Faith and Works
A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, Who do people say that I am? The answers reveal what people see and hear when they observe Jesus.
We are the body of Christ. Do other people see Christ in us? What do people observe when they see us?
Turtullian said. See how these Christians love one another. He saw this as the distinctive marker of Christianity. I hope that this is still true, but do Christians ever disagree or behave in a less than loving way? Yes, there are sometimes those other times . . . You know the ones I mean. Non-Christians don’t always see just the love. They can also be appalled by the words and actions of some Christians towards one another.
When they see us and hear us, who will they say that Jesus is? What will they know of him by what we say and do? Are we all identical in our words and deeds? If not, why is there a difference and where does the difference lie?
I have read that Difference is, of course, the everyday reality of . . . parish life. . . . Our congregations generally contain people who have a wide range of theological, political and other values. (Rev Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury). I believe that this is absolutely true and that it is a wonderful asset to our shared life together. When we look at Jesus’ disciples, he certainly chose a very diverse range of theological, political and other values. As in reading the Bible, the discovery of differences can lead us not to dispute about them, but to attempts to discover how those differences can enhance and enrich our faith, strengthening our shared discipleship.
In the Book of Proverbs we learn that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Not being the one who is in the right, but being the one who puts God first. Wisdom is knowing that it is God who is right and righteous, whose ways are the ways of divine wisdom.
God is the one who is our beginning, our guide and our destination. Following God’s ways brings Godly fruit but following our own ways brings punishment/consequences.
Today’s reading from James includes his views on Abraham’s justification by works.
The Bible Study groups have just finished studying the first few chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans and one prominent part in chapter 4 is Abraham’s justification by faith. Here Paul says, For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. And Paul then expounds how Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness because he was declared righteous and promised a wonderful future before his obedient actions.
Martin Luther was the prominent Protestant who is said to have declared that faith and not works was what mattered. This may be a simplification and even a misrepresentation of Luther’s views.
Luther also wrote, Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever...Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! ("Luther, An Introduction to St. Paul's Letter to the Romans". Luther's German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther)
In Luther’s case and Paul’s case, rejection of works was really a rejection that simply following the rules was enough. There needed to be faith. James’ rejection of faith without works was a rejection that faith alone was enough. The reality for Luther and Paul and James was that neither faith nor works was enough without the other. Faith and works belonged together.
How often to you hear Christians disputing with one another and arguing about who is right because the Bible says this and not that. Their opponent then argues that the opposite is the case and clearly the Bible supports their side of the argument. These are generally in-house arguments because non-Christians may not know enough of the Bible to join in the dispute or more often because they are appalled by the attitude and actions of the disputants and want nothing to do with it.
You know that Sunday School joke that whatever the teacher or the preacher asks you, the safe answer is always Jesus. Well, I think that Jesus is the safe answer here too. Jesus did not encourage his followers to dispute the fine detail of theological arguments. He consistently called them back to him, and back to God – back to the underlying principles and faithful relationships of their faith. He called them to be guided and to live their lives by this, to make God’s will the measure of their lives, just as the personified Wisdom of God calls those in the streets to return to the fear of God.
When in doubt, I believe that Jesus is the measure of what to believe and what to do.
What was Jesus’ advice? Love God – that’s faith. Love your neighbour – that’s works. And he declared that those 2 things belonged together and that the whole of ourselves and our lives were to be lived in this way – with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. He said more, On these 2 commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In other words, do this and you will be fulfilling all that the scriptures say. Don’t dispute the fine print. Love God and your neighbour and faith and works will sort themselves out.
Nevertheless, Jesus does give some guidance to his disciples about both faith and works through their faithfulness to him. In the Gospel reading, Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am? Peter answers, You are the Messiah. Then Jesus tells his disciples not to go about telling people that he was the Messiah. Instead they were to listen to him and he would give them knowledge of what this really meant because being the Messiah was very different from their preconceptions.
If the disciples believe and have faith that Jesus is the Messiah, then they will act and that act will be to follow Jesus.
That following was not to be the road to military glory and the expulsion of the Romans from the land. Instead Jesus’ followers must be willing to lose everything. Through their faithfulness they will attain the victory and achieve more than they ever dreamed. To reject the path to the cross is to reject the pathway to life. Jesus has taught a lot about himself as the pathway to life. Now he tells his disciples that the pathway to life may well lie through death.
How unbelievably hard must that have been to understand, let alone to accept.
Now, knowledge and belief are important but Jesus required even more of them. He placed a call on their lives, then and in the future. He told them what should come from their knowledge and belief, from their faith. Chiefly, they were to know the path of Jesus’ faith in the Father and make that their path also. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ acceptance of his coming death was the first thing that needed correcting. This was how it how going to be. This was the path of following God’s will. There was to be no turning away. Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. It was to be not my way or the highway but God’s way or the highway.
It was also not enough that the disciples accept that Jesus would die and rise again, they also had to commit to a willingness to align their own lives with this, to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
So, from the book of Proverbs, fear God and follow God’s Wisdom; from James, faith is brought to completion by works; and from Mark, Who do you say I am? The Messiah? Then take up your cross and follow me.
Do we have the courage to believe and to follow?