Faith Alone?

What If It’s Not Faith Alone?

Luke 23-39-43

M. Rev. Ed Jansen, OCM

in collaboration with Rev. Dr. Trish Gaffney, OCM

 

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One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him (Jesus on the Cross): “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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One Sunday morning many years ago this Gospel message came up in our lectionary.  I can still hear myself proclaiming to the people:  “If there was no other passage of scripture that proclaims that we are saved by grace through faith alone, this one does is it! After all, what can one do on a cross?”  Back then this passage settled it for me, yet today I’m not so certain that this proves the doctrine of Solo Fide (Faith Alone).

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Since the Protestant Reformation the Church has been divided about how we are granted salvation. For the first three quarters of our church history it was widely held that we not only needed to have faith in the atoning work Jesus did on the cross for our salvation, but also that our lives must bear good fruit. After the Reformation, the doctrine of “faith alone” became foundational to Protestantism.  That said, let us return back to this particular Gospel narrative from the point of understanding that both Catholic and Protestants alike agree that our lives as Christians, following the example of Jesus, would indeed bear good fruit.  Let’s take a different look at the salvation granted by Jesus to the thief on the cross and maybe we can raise enough curiosity about this passage to leave room for both perspectives.

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What do we know about this thief outside of what he has spoken here?  Nothing. Might he have been a thief all his life?  Maybe. Might he have been a decent man, whose life bore good fruit, but who made one mistake and stole something?  Maybe.  Might he have even been a poor man with hungry children who stole food from a Roman soldier?  Maybe.   See?  Was it salvation simply because he realized who Jesus truly was?  Or was it salvation because Jesus knew he had lived a life of good purpose and works until his crime of theft? Or both?

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We do know one thing about the thief’s character, however. He was a humble man. How can we say that?  Well, he owned his sin when he said to the other thief, “We are punished justly.”  Most people today who we would call scoundrels don’t admit when they’re wrong. They deny their sin or blame someone else. This thief confessed his sin and knew he was wrong.  Might this have been what Jesus saw….  and it was sufficient?

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One other thought in closing. Might we suggest that as Jesus and the two thieves were hanging on the cross, it didn’t matter to Jesus what they did or said on the cross.  You see, “The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.   Maybe Jesus looked into the heart of this thief and saw that he was a decent human being. Maybe he saw that the life he lived was not evil, but good.  Might we suggest that Jesus knew the whole person? Not only his entire life, but Jesus looked into our heart.

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We pray this little reflection will open your hearts and your minds to look at the Scriptures in a more curious way . . .  and wonder about the greater possibilities of Jesus’ love and grace.

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Love in Christ,

Bishop Ed and Amma Trish

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