SERMON The Works of God

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Pentecost Sunday (Year C)

  • Genesis 11:1–9
  • Psalm 104:24–35
  • Romans 8:14–17
  • John 14:8–21

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:8–21 ESV)

“Whoever believed in me will also do the works that I do.” So Jesus tells us today, this Pentecost Sunday, in which we mark the coming of the spirit to that group of followers of Jesus — flaming tongues of fire, the very breath of God that made the mud-thing into the living man Adam becoming new life in us.

This spirit which made us the body of Christ in the world. Makes us the body of Christ.

We Protestant Christians have a fraught and difficult relationship with works. Even if we don’t remember Martin Luther’s words in The Small Catechism, many of us have them stamped upon our hearts:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.

If we cannot even believe — trust God — of our volition, then we certainly cannot even begin to earn our way into heaven, into the favor of God, by means of the things we can do or make or build with our own hands.

And yet … Martin Luther’s Small Catechism is all about doing — things a Christian should do, ways a Christian should act, things a Christian should believe. We argue, sometimes rather pointlessly, about works, about their role in our faith. Do “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” and that reliance on works is curse, as St. Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, or is a “faith without works dead?” as James wrote?

In our first reading, we have, I think, the ultimate work of man — the Tower of Babel [בָּבֶל]. A giant tower, a work of human hands, designed to show off — to whom, exactly? — the glory and grandeur of man. Our unity, in purpose and thought, in deed and doing, and our concentration in this one place, this city with its tower seeking to reach even up to heaven.

“Come, let us make bricks [לְבֵנִים]” humanity said, eagerly accepting work that the people of God would eventually be compelled to do as slaves in Egypt. This is not a miserable labor, this forming and baking and laying of bricks, this slathering of tar to seal and hold them together. This building a tower all the way up to the sky. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the whole earth!” Such are the aspirations of man, such are his dreams and his faith in the things he can built and create with his own hands, fashion from his thoughts and his dreams and his aspirations! Look at what we can do!

And such are our fears. If we are not united, speaking with one mouth, thinking with one word, all working together, minds and hands all busy at the same task, then we are lost. Scattered. We are nothing. And no one will know who we are.

We won’t know who we are.

I’m critical of modernity, of a world without God, of men who make themselves gods, of a faith in the things we can think and dream and hope and build. Of a humanity united in purpose, ridding the world of sin and suffering. Of human beings remade so that we can sin no more.

But this is an old story, one of men and women on the plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers thinking that all that stands between them and divinity is the work of their own hands. Modernity is just this desire — merged with a science undreamt of by those human beings who baked bricks for Babel — to be God, to show off, to show ourselves, and maybe whoever is watching — that we are something. Amazing. Wonderful. Because we are united in purpose. Capable of anything.

Our works… our hands. Capable of redeeming the world. Redeeming ourselves. Putting an end sin. Ending our alienation from ourselves. And our isolation from God.

God was watching those men and women at Babel, however, and he brought about that very thing they feared. He confused their tongues, made it impossible to think in unison, work with that kind of unity of purpose. And God scattered them — us — across the earth.

Pentecost is often seen as a kind-of repealing of Babel, of this scattering and this frustrating. And I think that’s all very true.

But I’m focusing today on works. On the things we do with our hands. And what they mean. Jesus speaks of works — εργον — in our gospel reading today. Over and over he speaks of works. But he speaks of The Father, or himself, and the works that he had done. The works of healing, of changing water into wine, of feeding thousands, of walking on water, of forgiving sins, of proclaiming, again and again, “I am…” The bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.

These are the works. Even if we do not believe that Jesus is who he says he is, there are these works, these incredible deeds, that bear witness. That God is with us. Come down here. Not because we built an escalator that he would condescend to ride down, or enough bricks to build a tower tall enough.

But because God loves. Us. Saw us. Scattered, alone, frightened of each other and of the world, wishing we could be that kind of united in purpose and thought again, hoping we could build something that would show ourselves — and God — just how great we really are.

But God does not care how great we are. God’s love is not about our greatness. In fact, it could be argued that God is frightened of our aspirations to greatness, or at least concerned. “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” God says. Perhaps when we are that kind of united, in thought and deed and purpose, we human beings are unstoppable.

These aren’t the works Jesus does. And not the greater works we will do when we trust in Jesus. We do not build to heaven. We do not rival God. We do not replace thousands of languages with one, or many minds with one, or many hands, all working together, as one.

Christ is one. We are many. The Spirit is one. We are many. The works are love and mercy, not baking bricks and building. There may be only a few ways to build and stack bricks to build a solid tower, but there are as many ways to love as their are desperate souls in need of comfort. We are many, scattered, confused, but we have one Spirit, who unites us in love. Who empowers us to love. To reach down, as God has reached down, to the suffering, the lost, the cast off, and feed them. Touch them. Show them they are not, in fact, alone.

“I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus tell his disciples “I will come to you.” He is already here. His Spirit blows through us. And while it may not empower us to build a tower all the way to the sky, or make much of a name for ourselves, watch what that Spirit who dwells in us causes us to do.

Because the works will be glorious, mighty, wonderful, and astounding.