Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22
I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead… I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
Revelation 3:1b, 15-17
Did you ever see The Shoes of the Fisherman? It was released in 1968 and has a marked note of 60s hippiness about it. However it well lays out the internal Christian debate between having stuff and not having stuff; stuff which tends, as we know, to weigh us down, no matter how we intended to use it, hopefully, to God’s greater glory. At the end of the movie, the new Pope solves a spot of world poverty by selling off the stuff of the church. It’s an interesting idea…
There’s that scary passage in the Gospel, right? Where Jesus says he will cut the sheep off from the goats. (That’s scary to me – is it so to you?) Anyway, today’s readings remind me of that passage, when Jesus is like, “You know, you never gave a cup of water to a thirsty person, or even a crust of bread to a hungry person. Bye.” And then everyone is all “But Lord, we did all this cool religious stuff!” and he is like, “Nope. Bye.” That’s scary to me because I know my works. I know my total lack of anything remotely resembling charity.
“I know your works”, says Jesus. He says it to all the churches in the open letters that begin the Apocalypse. Some Churches are good and some are bad. Today the reading skips over a good Church, located in between Sardis and Laodicea. That Church, the Church of Brotherly Love (in Philadelphia) is known for her good works. I think maybe the name tells us more about what we need to know… but we’ve skipped it in the reading today, rightly I think. The fact is, most American Christians are on a scale someplace between Sardis and Laodicea.
Sardis says “People say I’m all kinds of awesome” when, in fact, she’s dead.
Laodicea says, “I say I’m all kinda of awesome” and yet, again, she’s dead.
Most of our churches, I think, bask in either a self-created glow or else a world-created glow. We are not, however, awesome: we are dead. I know your works.
It’s curious that Jesus, speaking through the Evangelist John, doesn’t seem to really care about their “faith” as such. (He does and I’ll get to that in a moment.) Jesus does not talk about their doctrines, which I think are different from Faith: by doctrine, let’s be anachronistic about it, we mean the fullness of the Scriptural Canon and the whole, unadulterated Nicene Creed. (I am speaking anachronistically.) One puts one’s faith (trust) in the doctrine, see? The doctrine may be poetically called “our faith” but I think that’s only poetic license. We put our faith (in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin that means “trust”) in the Doctrine which is, as it were, the type and Jesus, himself, is the antitype for it is his person, action, and teaching that are revealed in the Doctrine.
Jesus says “I know your works”. Works are the the manifestation of faith in the same way that rustling leaves are the manifestation of wind. If we do not see or hear the leaves moving, we know it’s not windy. Jesus, in saying he knows their works is saying “Your faith ain’t up to snuff. It’s like snuff that fell out of the box a week ago and you’re finding it as you sweep up and you just throw it away, because it’s all on the floor and it’s not so much ‘snuff’ now as ‘stuff and things I’m not putting in my nose.'”. For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:26)
The Zacchaeus story in the Gospel makes this point amply, I think: he’s sees Jesus and says “Behold I’m giving away half of what I have, and if I have extorted anything I will give back four times as much – which may have eaten up most of the remaining half. And what does Jesus say? “Behold, wholeness has come to this house today.”
Our Doctrine – all the things God has revealed to us about himself in Christ Jesus that has been taught to us by Holy Mother Church – if we actually trusted it, if we actually believed it would be the wind that rustles our leaves branches and shakes all of our stuff out onto the poor. We say we are rich – and yet we are not. People look at us and say we’re amazing, but we’re not. Jesus knows our works.
We have all kinds of beautiful liturgies. We’ve built very beautiful churches. We may keep our priests well paid. Or maybe, we have a well-paid pastor and we have awesome singing and really amazing overhead projectors with flashy lights. Our offering plates are full. But Jesus knows our works. We are dead. We are not whole. We are not saved. What are the works that show a living faith? James tells us:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17
Nothing there about big churches, gold cups, or jeweled rings. Nothing there about filioques or communion for the divorced. Nothing there about sinners’ prayers, sola scriptura, or evangelism, even. It’s straight up mercy. Don’t get me wrong: all that stuff is important – yet only so far as it supports the works that manifest our faith in the risen Lord. If we don’t have that… it’s bye bye goats.