Proper 18B: September 5, 2021



Last week, I started by talking about an old friend, and former housemate, who we will continue to call Steve, not because that’s his name, but because it amuses me to think of him as a “Steve.” Steve and I were having lunch and catching up, and Steve was appalled to learn that I didn’t just assume he was Christian. He was, after all, a white guy from Virginia.

I’d known Steve for around five years at this point, including a year where we, along with a few other people, shared a house. This day, five years into our friendship, was the first time he had ever said anything about his own faith. I said more on this last week, but it is possible repeating that list might sound like some kind of score-keeping, which is not the point. The point is the subject came up, frequently. He had opportunities.

Last week, I may have, indirectly, called him a cultural Christian, someone who was probably baptized, either as an infant or a youth, attended church, at least semi-regularly through high school and now, as a young adult, when visiting his parents over Christmas.

I do stand by that. I think Steve, like many, possibly most people who would call themselves Christian in this country, considered himself Christian in the sense that he was happy enough to occasionally use the vocabulary of the Gospel so long as it did not, in any discernable way, actually intrude on the way he lived his life. Being very careful to avoid making eye contact with anyone here, lest someone think I am levelling a specific accusation, I suspect there are a great many people in churches each week who, after they leave, do everything in their power to make sure that faith and the church stay confined to their Sunday-morning bounds and, if they pray for anything it is that God will cause their income or retirement account to increase by enough to cover whatever they might have put in the plate.

I want to say this again, more clearly: I am really not talking about anyone here, at least not in a specific sense. Steve might be an extreme example, but over the past thirty to fifty years, the dominant expression of Christianity in this county has been focused on the personal, individual relationship between any given human and Jesus.

I am sorry, I need to back up a bit. I really hope I am safe assuming that nearly all of you have heard of the Reformation, a period about five hundred years ago, when the Roman Catholic church in Europe shattered into a number of different sects led by a variety of theologians, but for our purposes, mostly Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The Roman Catholic Church had taken verses like the one that concluded today’s Epistle Reading, today’s lesson from James, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” and, in essence and in dramatic oversimplification, created a point system for salvation. If any of you ever watched the NBC comedy, “The Good Place” go with that, except, at least for the German branch of the church, giving the church money could get someone a lot of points, so many points that some extremely wealthy people believed, with the active encouragement of the church, they could just buy their way into heaven while doing…whatever they wanted. This left others, including Martin Luther himself, highly frustrated, because Luther took a very serious view on sin and was acutely aware of his own human and moral failings, leading him to feel that he, even as a priest and professor of theology would never be able to do enough to ensure his own salvation.

This motivated Luther, and the other reformers, to argue a different soteriology, a different theology of salvation, on that was based purely in God’s grace and in the saving work of Christ through his life, death, and resurrection, borrowing a phrase drawn from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

In the intervening centuries, however, many Christians in this country have taken that idea too far. If Luther and the other reformers were reacting against a system that left some people with the belief that their salvation was assured (through their ability to make significant donations to the church) and others that theirs was beyond reach, how would they react now to a system that leaves some, like Steve, convinced that they only have to have been baptized and declare that they have “accepted Jesus in their hearts” and others feeling like they must be condemned because they have, from time to time, a minor doubt?

The dominant churches of this county have come full circle, preaching a faith that depends on the money you can donate, on saying the right things, on thinking, or at least pretending to think the right things, all while doing next to nothing to help those who lack food or shelter. James letter to the early Christian community might well have been directly addressed to the contemporary church in the United States: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

James is not trying to create a point system, is not trying to create a point system so that people can boast in having higher scores than others. James is asking a different question. James is not, like so many today, and, apparently, then, “Have you been saved?” James is asking “Why were you saved?”

James is not asking “Do you have faith?” but “What does your faith call you to do?”

We cannot understand our faith as a purely individual relationship between us and God without that relationship calling us into different relationships with the wider world around us. As James says:

“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?”

What is the point of a faith that leaves us focused so exclusively on the future fate of our own souls that we fail to see, or even actively ignore the direct needs of those around us? Is it even reasonable to call this faith in God when God has consistently shown a preference for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the outcast?

Is it faith at all if that faith causes no discomfort, presents no challenge, and directs our feet nowhere we did not already want to go?

James says sure, that is faith, but it is a dead faith. God has called us to more than that. God has called us to life, not for ourselves, not for those who act, look, think, or speak like us, but for all of God’s creation. In a few minutes, we will celebrate communion, the feast of Christ that unites us with Christians the world over because God does not call us into a relationship with God alone, but into a family with all God’s children. Thanks be to God.