February 9, 2014 Romans 3:21-31; James 2:14-26
(Sing) “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart ....” (vs.1)
“Many of the enslaved of antebellum America did not want to become Christians because they did not want to adopt the religion of their captors. But this spiritual attests that the Christian faith was an internal strength and aim for many.” (NCH)
What does it mean to be a Christian? (solicit answers from congregation)
Once I went to seminary, my father confided in me that he was asking some big questions - so much of what he had been taught growing up Catholic in a small Iowa town no longer made any sense to him. And yet, it was ingrained in him that in order to be a Christian, this is what you have to believe. You are not to question or doubt. Being a Christian was all about belief.
We were raised on Creeds and a catechism that taught us exactly what we were to believe, and we came to understand that that was what it meant to be a person of faith.
This same approach is still alive and flourishing in certain circles of Christianity today. Years ago I was sent a letter by the clergy association in my area (one I did not belong to), inviting our church to participate in a media blitz during Lent. In order to participate I would have to sign, for the entire congregation, a statement of beliefs that included the following:
The Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible authoritative word of God.
That for salvation of lost and sinful man (we women got off the hook) regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential, and that this salvation is received through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and not as the result of good works.
In the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they are saved unto the resurrection of life and they are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
I could hear the gasps erupting from my very progressive congregation as I read them this litmus test that had been sent to me on their behalf. Obviously this group of clergy had no idea who they were sending it to.
The UCC was embroiled at the time in their own controversy over their Still Speaking commercials that were to run during the Lenten season. Remember that one with the bouncers preventing certain people from entering the church? It ended with the tag line “Jesus didn’t turn anyone away. Neither do we.”
This question “What does it mean to be a Christian?” has been debated since the origins of Christianity - and continues today. My niece, when she was about 6, was informed by her friend across the street that she wasn’t a Christian because she hadn’t been baptized in her friend’s church. She apparently thought the Methodist baptism hadn’t taken hold. My niece, in tears, begged to differ.
Before the gospels were written, Paul and his protégées, and Jesus’ brother James, who led the church in Jerusalem, were whipping off letters to their followers: Here’s what it means to be a Christian. They agreed that both Jews and Gentiles could become Christians, but debates raged on: Did a Gentile have to be circumcised first? - Did you have to eat kosher? There were different issues at stake back then, just as various issues divide us today.
The letters agreed that all could be invited to the party, but first, “let me tell you what’s expected of you”. Paul and James had a different take on it, and their difference of opinion has been carried down to the present. Let’s hear what they had to say. We’re using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from “The Message” because the language is more accessible. Carol will be reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans and I’ll be reading from James’ letter.
Roman’s 3:21b-31 Faith through Righteousness
What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.
God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public - to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now -- this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.
So where does that leave our proud Jewish insider claims and counterclaims? Canceled? Yes, canceled. What we’ve learned is this; God does not respond to what we do; we respond to what God does. We’ve finally figured it out. Our lives get in step with God and all others by letting him set the pace, not by proudly or anxiously trying to run the parade.
And where does that leave our proud Jewish claim of having a corner on God? Also canceled. God is God of outsider non-Jews as well as insider Jews. How could it be otherwise since there is only one God? God sets right all who welcome his action and enter into it, both those who follow our religious system and those who have never heard of our religion.
But by shifting our focus from what we do to what God does, don’t we cancel out all our careful keeping of the rules and ways God commanded? Not at all. What happens, in fact, is that by putting that entire way of life in its proper place, we confirm it.
James 2:14-26 Faith without Works is Dead
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup - where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
Needless to say, fundamentalists are huge fans of Paul, whereas progressives tend to like James. To be fair to both, Paul does admit that you don’t just profess Jesus as your Lord and Savior and then sit back and do nothing, or even worse, fall back into your sinful ways. You still have laws to follow. But at the core of his theology is an emphasis on faith. Salvation is for everyone who has faith, and, I might add, a particular set of beliefs.
During the Reformation of the early 16th century, Luther took up the rallying cry in formulating his doctrine of justification by faith alone. We are forgiven, cleaned up, scoured, whitened, and brightened when we simply put our faith in God’s ability to do the work for us through the death of Jesus on the cross. We can’t do it on our own. All our good works are for naught unless we adhere to this doctrine.
