Scripture Reading: James 2:14-26
Sermon: “Faith and Works” by Pastor Todd Buurstra
You know how evangelical atheists like Christopher Hitchens say things like, The Bible is full of contradictions! Well, here’s one smack dab in the first verse of our passage:
James says, Can faith save you? Paul says, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved!
James says, You see that a person is justified by works, not by faith alone.
Paul says, For by grace are you saved through faith…not by works, lest anyone should boast.
Whoa! Who’s right? Is the Bible talking out of both sides of its mouth, schizophrenic-like?
Historically this is an important debate for Protestant Christians. Martin Luther wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible. Why? Because Martin Luther had tried to be saved by works, and it didn’t work. You remember that in his Catholic monk days he would kneel on shards of broken glass up each step of Pilate’s staircase so that with bleeding knees he’d say his Hail Marys in hopes to earn God’s love by his good works. But then he discovered Romans 1:7, the just shall live by faith and he reformed the church by preaching salvation by faith alone! By keeping James is the church’s spirituality schizophrenic built upon a schizo scripture?
And all who have paid attention to Gabrielle Gifford’s neck rubs know the cost of schizophrenia don’t we? I was struck when I read this quote from Dr. E. Fuller Torrey founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, VA, “I’d say the chances are 99% that he has schizophrenia.” Now I am no mental health specialist, but anyone who asks Gifford about government control of grammar is at least somewhat disassociated from reality. Anyone who cuts off their friendships, and yet wants to gain notoriety through killing a famous person has a split somewhere in their personality. Are Bible-believing Christians scary like Jared Loughner?
Well, the split continues in modern culture where there seem to be FAITH ALONE people and WORKS ALONE folk. Let’s start with FAITH ALONE folk. These folk say, I believe in Jesus as my Savior, I go to church, but when you hear how much they hate gays, or Sarah Palin, or when you compare their tax returns with their bank account, you wonder. They remind me of that little boy who ran in the house, not knowing the pastor had stopped by, gushing with excitement and holding a dead mouse. Look ma, I saw this mouse, hit it over the head with a broom, and then I jumped on it. At which point seeing Pastor quickly changed his tune to, And then the Lord called him home! FAITH ALONE folk know the language, but not necessarily the lifestyle. They emphasize beliefs and belonging to church, but not behavior.
And to these folk, some who may be here, James says, even the demons believe and shudder! James was never one to pull punches. So the question to we religious folks’ tendency to be satisfied once we can explain the way of salvation and recite the Apostles’ Creed is this:
Is the Somerville area better off that we’re here?
I mean does our steeple do more than grace the skyline? Are the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the prisoner visited, the lonely welcomed, the lost directed, the least esteemed because of us?! If not, our five-point Calvinism, salvation by faith alone beliefs aren’t worth much.
And then there’s the WORKS ALONE folk. These are our friends who say, Going to church doesn’t make you moral, or any better than me, what do I need that for? And they have a point, don’t they? I mean, while we’re in choir practice to lead the hymns on Sunday morning, they’re out staffing the soup kitchens, or coaching soccer, or bringing their schnauzers into the senior center. To the WORKS ALONE folk, James also has a word. And it’s almost the same word we just read, it just starts from the beginning: You believe that God is one, and you do well, but even the demons… James is referring his Jewish clientele back to their roots for the central belief of the Torah was: Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. Tacitly James is affirming here that beliefs do matter. Faith, and the ritual it’s wrapped in, is important.
I think of this in terms of the sexual revolution. The pill freed up sex from the worry of pregnancy. So my generation, and those that followed, hopped in and out of bed more freely than ever. The result? The divorce rate and family breakups, while coming down slightly, remain near all-time highs. Why? My guess is because beliefs about sex are just as important as the sexual act itself. If you believe that sex is just a bodily function, like a burp, then you’ll act one way, but if you believe that sex is sacred, given by God to connect us in the most intimate way with a person to whom we’re committed for life, then you’ll act in another way. And which belief system most nurtures marriages and families…? I thought you’d agree. Beliefs matter.
So unlike poor figgy thornbush in our skit, the Bible isn’t conflicted, we are. You see, James and Paul were really saying the same thing, just from different angles. Paul, like Luther, reared in a gotta earn my way to God culture, emphasized faith, all the while understanding that works must follow (cf. Romans 6). James, tired of Jerusalem’s religious institutions like the temple, wanted people to get beyond ritual to relationships, to behave what they professed to believe. They each agree that we are not saved by deeds, but God saves us for deeds. They would each nod at Jesus, and our skit, when he said, you will know
So we want to move from a schizophrenic spirituality to holistic holiness by realizing faith works. This is true by the very nature of things because you can’t have true beliefs about Jesus that don’t change your behavior. Faith works. And faith works functionally: because its healthy to be integrated, as we wish Jared Loughner was, and because it makes a difference.
I’m told that Cindy from the team who lead the Keswick retreat came in to talk to our 50 kids. And in the process she said something like, You guys impressed me with your attitude, and with how well you got along! Our kids did us proud. You know why? Because faith works.
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