Sunday, September 9, 2012

Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead

I want to talk with you this morning about our reading from the Epistle from James. The only book in the bible attributed to a member of Jesus’s family (James of Jerusalem, known as the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ), had history played out slightly differently, we might not have heard this lesson today.

We often think of the Bible as a book, and indeed, “bible” just means “book.” But it’s really a collection of books written at different times by different authors, and there has been some dispute over the years just what books belong in it.

The Church had a head start putting it together, given that inspired scrolls had been read for centuries in the synagogue. But the term “Bible” is a Christian invention; the closest concept in Judaism is the Tanakh. The Tenakh, however, isn’t a single thing. It’s an acronym for the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. These three sets of scrolls were not on equal footing in Judaism. Of first importance was the Torah, the five books of Moses. Torah means teaching, and these books were where God taught God’s Law to God’s people. Next came the Nevi’im, the prophets. Books about the prophets, like Samuel and Kings, and books of the prophets’ writings, like Isaiah and Jeremiah make up these scrolls. Finally came the Ketuvim, the writings. This included the Psalms, the wisdom literature like Proverbs, the reflections on history like Ruth, Chronicles, and Nehemiah/Ezra, and the apocalyptic literature like my namesake Daniel. These collections of Hebrew scrolls all made up “scripture.”

But then there were other writings that would have been read in the synagogue. Accounts of the revolt of the Maccabee brothers against the occupying Selucid kingdom. The story of Judith, and of Tobit. More Wisdom literature. More reflections on the history of the Jewish people. Now these writings were preserved in Greek, not in Hebrew, so they didn’t have quite the same status in the synagogue as The Writings, the Ketuvim. But they were still read and cherished in a place of honor. Certainly not Torah, and not even quite Ketuvim, but not to be ignored. These other texts were included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Septuagint, a project begun 300 years before the time of Jesus.

At the time of the Reformation, the emerging Protestant movement rejected the portions of the Septuagint not found in the Jewish canon of scripture, the Tanakh. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman churches embraced more of the texts found in the Septuagint. As for we Anglicans, we split the difference: According to the 39 Articles of Religion adopted by General Convention in 1801, the books of Hebrew Scripture not included in the Tanakh we refer to as “deuterocanonical” or on the “B-list” of scripture. They are books that“the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”

When it comes to the New Testament, there’s more widespread agreement. The Eastern Orthodox, Romans, Anglicans, and Protestants all have the same canon for the New Testament. But it almost didn’t turn out that way.

You see, when Martin Luther was trying to reform the practices of the Church in his time, he encountered the particularly problematic practice of the selling of indulgences. The Church in Luther’s time was teaching that people could buy their way (or the way of a loved one) into the Kingdom of Heaven by paying money toward the construction of new churches. Luther was deeply concerned about what he called “Works Righteousness,” the belief that people could “earn” their way into the Kingdom of Heaven by their good works (or generous donations). Luther wanted to stress our need for faith not in our own power but in God’s grace and mercy.

The Kingdom of Heaven is where God’s commandments are followed. No matter how much good we do, we all fall short of God’s commandments, and thus by the Law, Luther would say, we do not “belong” in the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot earn our way in. Only through faith in God’s mercy can we hope to have a place in God’s Kingdom. And to the extent that we cling to our good works, we trust in ourselves, and thus our faith is not in God, so we do not accept God’s mercy.

As Luther was trying to drive these themes home, he found the Epistle of James particularly unwelcome. As our lesson today asks “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” Luther wants to scream, “Yes! yes! yes it can!” Luther thus called this Epistle “an Epistle of Straw”. He did not go so far, however, as to excise it from the canon of scripture.

But Luther can rest easy. James is far from advocating for works righteousness. In James’ worldview, we are just as dependent on God’s grace and mercy as we are in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that Luther relies on so heavily. As James tells us, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” and “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

God’s mercy saves us, not our own righteous deeds. To accept God’s mercy, we need to live our lives with faith in God, not faith in our own abilities.

But faith is no mere opinion, no privately held belief locked away in one’s heart of hearts. To believe something is to live as if it is true. Faith is to live out a truth even in the face of doubts. Faith is an action. Faith is transformative. Faith that has no consequences in how you live your life is no faith at all.

So thus, James begins, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

Faith that God is Lord of Heaven and Earth enables us to live out the very radical, disruptive, terrifying commandment that Jesus left with us: Love your neighbor as yourself. Self preservation comes naturally to us. We have a strong survival mechanism: make sure there’s room in the lifeboat for me. Even when we reach out beyond ourselves, we still can be very tribal: we look out for our own before we help the other. My family, my friends, my kind. And as for the “other” — they can sink or swim on their own.

This rugged individualism is enshrined in our American culture. And it’s antithetical to the Gospel commandment: Love your neighbor as your self. Be as willing to cut up food and put it into someone else’s mouth as into your own. Serve the most repulsive, foreign, unknown stranger as eagerly as you would do something for a member of your own family or even for yourself.

Wow! That is not easy. And we worry, if we put so much time and energy and treasure into helping others, won’t our own needs suffer? I know I worry about that all the time. This Law of the Kingdom of Heaven is very foreign to our experiences on earth. In Psalm 37, the Psalmist tells us, “I have been young and now I am old, but never have I seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.” But our experience sadly tells us that happens all the time. The righteous and their children suffer want every day. It takes a giant leap to faith to even try to approach this Law to love others without fear.

We fail on a regular basis to serve the poor in our midst to the extent Jesus calls us to do so. And James calls us to task: if out of fear of self preservation we fail to serve the poor, does that not betray a lack of faith, a lack of trust that God will indeed provide for us? We feed ourselves and leave others to go hungry because we lack faith that if we devote ourselves to service, God will ensure that we too are served.

James’ call to do works of service does not mean that by these works we may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather, these works are the fruit of our belief in the power and goodness and mercy of God. A faith in God that does not produce works of service in response is not alive.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can “faith” save you? 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

If we truly had faith in God’s saving love, we would already live without reservation by the commandment: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. We could cease to worry about providing for ourselves, and be freed to serve others. We would already live in the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t. Maybe we can’t. And thus, we stand condemned: we cannot fulfill the law, and cannot earn a place in the Reign of God.

But our faith in the love and mercy of God allows us to begin to believe that there is a place for us in God’s reign. As we come to understand that mercy, we can live it out in our lives, too. God’s mercy to us begets our own acts of mercy, which make it easier to believe in God’s mercy, which empowers us to share God’s love and mercy even more, and the spiral continues. It starts with God’s grace, and each act in response to it lets us grow in grace until we live as we pray: your kingdom come, your will be done.

So we take our timid steps of service, in fear that we are foolish, in nascent faith that God will provide. And as we grow in God’s kingdom, our prayer can only be that of the man who asked Jesus to heal his son: Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief.