Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Good Works are God's Grace

The readings for this past Sunday (Fourth Week of Lent) were 2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; and Jn 3:14-21. Upon first glance, the common thread between these three readings might not be completely evident. For ease of reference, here are the readings:

2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23

In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD's temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.
Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
"Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled."
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
"Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!"

Eph 2:4-10

Brothers and sisters:
God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ - by grace you have been saved -,
raised us up with him,
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
that in the ages to come
He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them.

Jn 3:14-21
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

In the first reading, we read that Cyrus, king of Persia, decreed that the Israelites were to go and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem – which had previously been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. But what is particularly important about his decree is that Cyrus emphatically states that his directive came from God Himself.

In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us that we are saved by faith through nothing other than God’s grace. In other words, we are not saved by our own works. Now, this isn’t the same as saying that we are saved by faith ALONE apart from works, as suggested by Martin Luther (and subsequent Protestantism) because St. James clearly taught that faith alone is dead if it is apart from works (Jms 2:14-26). Ultimately, faith and works go hand in hand. So what is St. Paul saying here? He is saying that we are saved by God’s grace through faith and that the purpose of God’s redeeming us in Christ is so that we might live lives filled with good works (making good works coupled with our faith necessary for our salvation).

Finally, in the Gospel reading we are told that those who live the truth live in the light because they are not ashamed of their good works being made manifest. But, that’s not all that St. John tells us. He says that the good works of those following Christ are “clearly seen as done in God”. All the good works that we as Christians perform are done in God – this is because it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in and through us (Gal 2:20).

In light of the above, what we see Holy Church trying to remind us of is that any good works we do are done only by the grace of God working in our lives. Faith and works are necessary for salvation – but we need always to remember that faith and works are both gifts from God – and that is why St. Paul tells us that we can’t boast in ourselves, but rather that our boast should be in God and God alone.

St. Augustine put it this way:

“Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due...Our merits are God’s gifts.”
The Council of Trent affirmed this when it stated:

“The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.”

It is no mistake or coincidence that the Church has declared the above passages to be the Scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent either. Because it marks the mid-point of Lent, it is a good opportunity to reflect on how we have been tracking in our Lenten commitments. For some of us, it might mean that we haven’t been as faithful as we would’ve liked and so it becomes an opportunity to redouble our efforts going forward. For others, it might mean that we can look back at a fairly successful Lent so far – but before we start to think too highly of ourselves, these readings come as a timely reminder that if we have been faithful in our Lenten commitments, it is only because we have been co-operating with God’s grace in our lives – and His grace is the ultimate source of all the good works that we do.
So, at this mid-point in the Lenten season, let us keep praying for one another. We should especially take the time to thank God for the ways that we have been faithful thus far, and ask Him to continue to help us in to be faithful in the remainder of our Lenten journey towards Easter.
And last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget that we have God’s great gift of the Saints in Heaven, and especially our Blessed Mother Mary, whom we can ask for help as well. As the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us and know our struggles, they love us and want to see us succeed in our walk with God. So, may we never cease to ask them for their intercession on our behalf before the Throne of Grace.

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