“MAKING FAITH WORK”

JAMES 1:22-25; 2:14-26

AUG 5, 2012

 

PLAY AUDIO

                                              

In the fall of 1516 Martin Luther wrote a letter to a friend.  For those of us who meet ourselves coming and going listen to his schedule.  He wrote,

 

            I could use two secretaries.  I do almost nothing during the day but write letters.  I am a conventional preacher, reader at meals, parochial teacher, director of studies, overseer of eleven monasteries, superintendent of the fish pond at Litzkau, referee of the squabble at Torgau, lecturer on Paul, collector of material for a commentary on Psalms, and then, as I said, I am overwhelmed with letters.  I rarely have full time for the canonical hours and for saying mass, not to mention my own temptations with the world, the flesh and the Devil.  You see how lazy I am.

 

            Of course, out of this "laziness" rose Luther's activities as a reformer.  In fact, just one year after this letter, the Reformation began and because the Reformation has a direct bearing on our passage, I want to refresh our memories concerning it.

            After reading Luther's letter to his friend, one wonders, "What happened?"  What happened during that year that prompted Luther to post his 95 criticisms of the church on the door of the University of Wittenberg?  And why did sparks fly after he did?  Why did the church hierarchy react so vehemently against him?   Well, two forces in Luther's life converged that year prompting him to take action against the church he loved.

            One force had to do with the assurance of his salvation.  Luther, not unlike many people of his day, lived in constant fear of his salvation.  That's quite different from today.  In a poll conducted by U S Online News 87% of those polled saw themselves going to heaven.  They may be wrong, but nonetheless, they are sure they are going to make it through the pearly gates.  That was not the case in Luther's day.  Luther, and others, lived in constant fear that they would be spending eternity in a very warm climate.  The church in his time taught that if you were a Christian and you performed enough good deeds, enough good works, you would go straight to heaven after you died.  If not, if you fell short in the good deeds arena, then you would spend a little time in purgatory - a sort of holding cell where people were purged and purified of all the sins they had committed - and Luther feared he would have to spend time in the holding cell, in purgatory.

            Luther eventually entered the priesthood hoping it would gain him favor with God.    It did not seem to help.  Still filled with fear he would spend upwards of six hours in the confessional, confessing the minutest of sins, which eventually resulted in the abbot at the monastery saying to Luther, "Look here.  If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive - blasphemy, adultery - instead of all these little peccadilloes."

            So, given his great fear of not making it into heaven straight away, we can but imagine the joy he experienced while lecturing on the Book of Romans as a professor at the University of Wittenberg.  Paul's emphasis in Romans on justification by faith, not works, jumped off the page and right into Luther's heart.  Based on the teachings of Paul, Luther's salvation was secure.  He could rest in the Lord.

            The other force in Luther's life was more external.  It involved the church's using people's distress over their own salvation to make money.  Here's how it worked.  Preying on people's fear of purgatory, the church offered a solution.  Pay money for a prayer, give a gift to the church, and your stay or your loved one's stay in purgatory will be shortened.  Of course, the holier the priest, the more influential the religious figure, the greater the benefit and the greater the cost.  This selling of special favors, "indulgences" they were called, became the bingo of the sixteenth century church.  The selling of indulgences was so lucrative that they financed the construction of churches, monasteries, hospitals and even a bridge or two.

            The indulgence system was at its pinnacle when Luther intervened.  The church in Rome was using the system to help finance the construction of St. Peters at the Vatican.  It was to be as big as the Parthenon and was to be constructed over the remains of the Apostle Peter.  Pope Leo sent out representatives far and wide to sell special prayers and absolution from the Vatican itself.  The man sent to Germany, Luther's homeland, was one of the best, a Dominican monk named Tetzel.  With a cross bearing the Papal arms behind him, and a vendor at the table next to him to collect money, Tetzel would preach of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters in purgatory, crying out to relatives for release, for special prayers on their behalf.  For absolution from the Pope himself, Tetzel would say, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."

            Unfortunately, for Tetzel and the church in Rome, they had come too close to Martin Luther.  Armed with his newfound understanding of salvation by faith and not works, and out of pastoral concern for those who struggled with the certainty of their salvation, Luther called for church reform.  Of course, the church reacted swiftly and fiercely and the Reformation began.

            All this brings us to today's passage which Luther disliked immensely.  In fact, our passage for today prompted Luther to refer to James' letter as an "Epistle of Straw."  He did not believe it belonged in the bible.  He believed it directly contradicted the teachings of Paul.  The contradiction for Luther came when he compared James' statement in 2:24 ... look at that with me.

 

            You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

 

            And compare that to what Paul writes in his letter in the Romans.  Turn with me to Romans 3:28, to page 916, in your pew bible.  In apparent contraction to James, Paul  writes,

 

            For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law ... there's more, Romans 5:1 ... Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand ...

 

            Sure enough, that sounds like a contraction.  Paul says faith alone.  James says faith plus works.  That sounds like a contradiction, but maybe not.  Maybe it's not a contradiction.  Maybe it's Paul and James describing different sides of the same coin. 

