I remember an evening some years ago when, over dinner, a mentor posed to me and a classmate this question: "What is the primary task of the Church?"
I cannot be sure, but I seem to recall that the preceding conversation had been about some aspect of the Anglican Church of Canada's ministry and witness in the world that, for us, raised concerns. This is not an uncommon or infrequent conversation amongst seminarians and clergy. In response to the question, my classmate and I did not take long to each respond with some paraphrase of "The praise and worship of almighty God." It was of interest to our mentor that we did not see the primary task of the Church as ecological stewardship, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or advocating for social justice, but that we believed our first and primary task was the praise and worship of God.
In the conversation that followed, we explored the relationship between these various activities. How does feeding the hungry connect with our faith and have a relationship to the praise and worship of God? How does ecological stewardship reflect our task of praising and worshipping God? And so on. As we explored the various works which have come to be associated with Christian life, we remarked that the work itself is not necessarily Christian. People of other faiths and people of no faith might see value in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for creation, and much else. It is the motivation of the Christian—the impulse that prompts the works and words and actions—that is the difference. We understand these works and actions as a response to our relationship to God; we understand these works and actions as the reasonable consequences of our faith.
When we realize that the God who made and sustains all things which exist is also a God who made us, seeks relationship with us, and pours out love and mercy and grace upon us in every moment, it can be an overwhelming experience. The only response, however unworthy, is to offer our praise for the goodness and blessings we have received at God's hand and to worship the one who is both beginning and ending, alpha and omega, and all things in between. (Our praise and worship may be unworthy of God, but they are not worthless; those two words mean very different things, but that is a different reflection.)
As we deepen our relationship with God through praise and worship, both of which are at different times synonymous with and inclusive of prayer, we often find ourselves responding to God's love and presence in other ways. God's love for us is not something that we can control. We can receive it joyfully, gratefully, and respond to it, or we can reject it, understand it as an unwanted burden, and thrash about trying to avoid it, but we cannot stop God loving us any more than we can stop anyone else loving us. The feelings and actions of others are, most of the time, well beyond our control. When we receive God's love, as Christians choose to do, we become aware that this relationship with God is not a neutral one. It is a relationship that brings change. God's love is a transfiguring love, which shapes and forms and nudges—sometimes shoves—us in new directions and new ways of being which bring us closer and closer to God, increasing the changes and transfiguration again.
As we grow closer to God and our lives are transfigured in ways that reflect our experience of God's love, we begin to think and act differently than we did before. We continue our praise and worship of God but now we also recognize other opportunities in the world to express our relationship. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked because we recognize them as siblings. Other people made in the image and likeness of God. Other people beloved by God. We know that when we see someone we love go hungry, our desire is to feed them. When we see someone going hungry, but who is beloved by God—the same God who loves us and whom we love—our impulse is to feed them. We offer the hungry food as an expression of our faith in God, as an expression of the love of God that we have received, and as a means of praising and worshipping God in the world that God made. We act in ways that are aligned with God's wills and desires, even when they are difficult and uncomfortable and not what we might wish to do ourselves, because in doing so we are drawn deeper into God's love. And, at our best, we act out this love indiscriminately, in the same way that our God, a spendthrift lover, indiscriminately loves all of us.
This is a part of how I have always understood that much-discussed passage from the Epistle of James about the relationship between works and faith:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. - James 2.1-17
In spite of James's question about whether or not faith can save a person—I believe it can—I have always understood this passage as a reminder that if one has faith, if one has encountered almighty God and has some understanding that they are beloved of God and have engaged with that relationship, it will have consequences in how they think and act. God's presence and love are so powerful that to meet them and not be even in some small way changed is exceptionally difficult to imagine.
Judgement is not one of the tasks given to humanity. In fact, scripture strongly warns us against judging others, so I hasten to add that while I believe this notion that being a Christian will have transforming consequences is true, it is not up to me or anyone else to go about grading the actions of others and whether or not they are "sufficient" indications of faith. Whatever that might even mean. We are none of us perfect in our efforts, again this notion of the unworthiness of our responses to God appears, and two millennia of Christian thinking and practice on methods of approaching God and how to recover and transfigure the moments when we find ourselves actively moving away from God, sin, attest to this. This is a matter for the conscience of the individual, God, and their confessor.
The changes wrought by God's love will be different in each of us. Our responses and the words, thoughts, and actions that manifest them in the world will also be different in each of us. Some will be recognized by many and for generations to come. Others will be known to God alone. But it is true that each of us who encounters and receives the love of God in faith will be drawn closer to God, will be reshaped, will be reformed. Will be transfigured into glory by our faith, which is the greatest act of all.