"Works" is a loaded word that most folks of Protestant inclinations dislike. "Works" sounds like that dangerous idea of trying to make ourselves look better to God so we can get more grace (which is the notion so unhelpfully espoused in practice, if not in teaching, by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages). Martin Luther was no fan of this. He, an Augustinian monk, was excommunicated for speaking out prophetically against the notion that we could manipulate God to get God to gives us more grace (mainly in the form of indulgences sold by the church).
There is a long-standing patristic tradition of two kinds of works of mercy: spiritual works of mercy and corporal works of mercy, both of which are worth listing here.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
- To instruct the ignorant;
- To counsel the doubtful;
- To admonish sinners;
- To bear wrongs patiently;
- To forgive offences willingly;
- To comfort the afflicted;
- To pray for the living and the dead.
Corporal Works of Mercy
- To feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To harbor the harborless;
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive;
- To bury the dead.
Rather than referring to these fourteen acts as works of mercy, I would prefer to refer to them as powers of mercy. Christians are empowered by baptism to do all these as acts of discipleship to Christ. Our purpose, our mission, is to go out to the world to use our power to act in these ways, because this is this sort of power that Christ bestowed (and bestows) on his followers. The power we are given is radically counter-cultural, noted only rarely by wider society (and then only in people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta) because these powers are embraced in such a lukewarm way by so many Christians (myself included).
Imagine with me a Christianity in which Christians devoted themselves not to the preservation of their own religious status quo, but rather to embracing and exhibiting the powers of mercy bestowed on them in baptism. Imagine Christian communities taking the lead of Martin Luther in upsetting their own lukewarm faith, emptying themselves of their own chaff that they might make way for the grains of wheat that God seeks to plant in them. What if we Christians allowed ourselves to become living bread, the risen, powerful Body of Christ in and for the world?