“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, not the result of works; it is the gift of God.”(Eph 2:8-9)
You are on an elevator with a stranger. He turns to you and asks, “Are you a Christian?” You say “yes.” He says, “Why are you Christian?” What would you say? You’ve only got the length of an elevator ride. What would you say?
You could do worse than quote these words from today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians. For me, they sum up the very essence of the Gospel: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, not the result of works; it is the gift of God.”
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s a special day for me because I arrived at Lorgan Airport from London on St. Patrick’s Day 1999 to begin my life as a postulant here at the Monastery. I remember feeling very, very anxious. It was a bit like starting a new school. The sinking feeling – how will I get on? How will I perform? Will I fit in? Will I be able to do the work? Will I make any friends? Will they understand my accent? Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences: starting a new school, college or a new job. How well will I perform?
But we’re not the only ones who worry in this way. Our whole society is like it. The German/American philosopher Herbert Marcuse described 20th century western society as dominated by what he called the performance principle. We are a society, he says, which is anxiety-ridden because we are constantly evaluating ourselves and our performance in relation to the set values of our community. And the most awful aspect of this is that we tend to regard our own value as human beings in direct proportion to how well we perform, or how much we produce. So, for example, an unemployed person can be made to feel pretty worthless. I remember at a private school where I used to teach, the pressure on some children to perform by their over-achieving parents. There was the unspoken belief by some of the children that their parents’ love for them was conditional upon their exam results. It had an emotionally crippling effect on them. Marcuse identifies the performance principle as the chief source of our anxiety, and our inability to feel loved and accepted.
Well, the performance principle was described very accurately 2,000 years ago by the apostle Paul. He called it “life lived under the Law,” and it was killing him, even though he performed very well. In Philippians he says, “As to righteousness under the Law I was blameless.”(Phil 3:6) He was a high-flyer – an achiever. And yet however hard he worked, however well he performed, however scrupulously he kept the law – it was never enough. And he cried out in frustration – longing to be accepted and loved. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he says in Romans. “I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”(Rom 7:19-24) However hard he worked, he could not save himself. He cried out for a savior.
And so it was that Paul encountered Jesus Christ, and his life was shattered and changed beyond all recognition. “Whatever gains I had,” he says in Philippians, “I count as loss for the sake of Christ.”(Phil 3:7) What he had discovered through his encounter with Jesus Christ can be best summed up in the word “gift.” He expresses this beautifully in those words from the Letter to the Ephesians which I quoted at the beginning of the sermon: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, not the result of works: it is the gift of God.” That’s the Good News!
And it is good news for us, too! Life lived under the performance principle, under the “Law,” makes us slaves to insecurity and anxiety, constantly comparing ourselves to others, struggling to reach a level of achievement which always eludes us. Life seen as “gift,” as grace, can set us free. Once you know you are loved unconditionally by God, there is such freedom.
The Christian’s struggle is not a bitter competitive struggle to outperform the other, but rather a struggle to become who we really are, by the grace of God, beloved children of our heavenly Father. To know that God loves us, and in Jesus Christ, forgives us, and cherishes and delights in us – that is life-changing, and it can set us free – free from slavery to the Law, free from anxiety to achieve in our own strength, free to live the abundant life Jesus promises us.
But what about tomorrow, when we go back to work, back to a world with very different values? How can we keep this glorious, life-giving reality, that life is a gift, in our hearts and minds, when we have to live and perform in a society which tells us that everything has to be earned?
I would say that most important of all is, every morning, to spend some time in prayer. Time to center our imaginations, to focus on Gospel images – images through which God speaks to us. Time to allow the images of what God has done for us to work on our imagination. Just a few minutes each morning, at the start of the day, to let the life-giving stories of the Gospels slowly permeate our souls, and gradually transform our consciousness and our values. So that during the day, at work, when we feel the pressures of the world’s values getting at us – the drip, drip of anxiety about our performance, when we start comparing ourselves unfavorably with our colleagues, when we being complaining about them inwardly, and feel lack of self-esteem – we can at once counter the cold dripping tap of anxiety with the warm, faithful images we meditated on in our time of prayer and quiet at the beginning of the day.
We can perhaps hear God saying, rather like Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say, “Don’t be silly. Don’t you know how much I love you?” In the midst of the stresses and pressures of the day, we can bathe in God’s love and give thanks for the very gift of life itself.
But perhaps the supreme way of keeping before us the “giftedness” of life – is by doing what we are doing here today, at the start of a new week. Celebrating together joyously all that God has done for us, revealed and articulated above all in the Eucharist. For here, our attention to our performance as humans fades away, and what we celebrate is God’s performance!
Here, supremely, we encounter gift.
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