This week, I attended the closing ceremonies at my children’s schools. Since both schools recognize the importance of character development in addition to academics, as part of the ceremony, each student was awarded a diploma for a quality that he or she most consistently manifested throughout the year. I do not envy the teachers in this task, for how does one choose just one trait to characterize each child? But, every year that they received their certificates, I said, “Hmm, the teachers really got to know my kids!” This reminds me that when it comes to noticing our own strengths (kids being an extension of ourselves in this regard!), there truly is “no prophet in our own hometown.” We rely on the perspective of others to affirm us. And while adults don’t have as many opportunities for affirmation as we create for the children, I don’t believe that our need for praise (not flattery!) ever goes away.
So… today, let’s have our own ceremony! If you were to give yourself a certificate for character, which one would it be: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control? Take a moment to acknowledge this. Now, choose one person in the congregation, and tell them which virtue you think he or she truly embodies! Awkward? Maybe – and on both fronts, I think. But I hope that our community may truly become, reliably, the place where even grown-ups continue to grow in character AND be affirmed. Of course, offering praise to others is not easy because for it to have any value it must be sincere, which requires taking a true interest in others. On the other hand, discerning our own gifts may also be difficult, particularly for those of us who have been formed by Chrsitian traditions that emphasized the role of belief in salvation over that of virtue.
Martin Luther called one of the NT texts “an epistle of straw… [that has no] place in the true canon of my Bible.” Why? Because its author has written, “faith without works is dead.” This person wrote, likely, decades after Paul under the name of James, his mid-first century opponent from among the first Disciples. In his zeal to refute Paul, the author took an extreme position on works vs. grace, which caused many theologians who considered Paul’s writings as preeminent to doubt the canonical worth of this epistle. However, remember Paul’s words we heard today about the fruit of the Spirit. Do you think that either the person who called himself James or later theologians who rejected him had really understood Paul? For in fact, Paul never argued that in order to withstand God’s Judgment, Christians need only to believe and disregard doing good things. This may have been the position of those theologians who thought they were based on Paul, but it’s not really that of Paul himself.
Yes, his letters include statements such as that believers aren’t saved by the “works of the law”. What did Paul mean by this, if not simply our moral and ethical actions? Well Paul’s chief concern was to understand how the saving grace of God extended to the erstwhile pagan gentiles whom he convinced to believe in the resurrection of Jesus; e.g., his congregation in Galatia, to whom today’s reading was addressed. When they accepted his teachings, they changed their lives, considerably, to give up their worship of all pagan deities and to follow a certain moral and ethical code (which by the way, never went hand-in-hand with pagan worship in the way that it does with Judeo-Christian belief). But then, other missionaries came to Asia Minor and insisted that even after their conversion, they still had to be circumcised and eat kosher food (i.e., follow the “works of the law”), while Paul was adamant that they need not do this. So, he wrote to them, hoping to reassert his authority and explain that they’d already become the participants in grace and need not become Jewish to do so. And as far as the scholars think, he wrote to them only – he may well have been fine with the culturally Jewish Christians to continue doing things that distinguished them from Gentiles (as long as they knew that it had no soteriological implications), but as he never wrote to them, we wouldn’t know. The one thing that we do know is that Paul fully expected and demanded that all those who believe in Christ lead morally upright lives, characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And of course, that they avoid “the works of the flesh,” such as anger, licentiousness, etc. In other words, and in parallel to James, “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”.
Notice, however, how difficult it is to cultivate virtue or foster character development for its own sake. When we do so apart from the framework of faith, caring for the neighbor in a way that you want to be treated becomes merely a quid pro quo principle - and the children are very quick to see right through it! So today, we draw the implications of these 1st century words to our 21st century lives. Yes, they contain contradictions, which is only natural as they were written in quite diverse – and very human! – circumstances. Understanding this, to me, only makes them seem more genuine.
It’s been said that the New Testament is more like a ring full of keys to different doors, than one master key designed to unlock each and every door. In various situations of our daily lives, and in cultivating our faith in general, at times, we might remember one verse or another, as the Holy Spirit guides us. That’s why it’s helpful to steep ourselves in the scriptures and avoid creating a “canon within the canon” of these texts for “my Bible” (cf Luther). The Spirit who helps our discernment today is the same Spirit who had once inspired the writers of antiquity to write their words, as she also inspired our predecessors in faith to select and preserve the canon of books containing them. May we continue to cultivate and exercise the gift of Holy Wisdom of God in ourselves with the help of his divine Word, while affirming and acknowledging all the gifts and virtues the Spirit gives to those around us. Amen.