The scripture referred to is Exodus 17:1-7.
During one of my summers in college I was working with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, and I was assigned to Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone Park. I had a secular job but when off-duty I worked with a seminary student and his wife arranging Bible studies and worship services at the lodge and local campground. There was another employee who claimed to be a Christian but certainly didn't act like one. When the discrepancy came up he invoked what Paul said about our salvation depending on God's grace and not our works. No matter what I said, he said that obeying commandments was an attempt to attain righteousness by our works. Besides they infringed on our freedom in Christ.
At that time I had not read Dietrich Bonhoffer's critique of what he called “cheap grace.” In The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” What people hear preached often goes like this: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolation of forgiveness.”
In other words, it is the preaching of one half of the gospel, ignoring the whole “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus” part. It is misunderstanding what salvation is. It is thinking that good and evil are static states and that being saved is simply being moved from one position to another, there to stay. But as in physical life, in the spiritual life one either grows or deteriorates. You are either becoming more Christlike or less so.
Bonhoffer's description of the world of 1937, written from the heart of Nazi Germany, sounds very much like the 21st century: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available at too low a cost. We gave away the word and the sacraments wholesale; we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which is holy to the scornful and unbelieving...But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”
God saves us without our help but he never tells us to be passive. God always requires our participation. In today's Old Testament lesson we see an example. The Israelites are thirsty and once again grumbling against God and Moses. God agrees to give them water but doesn't make it rain or lead them to a spring. He tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Then the water comes out. It is the same staff God told Moses to hold over the Nile and turn it to blood. Is the staff magic? Or is God making a point of involving humans?
We see similar things throughout scripture. The Israelites must march around Jericho and blow their horns before God makes the walls fall. When Naaman comes to Elisha to be cured of leprosy, he has to bathe in the Jordan 7 times before God heals him. When Jesus gives Peter and the not yet disciples a spectacular catch of fish, he doesn't have the fish jump in the boat or enter the net they already have in the water; he has the men throw their nets on the other side of the boat. When Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, he tells him to stretch out his hand. When he feeds the 5000, he has the disciples check for what food they have at hand, which is 5 loaves and 2 fish, and uses that to feed everyone. But couldn't Jesus have made do with nothing?
The principle seems to be that even when God could do something without our help, he nevertheless involves us in the process. Is he just showing off? No, I think he is doing what my wife does when she lets little Nicholas help her bake. She could probably do everything faster and better without him. But she includes him for 3 reasons.
First of all, he wants to help. The best time to get kids into helping with chores is during that period when, as toddlers, they want to help you and want to imitate what you do. New Christians are often the same way. They want to get out there and do God's work. They may need training and guidance, which takes time, but it's a mistake not to let them help. It helps them feel a part of the church and of God's kingdom, where what we do on earth is what is done in heaven. So you may not have them take over running the Sunday School or managing the soup kitchen or heading up the Altar Guild but you do let them join in and help at any or all of those things, rather than worry that they'll mess things up or not do things precisely the way you'd like them done. As my wife does with Nicholas and will do with our granddaughter when she gets to that stage, you let them do what they can. And that's one reason God lets us do stuff he could do without us: to let us show our love for him by helping him and imitating him.
The second reason my wife lets Nicholas help her bake is to teach him how. A motivated student is a valuable resource. Most people have a hard time learning things they don't care about. But when they want to learn, it would be foolish not to teach them. My kids went to my wife and asked her to teach them to cook because they didn't want to be like me. (In my defense I can cook anything in the world...provided there are microwave instructions on the box.) So she let them help her and taught them how to increase their skills in the kitchen. God lets us be part of what he is doing because we are supposed to be in the process of growing into the likeness of Christ. He will do the heavy lifting but he involves us so we learn about him and so we learn to be like him. Disciple, after all, simply means student. God believes in learning by doing.