            Lets see if we can illustrate.  To do so, I need two volunteers.  I need someone to be Paul and someone to be James.  Who will volunteer to come up here and help us all with this?  OK, here we go.

            Note, Paul here.  Given Pauls take on this issue ... justification by faith alone ... think of the word root.  Paul, say root for us.  That is to say, Paul looks at what happens when faith takes root in our lives.  He thinks about the moment of our salvation.  We do not clean up our act before Christ accepts us, we accept Christ in order for him to clean up our lives.  Again, whats the key word for Paul?  Root!

            Now lets turn to James.  James, does not deal with the root of salvation.  Instead, he deals with the fruit of salvation.  James remind us of that.  Say, fruit.  That is to say James looks at what happens after faith takes root in our lives.  When we are put right with God ... when we are justified by faith .. works, actions, deeds become a natural byproduct of our faith.  The fruit validates a saving faith.  Its the sign that the life of Christ has taken root in our lives.  The fruit does not get us into heaven, it's just the sign we are going to heaven.  If we say we have faith, but have no works, James says we are just kidding ourselves.  We don't have a valid faith if we don't have works.  We have something counterfeit, not the real thing.

            Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture do we find either of these men disavowing the importance of faith or works.  In our passage James is not denying the importance of faith.  He just wants to put some teeth in it.  And in the same vein, Paul constantly called people to exhibit the fruits of their faith. 

            So faith and works, for both Paul and James, are two sides of the same coin.  They are the two blades of a pair of scissors.  Without both blades the scissors would be inoperative.  Given their respective audiences, these two men decided to stress one blade over the other.  Paul, writing to people giving too much credence to works, emphasized faith and James, writing to people becoming sloppy in their discipleship, emphasized obedience. 

            When I get to heaven, Im going ask Luther if that makes sense.  Whether or not it does, I have two words of pastoral concern that I want to share with you this morning. 

            The first word, based upon the words of James and Paul, is relax. 

            Jay Leno tells about the anxiety his mother lived with most of her life.  As an immigrant, his mother lived in constant fear of deportation. Leno said, "You could miss up to four questions on the citizenship test, and Mom missed five.  The question she flunked on was: "What is the Constitution of the United States?"  The answer she gave was: "A boat."  Which wasn't entirely wrong.  The USS Constitution was docked in Boston.  But the judge instantly denied her citizenship.

            "My father stormed up to the judge. 'What is this? Let me see the test!  She's not wrong.  The Constitution is a boat!'  The judge rolled his eyes and said, "No, the Constitution is our basic governing'"

            "'It's also a boat in Boston!  The Constitution!  Same thing!  Come on!"  The judge finally couldn't take any more. He said, "Fine.  She's a citizen.  Now get out of here!"  So my father said to my mom, "You passed!"

            "No, I didn't pass," she whimpered. "They're going to come after me!"  From then on, any time my mother was even in the proximity of a policeman, she quaked with fear. When I took her to Scotland in 1983, she asked me, "Will I be able to get back in?"  "Ma!  Don't worry!  That was 50 years ago!"  It never ended.

            How many of you here this day have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?  Then relax.  You've passed the test  No one is going to deport you out of God's Kingdom.  Your good works, your desire to do the right thing, is a sign that the life of Christ has taken root in your life.

            The second word is remember.  Remember as people rooted in Jesus Christ we live in a fish bowl, and our words, our works, our deeds, our acts of love or lack of them will contribute greatly to whether others embrace Christ or reject Christ.

            And I'll close by telling you a positive fish bowl story.  Years ago I was in the church office on a Saturday morning memorizing the sermon, and I needed a break and decided to go out to the mailbox to get the mail.  As I headed out the front door I almost stumbled over a man in his mid-forties sitting on the church steps.  He was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.  I blurted out a surprised, "Hello, how are you?" and his reply was not what I wanted to hear.  He asked, "Is there a pastor around?"

            I was tempted to lie because I knew what was on his mind.  He wanted a handout, but instead I said, "Yes, I'm a pastor."

            His next remark was not what I expected.  He said, "I'm too upset to talk right now, but could I come to see you next week?"

            I said, "Sure," and invited him into the building to sit in the sanctuary where it was cooler than on the front steps of the church.  He took me up on the offer and then and hour later, he knocked on the office door and said, "I need to talk."  He proceeded to describe a life of broken relationships, selfishness on his part, and then he paused, looked my office and said, "These places make me nervous." 

            I said, "Churches?"

            "Yeah," he said.  "I'm a finish carpenter.  I've built many of them but I don't go to them when their done."

            I asked him, "Well, what brought you here today?"      

            He said, "A few years ago, I did some work for a man in your church, Max Caldwell.  He was a good man and when I was hurting I thought of him, and his church, and all of a sudden I was here."

            Life in the fishbowl.  We never know who's watching.  Faith without works may be dead but faith with works is lively and contagious.  Amen.