Reflecting on the Journey
We aren’t what we do; but what god makes us!
My best guesstimate is that it was six – maybe seven – years ago. When our youngest was swimming with COM Aquatics. One day, after practice, she came home with a new team shirt complete with a quote from Aristotle, printed on the back. Something to motivate. To inspire. “We are,” it said, “what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” Anyway, the words’ve stayed with me. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” Since then, I’ve discovered that Aristotle may not have said it. But, he could have. They fit that well with his thinking.
This week, the quote came back to me, as I thought about this sermon. This is “the” Sunday, this month, when we spend time reflecting on the journey we’re on. Ventures unending. Paths untrodden. Perils unknown. It’s a chance to remember where we’ve been, to look around at where we are, and to see where god might be leading. And I guess I had a feeling those words – whether they’re Aristotle’s or not – are important. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
You see, Europe – and the church with it – embraced this way of thinking, a long, long time ago. And when those Europeans and when that church crossed the pond, Aristotle came with them. As Americans, like Aristotle, we believe in work! We believe in it with all our heart and with all our head! By the sweat of our brow and the strength of our backs, we can accomplish anything! Basically, Aristotle believed that if we want to be good people, the way we do it is by doing good things! If – when – we do good things, we’re good people! “We are what we repeatedly do!” That’s the reason for the words on the back of that shirt! Practice makes perfect! Fake it till you make it! Bumper stickers Aristotle would have! In other words, if you want to swim … If you want to swim well … You swim! And you swim! And you swim! And you swim some more! You swim repeatedly! You swim habitually! You are what you do!
But here’s the rub … What the church heard and what the church still hears is that if you want to be a Christian, you do Christian things! Think about that, for a moment. If you want to be a Christian, you do Christian things! In other words, if you want to be a Christian, you, repeatedly, say your prayers. if you want to be a Christian, you read your bible, over and over. if you want to be a Christian, you go to church, again and again and again. If you want to be a Christian, you tithe and go on mission trips and feed the hungry, and all the rest. After all, if – when – we do Christian things … that’s how we become Christian! Excellence isn’t a single, solitary act. It’s a whole string of acts. Excellence is a custom. A habit. A tradition. And that way of thinking, that way of living, is all around us! At home! At school! At work! On the baseball field! The football field! The soccer field! In the swimming pool! Even in the church! “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence isn’t an act; it’s a habit.”
And now, we’re on a journey. We’re in the process of becoming something we’ve never been. It’s not a matter of doing what we’ve always done. Only this time, doing it better. Tweaking it. Fine-tuning it. This time, we’re going back to the beginning – back before the beginning – and starting all over, again. God’s unmaking us so we can be remade. Remade in the image of god! Remade in the image of god’s people! It’s just part of the never-ending process called reformation.
Anyway, I did something, this week, I hadn’t done in a long time. I went back and I reread a series of theses Luther had written, two months BEFORE he posted the ninety-five. Those ninety-FIVE theses – the famous ones – were called, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” The ninety-SEVEN are entitled, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology.” And one thesis, in particular, jumped out of me, this time through. Number Forty-One. “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle,” Luther writes, “is the worst enemy of grace.”
“Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.”
Push come to shove, Aristotle would have said, “We become Christians by doing Christian things. Routinely. Repeatedly. Habitually.” But when Aristotle – and his commitment and devotion to work – becomes the foundation of faith, there’s no longer a need for Christ! When Aristotle – and his belief in work – becomes the foundation of faith, there’s no longer a need for the cross! When Aristotle – and his belief in work – becomes the foundation of faith, there’s no longer a need for grace, for charity, for love! To become a Christian, the scholastic theologians said, to become the church, all we need to do is act like one! And Luther said, “No!”
What sparked the reformation – the catalyst, the cause – is Luther’s discovery – or rather, rediscovery – that the only thing that makes us Christians is god! Not our actions! Not our attitudes! Not our wishful thinking! Not our good intentions! It’s god! God and god’s grace! God and god’s charity! God and god’s love! God’s grace always present! God’s grace always active! Creating! Salvaging! Renewing! Grace isn’t just something that inspires us. Grace is what inspires god! Inspires and motivates! Grace is why god does what god does! Grace is why god is who god is! There’s nothing we can say, nothing we can do, that makes god love us! Just as there’s nothing we can say or do that makes god stop loving us! Grace is god’s very being!
So, we’re the church. The church starting over. We aren’t here to bicker and squabble over things that aren’t important. Over things that don’t matter. Degrees. Shades. We’re not, even, here to get people to worship with us. Or to say their prayers. Or to read their bible. Or do any of a thousand other things Christians “do.” We’re here, simply, to tell them that this – all this – is a gift! Free and unearned, undeserved. Dropped into our laps … by the charity of god! What do we have to say? Nothing! What do we have to do? Nothing! What do we have to believe? Nothing! Because that, my friends, is how it works! That’s how all of this works!