“If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” (Sirach)
At the risk of being accused of Pelagianism, was Pelagius all that wrong? Reformation theology was soaked in self abasement, the utter depravity of the human soul, and the conviction that, without God’s presence, we can do nothing good. Some of us are still steeped in that theology. Others bear the echo of it in the Sunday collects. We avoid moral responsibility by appealing to our original sinfulness and blaming God for it. Alternatively, we can blame the devil, whom some believe is the real ruler of this world. Better yet, we can claim to have certain knowledge of what is good in God’s eye’s, and hold so firm to that conviction that no evidence to the contrary can make us change our minds. Many reject the whole mess by disowning the judgmental hypocrisy of religion, at least as they visualize it.
The thing is, we cannot complain about being unable to do good without God presence because we are not without God’s presence. God is with us and for us. Isn’t that the central theme of scripture? In some mysterious way we are created in God’s image, and God said it was good. We are not without goodness in us. Like Adam and Eve, we are able to make choices for good or for evil, or, to be more accurate, we are able to make choices consistent or inconsistent with what God would have us do.
Being able to make choices for good, and to do good, is not the same as being agents of our own salvation. In fact, I’m not convinced that being and doing good has much to do with salvation. Jesus sent the disciples out to do good and declare that the kingdom of God was at hand, but that did not eliminate the need for the cross and empty grave.
Being able to make choices for good, to do good, to be people of salt, bearers of light, and proclaimers that the kingdom of God is at hand means to take on personal responsibility. That also means that we cannot duck personal responsibility for making poor choices. What we cannot do is assume that we know for certain what is good in God’s eyes. We muddle through doing what we can, not to be good, but to be good enough. The best we can know for certain is in what direction the good lies, and, as Jesus keeps reminding us, it lies in the direction of love, mercy, and justice.
It’s easy to write about this. It’s a lot harder to live into it. Like the Corinthians, about whom some of us will hear this Sunday, I’m not bad at slurping up and delivering the milk of human kindness, it’s the solid food, the meat of human kindness, that I struggle with.