Faith without Works is Dead

A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on January 12th, 2015.

We all know the story of Saul of Tarsus.

When he set out on the road to Damascus, Saul knew exactly what he was doing. He was well trained, he was respected by his elders and he was extremely good at what he did. He was so zealous about his cause that he had gone to the high priest, and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any people there who were in error, he could arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem on trial.

But somewhere on that road, Saul heard a word.

The Road to Damascus

The Road to Damascus (by Dmitry Shkolnik)

A word that called him to repentance. A word that pierced his heart and brought him to his knees. The problem was that Saul’s faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not agree with his works.

And how easy is it for us to fall into the same trap?

As St. James says,

Faith without works is dead.

We might confess the Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed, we may even sing it in a lovely melody, and we might confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior following every nuanced contour of the Chalcedonian definition. But if God brings someone into our lives that is poor, or angry, or struggling with addiction, and if we ask “Are you Orthodox?” but fail to offer mercy and compassion, or even a decent meal, then what does it profit us?

St James, the brother of the Lord (St Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos)

St. James says, “O foolish man…faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). To believe in God is not enough, for even the demons believe. The test of our faith, is what our faith inspires us to do. How do we treat our neighbor? This is how we are judged. Christ says that if I cause one of the least of our brothers or sisters to stumble, then it would be better for me to have a millstone hung around my neck  and be thrown into the sea.

If my hand causes me to sin, if it does the works of unrighteousness, or if my neighbor is in need, and my hand does nothing then cut it off.

If my foot causes me to sin, if it carries me to do the work of my own selfish ego, or if my neighbor is suffering and my foot is heavy with sloth, then cut it off.

If my eye causes me to sin, if I look upon my neighbor with lust, or greed, or condemnation, or if I look upon a person who is difficult to love, and my eye does not see the image of God, then I should pluck it out.

For, as Christ says, it is better to enter the Kingdom of God, maimed, lame and blind, than to burn in the unquenchable fire.

This is how we are judged.

Because whatever we do to the least of these our brethren we do to Christ himself. “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) This was the blinding word of Christ to Saul that zealous man of faith on the road to Damascus, and it is Christ’s word to us.

Prophet Jonah (by Jonathan Pageau)

Prophet Jonah (by Jonathan Pageau)

Now, there are a number of ways that Saul could have responded, he could have made excuses, “No, that’s not me, I don’t do that, you’ve got the wrong guy.” Or he could have blamed someone else, “No Lord, the woman you gave me, she made me do it.” Or he could have tried to run away, like Jonah who fled to Tarshish.

But Saul did none of these things. He made no excuse, he did not blame someone else, and he didn’t run away. Instead he heard the Word of the Lord, and that changed everything. And today, we who are called to teach and minister and serve in Christ’s Holy Church, we do the same thing.

Like Saul we fall to the ground in the dust of our sin, and weakness and mortality, and God lifts us up, refashions us and strengthens us to do His will. You see, when Christ talks about cutting off hands and feet or plucking out eyes, he’s not talking about self-mutilation, but rather our Lord is talking about putting off the old nature, and putting on the new man created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. For if Christ can cure a man of a withered hand, he can refashion hands that are withered by works of unrighteousness. If Christ can heal a lame man, and make him walk, he can renew and strengthen feet that are crippled by evil. If Christ can grant sight to a man born blind, he can renew the sight of one whose eyes cause him to sin.

The Road to Damascus (by George Kordis)

The Road to Damascus (by George Kordis)

In hearing the Word of God, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus allowed God to perform radical surgery upon him.

The hands that once held the garments of those who killed St. Stephen, were renewed as hands that healed the downcast and forgotten with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The feet that once traveled the roads of vengeance and anger, were transformed into those that carried an apostle on missionary journeys, preaching the good news of salvation and the love of Jesus Christ.

The eyes that once saw only the unclean, the outsider and the unworthy, were refashioned into the eyes of St. Paul who saw brothers and sisters, created in the image and likeness of God, in need of kindness, mercy and God’s love.

On this day, as we receive the Broken Body and Spilled Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our faith is renewed and our hands, feet and eyes—our whole being is transformed. So that we may do God’s will and become like God, showing mercy to those who are unkind, bringing hope to those in darkness, and offering ourselves even to the point of death.

Today Christ lives within us, and strengthens us to repent, cast off the old man, and be renewed to love God and love our neighbor.

The Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen (SVOTS ’96) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004, and currently serves on the faculty of SVOTS as Associate Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of Field Education.

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