human time there is a sequence which began with fault and ends in perfection, both of which are God engendered. As for our striving, that is a parallel, strand of human behaviour which honours God as our Creator, honours God in Jesus and honours the Holy Spirit's presence within us. To be saved and to do good are not parts of an accountancy exercise whereby we earn points for admission to heaven, they are the twin twined strands of who we are which cannot be untwined until the Kingdom is established on earth as it is in heaven.

And so, although it is in our nature to do good, it is not easy; and the DNA of who we are ranks the individual over the family, and the family over society but Jesus would have us invert the ranking; and because our priority should be the collective we need to recognise that our own individual prompting is never going to be enough to generate socio-economic justice. Just as all but the saints cannot love God as we should without the mutual support of the Church, most of us will not be as socially generous as we should without prompting. There may be charities which waste money are conduct themselves incompetently but that does not devalue their collective moral significance. At Harvest Festival, in the context of celebrating collective productivity, we make gifts of food to the poor but this should not be a tiny episode but a reminder that we live in a collective world every day of the year, owing collective obligations every day of the year. I fear that we could probably do with a few more Festivals with a similar theme.