Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, October 21, 2019
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Faith and Good Works

John 12:1-8 and Philippians 3:4-14

This morning we have heard about an event from Jesus’ life and part of Paul’s teachings. The common thread between the two of them is that they both deal with our actions, especially our attempts to do good deeds. And they deal with the relationship between our actions and what God has done in Jesus Christ.

John 12 tells the story of Jesus being anointed by Mary at Bethany. This happened shortly before his crucifixion. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark also tell this story, and if you put all three of them together, then you get more details of the story than if you only read one. It happened in the home of a man named Simon, and Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were all there. Bethany was the town where Lazarus and his sisters lived, just a few miles east of Jerusalem, and this is after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with a bottle of nard, an expensive perfume from India. This jar was worth 300 denarii. The denarius was the “minimum wage” of the first century for unskilled day laborers. So this was approximately a year’s wages for some people; a lot of money no matter how you cut it.

Jesus had done something incredible for her: He had raised her brother from the dead. And this was her response. Now often in the weeks leading up to the passion, we focus on Judas in this story and his greed. But we should remember her actions. Jesus told us so.

He describes her act in Matthew and Mark with the Greek word KALOS. The word KALOS meant good, but more than just good. It’s the root of the word calligraphy, which means “beautiful writing.” Her act was good, admirable, beautiful, lovely, and worthy of imitation.

Compare that story to what Paul has to say to the Philippians. He is addressing here the teachings of the Judaizers. The Judaizers were a group of first century Jewish Christians who taught that it was not enough just to believe in Jesus. A person also had to submit to the entire Old Testament Law in order to be saved. Men had to be circumcised. That was especially important. But more than that, they had to be obedient to the kosher diet laws, the cultural laws about dress and such, the religious rituals of the Old Testament, and all the customs Israel had in ancient times.

Now, certainly the moral laws of the Old Testament still have something important to say to us. And many of them are repeated in one form or another in the New Testament. But they were saying that every single rule was still necessary to be saved. It makes you wonder what they thought Jesus accomplished.

Paul’s response to them is here in Philippians 3. It’s not that he lacked their credentials; it’s that he found their credentials lacking. He could go toe to toe with them. He was born Jewish, to a family with pure bloodlines. He was from the tribe of Benjamin, one of only two tribes that stayed loyal to David’s line of kings. He was a Pharisee, a very strict sect. He was never accused of a fault.

And Paul goes on to say, “I once considered all these things to be a gain, a credit. Now I count them a loss, a debit. Now I consider them all to be garbage compared to the gain of knowing Christ. I no longer count on my own goodness but I trust Christ to save me. For God’s way of making a person right with himself depends on faith.”

Are our good works garbage or are they lovely? The answer, it seems, depends on why we are doing them. If we are trying to earn our place in God’s Kingdom, then our good works will always be lacking. However good we are, our good works will still be “garbage” compared to the goodness of God.

On the other hand, if we know Christ, if we have experienced new life in him, if we have been saved by his grace, and if we are doing our best to live by God’s word and honor God with our actions, then our good works are lovely, worthy of imitation.

We believe in sanctification, a fancy theological word that means becoming more like Christ. We believe in discipleship, tuning our heart to be more willing to obey Christ and live as he would want us to. But we don’t believe in works-righteousness, the idea that our good deeds can earn our salvation. That’s what the Judaizers were doing, trying to add something to what Jesus had done. But Mary was just overwhelmed with gratitude for what Jesus had done for her. Her actions were an outpouring of appreciation for Jesus’ gracious work. That’s what our actions should be: An outpouring of our gratitude for all that God has done for us.

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