Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Last spring, a pastor was in her office, putting the finishing touches on the liturgy for Easter Sunday. The phone rang. The woman on the line asked what time church was on Easter morning. “10 o’ clock,” the pastor replied. “Oh, you really should change the time. That conflicts with Easter brunch,” the caller sighed and hung up.
It’s stories like these that make me want to laugh… and cry… and give it all up. What’s the point?
What are we all here for?
Or to back it all up… what’s the point of faith? Why believe, or trust?
What will we get out of it?
I find meaning in being connected to the great story of God’s love for creation, wonder in a God who chooses to come among us and die for us, and hope in God’s work to move us all from death into life.
If we mean point as in goal, then I’d say the point of faith is our transformation.
This is where the epistle James weighs in. The author writes, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Now, Martin Luther, the founder and namesake of our tradition, hated James because of this verse, declaring it a gospel of straw. The central claim of our tradition is that our salvation is a gift of God’s love and Jesus’ faithfulness. Our salvation is not a result of our own works- our own earning. Luther in this book of the Bible heard a message that countered the main message of the Bible, that God loves us and claims us for life through Jesus. Sometimes James can be read as saying that we need to do good things in order to be loved by God. It can seem to be setting us a rules based system for earning our place in God’s kingdom. There’s no place for that kind of thinking in a faith that is firmly grounded in Jesus’ faithfulness, seeing Jesus’ righteousness as the only thing that holds us in God’s love.
But Luther wasn’t a stranger to the idea that faith has a point. Luther himself wrote that we are freed from sin, death, and worry about making ourselves good enough to be accepted by God, so that we can serve our neighbors. You are loved in grace in order to be there for others. We are freed for.
In this way, Luther is really in step with James, as it is written in James, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”
To the latter, we might claim, “yes, Jesus alone saves me.”
But James continues, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
There’s the point on which we must be convicted. Faith that leads to self-assurance is stagnant. It is self-centered. If self-centeredness is our central sin, then faith ought to lead us out of it. God’s work in our faith is to turn us away from self-centeredness, into a position of gazing on God’s love for us and reflecting it out into the whole creation.
James turns our question, “what am I going to get out of this” inside out. He looks to the needs of those outside. “What will someone else get out of your faith?”
Faith without works is dead- it is death to our neighbor.
What’s the point of having faith, if all it does is make you feel good about yourself, give you warm fuzzies, but does nothing for your neighbor’s well being? That is not faith. That is idolatry. If an hour of feel good entertainment, or encouragement when we are down, if Jesus in my back pocket is what we are expecting out of our faith, then that is idolatry, and we have made ourselves – our wants- our god.
The point of faith is to join God’s life-giving work for the sake of the whole creation. God means to use us to provide life for our neighbors.
It makes me happy to think about helping people. I imagine grateful smiles. Children clean because of the soap we’ll gather, families fed because of the meals we’ve served and the pantry we fill.
But it’s not always so simple. There are times when our active faith, our service, isn’t doing much for us. When we’re going on hour 3 of the highway cleanup and feeling pretty tired. When we’ve served the same family at the pantry or community meal for generations. When we get pushed over the edge when someone at the pantry asks for a different brand of cereal, or another doesn’t finish her dessert at the meal. It comes right back to us wanting something for ourselves, even if it’s just the power to judge who gets to receive what we’re giving.
Faith with works, living, active faith, is being in a place where God is continually transforming us. It’s faith with service that sometimes leaves us feeling good, and at other times makes us uncomfortable. It’s faith that sometimes struggles and falters when the need of the world seems so great, and we are so overwhelmed that we can’t see how God really is bringing in a new future. Living, active faith can push us into situations that force us to confront our assumptions, where God is changing our worldview and our relationships. It doesn’t mean that we’ve yet arrived at the person we are called to be.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus encountering someone outside his community. She’s a woman and a Gentile, which means that to a Jewish man, a teacher, she’s not worth much. You don’t have to be nice to people like her. But like Abraham before her, she knows that God is just, and she is not afraid to argue for what she needs. As we see God change God’s mind, here we see Jesus change his mind. This mother breaks open Jesus’ plan for ministry, exposing the prejudices that Jesus has simply accepted as the way things are, and reorienting him towards greater openness.
A living, active faith that spills over into working for the well-being of all creation is not easy. It isn’t always rewarding. We can be confronted with our own prejudices. We can find ourselves trying to impose our own set of rules for living onto others. Then we can fall into what Luther hated about James: trying to judge if someone has met the minimum requirements to be good enough to receive God’s blessing and our service.
We need encounters with real people and with the Scripture that force us into self-examination. For this Sunday, we in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have been asked by our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal Church to recommit ourselves to asking God to work within us, send us encounters that uncover our own assumptions and prejudices, our fears and our ignorance. We are not where we want to be yet, but we trust that God will move us from complacency into action, from comfortable ignorance of the way many live into discovery, change, advocacy, and co-working as God builds a new creation in which all people are known and valued.
James pushes away any attempt for us to claim that we are better than anyone else. He talks about our need for forgiveness. Even those of us who think we have life mostly together, that we haven’t done anything really bad- that our sin doesn’t stink as much as the next person’s, are labeled sinner just as boldly as any other. There is judgment in that, but also freedom for mercy. No one but Jesus is good. Not one of us is bad enough to push Jesus away.
Even in our state of sin, Jesus comes to us. Jesus creates faith in us. Jesus abundantly loves us, and calls us to be that love overflowing into the world. Jesus entrusts us imperfect people with his own work.
The point of church is to be our training ground for the life we live outside this place. We gather, meet Jesus, are challenged by Jesus, and fed by Jesus, and then, sometimes together and sometimes individually we go out into the world to do what we’ve practiced: forming community, declaring forgiveness, working healing, and answering the needs of the poor.
If we’re doing church right, if we’re doing faith right, then we should each be able to answer with confidence this question: Would our neighbors notice if Cross wasn’t here any more? How would the world be less well without us?
If a quick answer doesn’t come to mind, let’s practice that answer together. Next week, we’ll be exploring how each one of us is entrusted with gifts from God so that we can join in God’s work in the world. There is a way for each of you to live your faith for the sake of your neighbor. Bring in a bar of soap for your neighbor. Clean the highway for your neighbor. Learn about the refugee crisis and do something to advocate for safe homes and an end to violence. Meet Jesus, be filled with his love, and be that love out in the world. You’ll find Jesus is out there too, already loving and lifting up those people his words once betrayed his privileged culture’s devaluing. God’s love and care for creation is bigger than we imagine. Celebrate. That love is life for you, and for your neighbor.
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