Must we wait then for the harvest to see whether we have borne good or bad fruit? Must we wait for the storms to come to see whether we have built our house on rock or on sand? It seems that we must wait. When we are asked to evaluate persons or movements it is often wise to give things time, to wait and see how they turn out. It is the advice of Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles when he offers his views about the new Christian movement: if it is from men it will fizzle out, but we do not want to find ourselves opposing God, so let us wait and see.
Saint Paul says it is only at the judgement that we will see whether what we have made of ourselves counts as gold or straw: fire will test the quality of each person’s work (1 Corinthians 3:13). And it is the criterion given by Jesus in today’s gospel: by their fruits you will know them, in the day of trouble you will know how solid is the house you have built.
It means that our life of faith is itself lived in faith. I asked an older brother once whether I could be certain that I had the faith. He replied immediately saying ‘no, you can only believe that you have the faith’. The certainty of faith about which theologians speak is a certainty found in the object of our faith which is God. Saint Paul, in the text just referred to, says that the day of judgement will reveal the quality of what we have built but the foundation on which we build is Christ. The foundation is sure, then, and secure and reliable. The certainty of our faith comes from that foundation.
Nevertheless we often try to transfer the certainty of faith from Christ, to ourselves, to our own act of believing, or to our own doctrines, or to our own teaching authorities. But all absolute certainties of salvation, all paralyzing dogmatisms and all shrill fundamentalisms: all of these have to be wrong and they are wrong because they are idolatrous. They seek to anticipate the outcome of a judgement that belongs only to God and they therefore shrink God to include him within the limits of their own criteria of judgement. We can only live in faith and hope, with the kind of trust and confidence that these gifts establish in us.
One kind of failure is easy enough to detect and Jesus also speaks about this in today’s gospel: just because we say ‘Lord, Lord’ does not mean that we are with him. If we do not do what he asks, we can say ‘Lord, Lord’ as much as we like and it makes no difference. In fact the instructions Jesus gives in today’s gospel make no reference to us saying anything at all. Our job is to come to him, to listen to his words, and to act on them: come, listen, act. Some of us are called to preach and to teach the faith and that merely puts us in a more dangerous position, with more ways in which we can fail.
But the focus in this is on Christ and not on ourselves. He is our way, our truth and our life. So whatever confidence we have about our salvation, whatever certainty about the truth of what we believe, can only be established on him, not on our own understanding or our own knowledge or our own moral rectitude.
What is trustworthy and deserves our full acceptance, Paul says in today’s first reading, is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Building our life on that conviction about Christ means building our house on solid ground. Living in communion with him means we will stand when the storms come. Living in communion with him means we will bear good fruit and apart from him we can do nothing.