Faith and good works
 assure us of salvation

Readings: Is. 50.4-9; Ps. 116; Js. 2.14-18; Mk. 8. 27-35

The Epistle of St. James occasioned great controversy during the Reformation era. St. James writes, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? Faith without works is dead." Martin Luther did not like the epistle of St. James. Luther disparagingly described it as a "letter of straw." Luther taught that people are justified by faith alone. The Catholic Church taught that faith and good works assure us of salvation.

Today, Catholics and Lutherans hold the same teaching about the relation between faith and works. Jesus alone has saved us. Jesus has saved us by his life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. None of us earns salvation. Redemption is a gift from God. Good works flow from the grace of God which abides within us. Good works flow from our cooperation with grace Works demonstrate the grace of God within us. Grace empowers us to be good and to do good. All the good works in the course of our lives, however, cannot earn us salvation.

500 hundred years ago, and now, no Catholic authority would say that "by good works we can work our way into heaven." We don't earn salvation; God has gifted us with salvation. No Lutheran authority would say that "good works are not necessary as part of the Christian life." If you have any doubts about the Lutheran teachings on good works, come to our parish hall on Sunday September 20. Pastor Jon Greenstone will inform and inspire us about the Emmitsburg Council of Churches' recent missionary trip to Kenya.

What caused the controversy between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church over St. James' epistle? Many complex factors came into play. First, abuses had permeated the Catholic Church for the two previous centuries. Individual popes, bishops, priests, men and women saints, emperors, kings and laity had confronted but failed to eliminate these abuses. Why? Institutions are burdened with much inertia. Besides the usual political, economic, social, and cultural factors, the Roman Curia was benefiting from the abuses. Second, Luther possessed an excessive sense of his sinfulness and unworthiness. He felt he could do nothing to contribute towards his salvation. Soon he challenged the Church's system of sacraments, and from the seven sacraments, Luther rejected five; he retained Baptism and Communion. Kings saw an opportunity "to use" Luther for their political and economic benefit. Many kings joined the Protestant Church in order to turn against the Emperor and the Catholic Church. This conversion allegedly justified the kings' confiscating without compensation, half of the Church's land and wealth in Europe. Third, in the heat of the Reformation's disagreements, numerous misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and misinterpretations of others' words and deeds erupted. People's hearts overtook their heads in making decisions; thinking became blurred and passions raged. People on both sides "dug in" to their positions; a siege mentality developed. Contrary to Luther's explicit instructions, the war of words led to bloody wars between peasants and nobles, between Catholics and Calvinists.

What might we learn from Reformation history? May I suggest that we apply these learned lessons to the current health care discussions? I am not presenting one side or another of a political issue; I am presenting the moral way in which we might participate in the discussion. May I suggest that in our discussions we practice humility, clarity in speaking, charity in listening, avoidance of violence, and pray a great deal. Maintain a sense of humility, none of us alone can grasp the complexity of the health care industry. We have a responsibility to speak objectively as possible. Use facts, not clichs. Avoid name-calling and demonizing. Listen with an open mind; God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason! We need to learn from each other; none of us has the complete answer. Avoid violence. Many people like to think that their head rules their heart. Actually, each of us has experienced moments when our hearts have over-ruled our heads. Angry words can escalate to wars. And we need to pray for God's wisdom. Most of us Christians have the same goals: we want to help the poor, we want to respect life from the womb to the tomb, we want to avoid frivolous law suits, we want people to take responsibility for the way they eat, drink and drive; we know that health and money are finite limited resources and must be utilized prudently. I suspect that most of us agree on goals but disagree on means. Let's keep a broad and proper perspective.

Today, almost five hundred years after Martin Luther separated from the Catholic Church, is it fair to say the following: 1) the separation of the churches could have been avoided if the Catholic Church had been more effective in eliminating abuses within its own institution, 2) that Martin Luther intended reform not revolution; he did not set out to separate from the Catholic Church, but the historical principle of "unintended consequences" overwhelmed the Reformation movement; 3) that five hundred years later, Catholics and Lutherans admit misunderstandings, misrepresentations and misdeeds on both sides. In 1999, Catholic and Lutheran theologians, with the blessing of their respective churches, passed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in which they each removed the excommunication and condemnation of each other's leaders, and they agreed on a common position regarding justification. What a shame that for five hundred years separation had taken place in part over the understanding of justification.

In the current health care discussions and all serious discussions, let's learn from our Christian history. Let's try to grow in humility, clarity in speaking, charity in listening, avoidance of violence in words and deeds, and the need for much prayer so that with the help of the grace of God our beloved country might emerge more healthy in all ways.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley