A few days ago the Church of England’s calendar kept the “lesser festival” of Martin Luther. This addition to the calendar is rather surprising, mainly given the fact that Henry VIII was awarded by the Pope the title of Fidei Defensor – Defender of the Faith – after refusing Lutheran doctrines. Still, on 31st October the English Church gives us the option to celebrate Martin Luther’s theological achievements. I guess this opportunity is more tantalising for a few evangelical clergy, than it is for me.
Luther initially presented a reasonable doctrine which was subsequently exasperated by other theologians after him who took it to extremes. This is the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone and our Church has sat uncomfortably on the fence of this doctrine since the schism. On the one hand, some would sustain that just by affirming and believing that Jesus is Lord one is immediately and wholly saved. Good deeds and the practice of virtues are deemed utterly futile. On the other hand, others could argue for a model of salvation based on the performance of good deeds alone, a sort of heavenly club card points reward scheme. And so, where does the balance lay?
The ten bridesmaids are faithful people who are expecting the arrival of Jesus - the bridegroom. They know he will come, they believe in him, and they long to greet him at his arrival. However, as it happens, the more the bridegroom delays to arrive, the less expectant they feel and their faith in him begins to become sluggish. They fall asleep. Indeed, the five foolish ones may have used their sleep time more productively by going to the buy more oil for their lamps but they did not. When they realised their mistake the bridegroom had arrived. It was too late.
Now, if justification by faith alone was behind the entirety of the gospel’s message, we would be left wondering why the foolish bridesmaids were left outside. After all, they went a long way to meet the bridegroom; they expected longingly for him and more importantly they were trying to correct their mistakes. They may have been drowsy, but so did their other five companions. The five foolish ones seemed to have had as much faith in the bridegroom’s arrival as the five wise ones.
We can see all of us in the ten bridesmaids, can we not? We are all baptised, we have all confessed Jesus as Lord and our belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And yet some among us seem to have a little extra something that keeps them going for longer; perhaps some extra oil for their spiritual lamps.
The thing is, the oil of prayer and good deeds is available to everyone because it is directed by grace. We need to make sure we have a supply always with us in order to nourish our souls when times get tough, when the lamp of our faith becomes lukewarm or seems to be running out; for times when – as we heard in last week’s gospel – “the love of many will grow cold”. We need to stock up because we don’t know how long the bridegroom will take to come to us to invite us to his banquet.
The Church of England, having a good working knowledge of her ministers, binds her clergy to a compulsory refill scheme for this oil. We are bound by canon law to pray morning and evening the Daily Office. We are also bound to perform good works and so hopefully to keep the lamp of our faith alive and well.
There is no such an imposition to the laity; however we can ask others to pray for us, we can ask or St Ia and all the saints to intercede for us, but we cannot ask someone to pray instead of us. We can encourage people to give to the church and to the poor, but we cannot pretend them to give on our behalf without putting our money where our mouth is. Similarly, we cannot ask someone else to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in our place.
“No!” say the wise bridesmaids “there would not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And these dealers are the virtues of Charity and Religion, through the working of the Holy Spirit.
And so, yes, we are saved because of faith in Jesus Christ, but without the oil good works the lamp of our faith would falter and disappear. If that lamp is not kept trimmed and burning, the bridegroom may not recognise us, saying to us, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you”.