The third reason my wife lets Nicholas help her is that she loves him. When you love people you love doing things with them. It's fun when someone shares their knowledge and skills with you. God loves us and wants to share his wisdom and gifts with us. One of the things Jesus did was make it possible for us to be reconciled with God and so enjoy his love. There is a time to simply spend time with someone you love, gazing at them and thinking about them. We do the equivalent in worship and in our private time with God. And then there is time to do things with a loved one. We shop or go to a movie or go for a hike or do a project together. God too wants to spend time with us, doing things together: sharing his word with others, helping people out, taking care of his other creatures as well as his creation, learning the wonders of expressing his love through our work and through our talents.
A saying attributed to St. Augustine summarizes God's penchant for involving us in his plans thus: “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” After all, he reveals his will to us. He invites us to enter his kingdom, become his children, become co-heirs with his Son. He commissions us to tell the love story of God and his creatures. He gives us the ministry of reconciliation. Why? It's not like he needs our help. Maybe he is trying to show us that we always need his help.
The paradox of how God works with us is captured in Philippians 2:12-13, where Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling...” which makes it sounds as if it all depends on us, but then it goes on to say, “for it is God who is working in you, both to desire and to fulfill his good purpose,” which makes it sound like it all depends on God. It is in fact a collaboration but one in which God is in charge and a lot of our job is getting out of his way and following his lead. It's like working with tech support to fix your computer: you have to do what they say, shut down programs you were running, and then let them take control of our cursor and screen, delete stuff that is harmful, and put on a security program to protect you in the future. In the same way, we have to do what God says, shut down some of our own pet projects, let him take control of life, let him eliminate our destructive habits, and fill us with his Holy Spirit. We are cooperating with him but it is not an equal partnership.
That's the key difference. When Paul writes of our salvation being a matter of grace and not works, he means we cannot save ourselves but he doesn't mean we do nothing. He just means we are not in charge; it is not our initiative but God's. But we still must respond to God's offer. After all he says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Our part is to say “yes” to God: to his gift of grace and then to all that follows from that. Which means obeying his commandments. Not because they make us righteous but because they are what people made righteous by Christ do.
It is all about what kind of people we are and are becoming. Are we becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, kinder, more generous, gentler, more faithful, more in control of ourselves? Because that is what the Spirit is trying to make of us. And we can quench the Spirit, just like a child can bring a planned family outing to a grinding halt by refusing to cooperate at all. Or like a person can sabotage his recovery from an illness by not taking his meds or not doing his rehab exercises or not giving up the foods or habits that are bad for him. Sometimes people so hate being told what to do that they will refuse to do it even if it means they will remain ill rather than get well again.
I wonder what happened to that employee who felt he could call himself a Christian while still doing whatever he wanted. Did he eventually give up the pretense of following Jesus? Or did he come to see that what he thought of as freedom in Christ was an excuse to indulge in behavior that was ultimately self-destructive? Did he ever come to see that the whole point of following Jesus was to be transformed? Did he ever realize that such a life promised him more pleasure and contentment than his self-centered life of seeking new sensations, regardless of the personal cost? Or did he stay entrenched in his habits despite mounting negative consequences?
I don't know. That was a summer job nearly 40 years ago. But I hope he did have a moment of clarity, an epiphany, a falling of the scales from his eyes. He was a charming and intelligent man. He had a lot of promise and, I hope, a long life ahead of him. I hope it has been a good life, in every sense of the word.
God is not looking for perfect people. He is looking for imperfect people who realize what they are and want to change, want to change enough to surrender to God, to let him have control of their lives, and who are willing to not only pay lip service to being Christians but to actually deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow in Jesus' footsteps. It's not that we can do anything to save ourselves but having been saved by him, we receive the power of his Spirit to think and speak and act like him more and more day by day.
And that is true freedom in Christ: the freedom from the enslaving habits of sin that keep us doing the same things over and over while expecting different results. The freedom we receive in Jesus is the freedom to enjoy God's gifts and use them as he intended. Real freedom is having the ability to choose what is good for you, with a clear mind and a clean conscience. Only then can you discover that what is good in the sense of being morally right is also good in the sense of pleasurable. Because then we will be in harmony with God our creator and so with with all our fellow creatures as well as with ourselves. We will be free to be the person God created us to be, not limited by our past but facing a future as boundless as God's love.