James, on the other hand, says “What good are all those doctrines, those fancy words, if you don’t back them up with action?” Actions speak louder than words. And wasn’t his brother Jesus a prime example of that? But James doesn’t dismiss the importance of faith. He says that works and faith go hand in hand, each enriching the other.
There’s a difference between faith and belief, and often times the words are used interchangeably. That’s where we get hung up in semantics. The word faith comes from the Greek work pistis, which is a verb meaning to trust, to have confidence or assurance in. It’s not necessarily a set of beliefs that we hold to be true, like those recited in the creeds I memorized as a child.
Jim Burko, a UCC minister I met when I lived in Northern California, wrote a Creed for progressives that I’ve printed in the bulletin. Let’s read it together.
I worship and adore God, source, essence, and aim of all things,
spirit that enlivens all beings,
I follow the way of Jesus, who found God in himself
and shared a way for others to find God in themselves.
He was born through love,
He lived for love,
He suffered for love,
He died for love,
but love never dies.
I submit myself to the leading of the love that is God,
that I may be compassionate toward all beings,
that I may live and serve in community with others,
that I may ask for and receive forgiveness,
that I may praise and enjoy God forever. Amen
As a UCC pastor I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to believe. That only you can decide. But I will say Jim’s beautiful statement of faith is one I can adhere to. It combines both faith and works as James instructed his followers.
I read in the Globe and the NY Times recently the story of a Catholic nun, Sr. Megan Rice, 82 years old, who recently put her faith into action. She was one of three people arrested in a break in at the nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They carried out what nuclear experts call the biggest security breach in the history of the nations’ atomic complex, making their way into the inner sanctuary of the site where the US keeps crucial nuclear bomb parts and fuel. This, at a time when our government is concerned about terrorist threats and national security. What an embarrassment - an 82 year old nun of all people!
Sister Megan has been arrested 40 or 50 times for acts of civil disobedience, and once served six months in prison. All indications are that she might be going back. Upon release while awaiting trial, she said she is willing to give her life to expose the truth of this weapons program. “The truth will heal our planet, heal our diseases, which result from the disharmony of our planet caused by the worst weapons in the history of mankind, which should not exist”. To me, Sr. Megan is a shining example of what it means to be a Christian today, one that is hard to emulate.
The majority of people who call themselves Christians today, especially in the northern hemisphere and Australia and New Zealand, rarely walk inside a church, let alone become a member of one. Can you be a Christian without affiliating with any organized group? I did when I was in my 20’s. The Desert Fathers did it living in caves and huts, leading a cloistered life of prayer and communion with God. Jesus modeled that when he went into the desert to pray alone. Not many of us are called to a life of solitude.
But he balanced it with time in community. He promised his followers where two or three are gathered in his name he would be with them. It’s that gathering part that plays a significant role in being a Christian today.
What does it mean to be a Christian in the context of a church? Aaron answered that question in one simple phrase last week as he gave the invitation to the offering: “Show up.” We’re on this journey together. As I say at the beginning of worship each Sunday “We come here to fill ourselves with God’s spirit, be it in worship or our women’s spirituality group or other adult faith formation opportunities.” That’s the faith part.
But then we go out into the world to do the work God has called us to do. We’re an equal opportunity church. You’re all ministers. All of your gifts and talents have a place in this church. When new members join I ask them to journey with others on a spiritual path, seeking a profound relationship with God and Christ. They covenant with the Eliot Church in a spirit of tolerance and respect, allowing each person to articulate that journey in their own way.
And last, but not least I ask them to share themselves as an offering to God through the life of this church, giving of their time, their talents and their treasures as often and as freely as they can find ways to do so.
In return this community reaches out to each other in friendship and prayers, holds us accountable, supports us when we fall, challenges our belief system, helps us to grow in our faith and understanding, and gives us multiple opportunities to serve. It’s all part of what it means to be a Christian.
So right after worship today, you are invited to explore the many opportunities you have here at Eliot to live out your faith. All of our ministry teams have tables set up in the Chapel and the Parlor with information and hand outs about what they do, and members to answer questions, and sign up sheets for you to get involved. They also have goodies to entice you to their tables. You may discover all kinds of things about Eliot you never knew before. You might even discover something you’d like to do here that we haven’t thought of yet.
In your bulletins are a ballot on which you can vote for the best ministry table. You get to define ‘best’. There is a box to place it in and we’ll announce at the end which ministry has won. I hope to see you all there!