In the Name…
Two clergymen from different denominations met and began to discuss their respective faiths. The conversation was very cordial and respectful. And when the time came for them go their separate ways, one said to the other, “It was a pleasure to meet you. Do continue to do the Lord’s work in your way. And, I’ll continue to do it in His.”
Our second lesson today came from the Letter of James, a letter which has been often criticized for apparently advocating a "theology of works." That is to say, for allegedly holding the view that all it takes to go to Heaven is to do good deeds and that faith in Jesus is optional. The statement that usually gets James into trouble is the one that closed our reading: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
And, indeed, we may remember from school that one of the causes of the Reformation was that there had developed in popular culture an over-emphasis on what were called “good works.” But, back then, what people understood by the phrase “good works” was very different to what you or I might think.
In the Middle Ages, people defined “good works” as religious things. Lighting a candle cancels out slander; buying so many indulgences makes up for adultery. That was the “salvation by works” that Luther and the other Reformers were attacking. The idea that people could do some external action to feel good and not have to change their lives.
In our own time, though, many people have also bought into a practice of “salvation by works”, but, this time, without religion. That is, running a 5k race for cancer research cancels out back-stabbing a fellow worker, while donating to the homeless shelter makes up for sexual harassment. Different method, same result – doing some external action to feel good without having to change one’s life.
But, James says that both positions are wrong. Going through religious motions without showing love of neighbour is as meaningless as going through humanitarian motions without showing love of God.
The late Verna Dozier put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.” “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”
In other words, the whole faith vs works argument is the wrong approach to start with. We need to take a step back and start earlier in the process. We need to start with God and not with ourselves.
Now, we believe that God is the Faithful One – capital letters, here - and Scripture is fair well bursting with passages about God’s faithfulness. It follows, then, that because God’s very nature is faithful one of the gifts God showers upon us is the gift of faith. And that’s important to realize, that this faith is not something we generate within ourselves as a function of will power or thought experiments. In fact, this faith is not really ours at all, but it is about our participation in God’s faithfulness to his people and his world. It is something that works in us and through us.
So, when we view faith in this way, not as a commodity, but as an inviting force that brings us into God’s life and mission, then it flows naturally into what we can call “works” as a shorthand description of the myriad ways God calls us to live out that faith both in our actions and in our being.
For example, our faith might want us to sit in silence listening for the movement of the Holy Spirit, or it might compel us to go out in public and advocate for a social cause. It may, indeed, lead us to attend more devotions in church, or run that 5k.
But, these “works” do not earn us any points in the ledger of salvation because that ledger does not exist. These works are simply the by-product of our participation in the faithfulness and the life of God. When James says faith without works is dead, it is simply his stark way of indicting his audience for paying lip service to God’s faithfulness, but never participating in it. For being content to hear the Gospel, but not live it.
The story is told of Francis of Assisi going down to a village with one his monks. When they arrived at the village they engaged the local folk in conversation and passed their time helping the villagers with their work, sharing stories, having lunch and just being around. As the end of the day drew near, Francis said it was time for them to return to the monastery. Francis' companion, with great concern, said, "But, when are we going to preach the Gospel?" Francis turned to him and said, "That’s what we’ve been doing.”
It seems, from this story, that the word “Gospel” can be a verb. In fact, it seems to be several verbs: teach, heal, listen, touch, feed, reach across boundaries, make God’s love real in people’s difficult lives.
Verbs, of course, come in two categories: doing and being. We can’t “do” our faith every minute of every day. We must also take the time to “be”; to breathe, rest, pray, listen, be still. Jesus did this regularly, in the midst of an extraordinary schedule, and he was God! So, if all we do is run from action verb to action verb, then the next verbs we’ll encounter will be “collapse” and “die.”
But, a gospel life – the life to which we are called, as followers of Jesus – will contain a lot of verbs: pray, rejoice, encourage, offer, remember, imagine, love, share, embrace, give, rest, be. The verbs that aren’t welcome, according to Jesus and the letter of James, are: judge, reject, exclude, limit, hoard, forget, and despair.
So, where is the gospel verb needed, today? What incomplete sentences surround us? Who is hungry – for food and/or for the Good News? Who is lost and needs a helping hand? What verb are you called to be?
In the Name…