9 September 2012
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
9.30 Bethersden & 11.30 Woodchurch Holy Communion & Evensong
Readings Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 2:1-10, 14-17, Mark 7:24-37
Heavenly Father, as we come into your presence, through your Word, through the presence of your Son and through the power of your Holy Spirit transform us and turn us into the disciples you made us to be seeking always to put our faith into action. Amen.
This is a challenging sermon to write, and it may well be a challenging sermon to hear, but that is good because if we don’t sometimes find ourselves challenged by the word of God then we are either already amongst the saints living in glory or we are not taking the challenge of what it really means to be a Christian sufficiently seriously. Although I am happy to put it to the vote I suspect it is the latter.
I sometimes find myself thinking “Why am I a Christian?” I don’t mean what caused me to be a Christian in the first place, because I fully believe that was a call of God on my life – a call first to read the bible, then a call to confirmation and communion and later onto ordination – but rather what is the point or the purpose of being a Christian?
Why does God call us? Why does God want us to be followers of Jesus, what is the difference between being a Christian and a non-Christian that gives meaning or purpose to the experience of conversion or commitment?
On one level it might be acceptable to say that questions of purpose are futile – we may say that it is enough for us to simply respond to the call of God and leave everything else up to Him. I suppose that answer would be sufficient if we really did leave everything else up to Him, if we carried on listening to His call on our lives and allowing ourselves to be moved on by him as we grow in discipleship and faith.
But my fear is that by not thinking about who we are, about why we do what we do and about what sort of person or people does God really want us to be we end up never moving on at all. In 1 Corinthians 3 St Paul uses the imagery of giving the church in Corinth milk rather than meat in his teaching because they were still spiritual infants and were not yet mature enough to chew on the real meat of faith. That says to me that being a Christian is not simply a ‘one stop shop’ where you convert and then nothing else is expected of us. One only has to look at the very first disciples to see how each of them changed and grew as they came to understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. To take but one example, the Peter we see healing and preaching in the Book of Acts is a very different person from the fisherman who first said ‘yes’ to following Jesus and his road from A to B was both challenging and far from glorious.
So why does God call us to be Christians? Why does God call you to be a Christian?
Keep thinking about that – not just for the rest of the sermon, but keep thinking about it!
In my view one of the biggest tragedies of protestant theology, and one that James the writer of today’s epistle deals with in an incredibly straight forward fashion, is the supposed division between faith and works as a route to salvation.
Let me just unpack that a little bit.
Medieval Catholicism in Western Europe made some serious errors and the worst of these was undoubtedly the selling of indulgences. The basic principle was that by doing particular things or by giving the church a particular amount of money you could buy your way into heaven. The theological shorthand for this is “salvation by works” as it could be characterised that the work or the action was the important step in getting yourself in a right relationship with God.
Quite rightly some people saw the selling of indulgences as a route to salvation as both an abuse of power and as bad theology and this led to Martin Luther and others to protest against this practice and, over time, to develop their own protestant theology. Unfortunately because they were reacting to a bad theology of salvation by works they went too far the other way and said that all works were useless and that salvation was by faith alone. This meant that what you did in the physical world could not affect your relationship with God, but that everything started and finished with what you believed.
I believe that this division between “salvation by works” and “salvation by faith alone” was a theological wrong turn, that it is unbiblical as we shall see in a moment, and that it has had the unfortunate effect perhaps of taking away our impetus to get out there and work because we assume that the true work of faith goes on in here. Doubtless this is why many in the West see religion as a purely interior and personal thing and get so upset the moment that issues of belief start creeping outside the church walls.
I said that this doctrine of salvation by faith alone was not biblical and this is based on a number of texts, including the letter of St James and, of course, the parable of the sheep and the goats in the gospel of St Matthew. You may be interested, or perhaps slightly shocked, to know that Martin Luther did not like the letter of James at all, he called it an ‘epistle of straw’ and placed no theological weight upon it. My view is that when we start ignoring whole books of the bible because they don’t suit us then perhaps we need to look more closely at what we are trying to say.
In any event it is clear that James, the leader of the Jerusalem church and the half or the step brother of Jesus, saw that what we believe and what we do are, or at least should be, inseparable. At the end of last week’s reading James urged his readers to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers’ and that true religion consisted of taking care of the widows and orphans.
In todays reading James starts by saying that there should be no favouritism within the church, that God honours the poor and that if we favour the rich over the poor we are sinning and failing to love our neighbours, and I hope that we can all see that clearly enough. But then he goes on to address to address the whole faith versus works dichotomy:
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister Is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Could it be any clearer? Faith, if not accompanied by action, is dead. And what action is required? To get out there not to convert the world but to serve the world through basic practical action. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely and the bereaved. When the world looks at us do they see a transformed community which is providing practical love and comfort to those around them or do they see an insular club who gather together to sing songs once a week and whose only input into the wider community is one of complaint? I am glad that it is God who calls us into relationship with Christ because I am sorry to say that the church can often be a pretty poor advert for God. And that makes me sad because I believe that God instituted the church to transform us and to transform the world. Are we transformed as people and as disciples – do our lives and our deeds shine forth with the love God has for the world or do we bottle up our faith and keep it reserved for Sunday?
Do we study our bibles but neglect to do what it says?
Why does God call us? Why does God want us to be followers of Jesus? So that through both our faith in him and our loving service to those most in need around us we can be restored to the image and likeness of God in which we were created, so that we can be raised as people and as a church from one degree of glory to another and thus become a real beacon of light and hope for a world in darkness and so draw others to God not through our words but by being the people that we were made to be.
I finish with this simple exhortation: This week serve somebody in the name of Christ.