Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Difficult Task of Moral Perfection

John 6:24-35

They asked of Jesus, “What must we do to be doing the Works of God?”  

This is an admirable question indeed! Many an earnest and conscientious individual has asked this same question seeking to live a life of virtue that is pleasing and honoring to God. If we are Christians, we have no doubt admitted the excellence of the example of Christ and his Saints and see them as worthy of imitation.  In fact, most all of us—whether we are Christians or not--desire, at least in principle, to live a moral life. It is the rare soul who is self-consciously devoted to wickedness. And yet despite these good intentions, we all Sin. We find that even our good intentions fail to be completely pure, but are continually dashed upon the rocks of pride and self-seeking.

Many of you may have read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin during your school days. In it he recounts how one day—while attending Divine services—he was inspired by a reading from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He writes, “It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection…As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.” 
After much consideration, he came up with a list of twelve virtues, which he believed, if mastered, would lead him to his goal. He determined to work on each, one at a time, and even kept a log of his progress in his diary. This is the list he came up with,

1. “Temperence: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.”
2. “Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.”
3. “Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.”
4. “Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.”
5. “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
6. “Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.”
7. “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.”
8. “Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
9. “Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
10. “Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.”
11. “Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
12. “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring — never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

How did he do? As you can imagine, he found himself frustrated and disappointed in his attempt. He tells us, “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.” Although he had some success in white knuckling it while focusing on one particular virtue he writes, “While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another.” The experience was an illuminating one. He found, to his surprise, that he was in fact much fuller of faults than he had ever expected.

Moreover even his successes seemed only to aggravate his fault because he found that he became puffed up with pride. His superior attitude was gently pointed out to him by a Quaker friend which led him to add a 13th virtue to his list of twelve: Humility.
Franklin’s story is instructive. It is a difficult thing to be doing the works of God, because we are fuller of faults than we at first might suspect. Even if we somehow manage to be externally blameless in our conduct, it is our hearts that trip us up in the end, which is where number thirteen on Franklin’s list comes in.  We can do all the right things, but be proud in our hearts. Jesus’ message to the morally scrupulous of his time was, “You are like white-washed tombs, scrubbed clean on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones.”

This is why Jesus responds to the question, “what must we do to be doing the works of God,” not with a list of virtuous actions—or even Ten Commandments for that matter—but with the simple statement, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
This seems somewhat counter intuitive. At this point many people may think, “Isn’t how we live our lives, how we treat other people, so much more important than what we say we believe?” There is truth in that which is why I don’t think Jesus is talking about merely what we profess with our mouths. The fact is that our actions say more about what we really believes than our words. Our actions are always an expression of what we really love, what we have put our faith and trust in.
Jesus is saying that the more we put our trust in him the more we will show fourth the works of God in our lives. This is a power that bubbles up from within, rather than a list of requirements that is laid on us from the outside. What the law was powerless to accomplish because of the weakness of our sinful nature, Jesus is able to do through his power working in us.

Jesus is more than just a lawgiver, he is the bread of life! It wasn’t Moses who gave us this bread. Moses gave us the law, which although a good and holy thing, is unable to do anything but reveal to us the depth of our fault. Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven. He gives life to the world.

The Work of God—the one work that is necessary—Faith—is like eating.
When people are perishing they need more than a pep talk, they need food! Think about the act of eating for a minute. When we eat or drink, we take the nutrients and virtues of that food or drink and make it our own. We make it part of us. We absorb its power so that we can live. Well Christ gives us his own flesh and blood as food and drink. In consuming him, we are united with him and his righteousness becomes ours. His divine power becomes the source of life for us. Just as death was unable to keep his body in the tomb, so our sin is unable to resist the strength of his indestructible life. 
What is it that we put our faith and trust in really? What is it that we are striving for? Are we working for that one who can give us real and eternal life or have we contented ourselves with something far less? Too often we are satisfied with the mere appearance of virtue rather than true interior righteousness. We are more concerned with the opinions of other people and their estimation of us than we are God’s judgement. 
The praise of human beings is a fleeting thing. One need only look at the celebrity tabloids. One day someone is on top of the world, the next they are vilified or a laughing stock. Those who seek the world’s praise have their reward, and what a fleeting thing it is. What is fifteen minutes of fame compared to an eternity of God’s glory? That glory—the love and praise of God—is ours in Christ.

The best thing about the Love of God is that it is free. There is nothing we need to do to earn it. We need only believe that he sent his Son for our salvation. Oh Lord, give us this bread always!