The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams
I remember as a young graduate, first working as an Engineer, sitting in meetings, desperately trying to follow all the acronyms and unfamiliar catch phrases. At one point, discussing who was going to do certain jobs, somebody said they were going to do the job because they were part of the Federation. I felt like I was in an episode of Star Trek. In reality, Airbus employed a lot of contractors on short term contracts. They enabled the company to manage a flexible work force, able to be let go in a week, some of them were organised into a federation. Many of the permanent staff were envious of these contractors and their larger pay packet and didn’t trust them as their employment was mercenary in nature - they were looking out for themselves and weren't necessarily bothered about the future of the company.
A few years on I was mistaken for a contractor. A colleague assumed I wouldn’t be interested in completing a particular task because it wasn’t in my personal interest. I tried to explain that I was a permanent member of staff, but it wasn’t until I had actually done the task in question that my colleague was convinced that I was a committed member of the team.
Earning this credibility was based on my words and actions is so important for building up people’s trust. That’s why politicians need to circulate those slightly curious advertisements with quotes of things they’ve said and pictures of what they’ve done. Over the last few months a number of the London Bishops have been posting videos of themselves on Youtube and social media. Videos of them going and talking to people about how they live out their Christianity in their day-to-day life. It’s meant to encourage people but it also enables them to demonstrate that they have earned their credibility. We had the same thing in the monthly company mag, pictures of the MD shaking hands with people and smiling.
The message that Christ delivers in his coming into the world is not that we need to earn our life in him, or that we even could earn our salvation. Not by living up to a set of rules or regulations about behaviour or what we can or cannot eat. We are part of God’s Kingdom by the grace of God, in spite of everything we do rather than because of it.
One of the classic heresies you find in the church and in the world around us is Pelagianism, named for the 4th century British monk Pelagius, and was even mentioned in the 2004 King Arthur film with Keira Knightley and Clive Owen. Pelagius was accused, among other things, of claiming that it is by good works that we earn our salvation. Augustine, Bishop in North Africa, put Pelagius in his place - calling a council specifically to denounce Pelagius’ beliefs and get him condemned by the Pope. And so began one of the great theological questions and struggles of the church - Faith or Works. Do we gain salvation by faith in God or by being good people. How often do we say, oh treat yourself, you’ve earned it. As if treating yourself, being kind to yourself is something you need to earn.
Of course, while good works don’t earn us our humanity, they don’t earn God’s love for us. Much like a children cannot earn their parent’s love. It has to be freely given. But in today’s Gospel Jesus isn’t trying to say you don’t need to do good things. He isn’t saying that the Jewish people shouldn’t be kosher. But he is saying it’s not about earning our relationship with God. It’s about living out our relationship with God.
It’s about reminding ourselves in our daily lives that we are loved by God. Much like the Old Testament laws are there to remind the people that they are set apart by God and loved. Having a relationship with Christ encourages us to live up to the love God gives us. To live up to the life we’ve been given. The issue of Faith vs. Works was a significant one for the reformation, the reformers feeling that too much of the Catholic practices of the day were about earning our place in heaven. The result of their focus on faith vs. works was also understood to be an argument for faith vs. the law. It saw aspects of Jesus teaching, like today’s Gospel, as arguing that the Jewish people were under law, but now God’s grace was reached not by following the law- that is, doing good works - but by faith.
Sadly that very kind of theology led to antisemitism of the worst kind in 20th Century Europe. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we also read today, makes the point that a commitment by God - the covenant is not reversed, the Jewish people remain in relationship with God. Instead, the Gospel we read today is reminding us that the Good News Jesus brings is Inclusive in the largest sense of the word - even to the Samaritans. It isn’t exclusive to those like us, who think like us, who behave like us. Instead it is a throwing wide a net, even beyond where Jesus seems to expect, to the Samaritan woman and her daughter.
Because the Good News is that God Loves all creation, and wants us to know it because then maybe we can start showing that love to everyone, regardless of who they are, where they are from, what they think. Because that is Grace, and that really could make the world a better place.