I doubt that there are many people here today who believe that the Bible was handed down by God intact (and in English) in the year 1611, in the form of the King James Version. What you may not realize, though, is that there has not always been universal agreement about just which books should be included in the Bible, and that one of the books that has had a little trouble with Church authorities over the centuries is the letter of James from which we have heard a passage read today. It was only in the late fourth century in the West and the fifth century in the East that the letter was widely accepted as Scripture; in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther would have liked to have had it removed from the Bible. In his introduction to James in his German translation of the Bible, Luther said, in effect, “It’s not in my canon” — i.e., it was not a book he considered to be the inspired word of God.
The clue to Luther’s problem lies in a theme developed in the letter that can be summarized in this sentence: “Faith by itself, if it has no works is dead.” For Martin Luther, James’ letter seemed to contradict the idea of justification by faith alone that he found expressed so powerfully in St. Paul’s letters, an idea that was central to his own theology and which remains central to Lutheran theology to this day. To Luther all that “works” business smacked of the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day against which he had rebelled, such practices as the selling of indulgences which led the faithful to believe that they could literally buy salvation from the Church. Under the circumstances, the extremism of Luther’s position is understandable. But since this situation does not exist today, we can afford to be less dualistic in our thinking and see in the letter of James an attempt to correct a tendency to use Paul’s “justification by faith alone” as justification to do nothing, or to go on complacently maintaining the status quo and ignoring the pain in the world around us.
Paul himself had to deal with Christians who used his teachings to justify apathy or license. Paul never said good works were to be dispensed with, only that they were to be understood as a response to salvation, not as a MEANS to salvation. We are already saved by Christ’s work on the cross, but what we do IS important. Our actions have consequences both for ourselves and for others. The way we live our lives and set our priorities says more about our faith than words ever could. Our actions speak so loudly that others can’t hear what we’re saying, no matter how pious those words might be.
I know someone who, to be candid, is a bit egotistical and bigoted, but who also considers himself a born-again Christian. His conversation is liberally sprinkled with “the Lord” this and “the Lord” that, and “Praise the Lord!” Whenever I speak with him for any length of time I can’t help thinking of the saying of Jesus (which happens to be one of the offertory sentences from the old Prayer Book), “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) You see, being saved by Christ’s work on the cross is a starting point – being ready for heaven is quite another matter. That’s the working out of our salvation. That’s putting content into that word “saved.” There’s nothing magical about it. God doesn’t wave a magic wand over us and – poof – we’re ready for heaven. As loving as God’s methods may be, we still have to be shaped and molded inwardly to resemble Christ until Christ is all in all. We have to be converted again and again and again.
Doing the will of the Father is a constant theme of Jesus’ teachings. Listen to what he says in today’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) This passage has often been popularly interpreted to mean that we should bear patiently the suffering life inflicts upon us, for Jesus’ sake; but that’s not what it really says. We can feel the presence of Jesus in our suffering because he first suffered for us. Since God did not spare his own Son from suffering, but rather brought him through it to resurrection and glory, how can we, his daughters and sons, expect any less or any more. In the wake of tragedy and disaster people have lost their faith because God didn’t prevent those things from happening. But that’s the risk God took when he made us human beings.
God is love. God created us in his image with the capacity to love, and love requires freedom. And with our freedom, we have the capacity to do great evil as well as great good. God took a tremendous risk in making us. Does God protect us from harm? More than we know. Why doesn’t God protect us from all catastrophes? If there is no free will, there can be no love. And God is love. Considering the violent nature of the universe that astronomers are constantly discovering more and more about (violent at least from our standpoint here on this little blue speck of dust floating in outer space), God protects us from infinitely more catastrophes than we can imagine.
Last week we marked another anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Where was God when those towers came down on 9/11? Inside with those who were dying – in the love they felt and expressed in their final telephone calls, in their hands clasped together as they jumped to escape the horrific flames, in the hearts of those who saved others. Jesus on the cross tells us that God suffers with us. God does not inflict pain. We sinful mortals do when we misuse our free will. That’s what the hijackers did, and thousands suffered. Our actions have consequences; sometimes even grave consequences. Faith is not enough.
“Take up your cross,” Jesus says. Initiate action. DO something about evil and suffering in the world. There is immediacy in Jesus’ message. Too often we’ve thought that Jesus’ message is somehow about the hereafter; it’s not, it’s about the here and now. The life of faith, the life of discipleship, is not just a comfort and solace in the face of the world’s hardships. It is also a call to action. The actions we take will be dictated to some extent by our life circumstances, our age, our state of health, but look at what in their old age Mother Theresa did and what Desmond Tutu has been able to do. Jesus’ word to us is to respond to the priceless, unearned, the un-earnable gifts we have been given: faith and salvation. And my experience in dealing with people who are discovering or rediscovering the gift of faith is that they invariably want to find ways to express their gratitude to God, to give back some of what they have been given so freely.
Among ourselves, we brothers often express amazement at extraordinary acts of kindness, love and generosity performed by so many of you here today. The expression, “Time, talent and treasure” has become almost a cliché in the Church, but it neatly sums up what we who have received so much can give back to our Lord. Many of you give of your time to wonderful service programs, as well your time and generosity in support of the Society’s mission.
Last week, my brother David Vryhof spoke powerfully about the plight of the poor in our fabulously wealthy country. “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also,” Jesus said, and I think we can interpret that in a pretty literal sense. “Heart” in the biblical sense means the very seat of life. Money is a sustainer of life in the world economy and for many people it has become their primary source of identity. Money we earn or the wealth we enjoy often defines who we are.
If you think that’s too blunt, I’m afraid it’s because money has become the sacred object in many modern lives, the taboo, and the topic too holy to talk about. And giving money away is like giving away part of our value as human beings, part of our very substance. It’s like a small death… but perhaps, for us, that’s what Jesus’ words about dying in today’s Gospel mean: “…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.”
As a volunteer during the 1980’s in Mother Teresa’s Calcutta home for orphans and the dying, Father Michael Christensen told Mother Teresa that he was having a difficult time dealing with the many deaths. She responded, “When we see the poor and dying… we look in their eyes and see Jesus. Give me your hand.” And taking Father Michael’s hand, she said, “The whole Gospel is written on your hand.” She then quoted from Matthew’s Gospel, “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty, and you gave me to drink; when I was homeless, you took me in; when I was sick, you visited me; when I was in prison, you came to me.” Mother Teresa concluded, “That is the Gospel written on your life.”
What we do with our hands is as important, and sometimes even more important, than what we think in our minds or speak with our mouths. Faith without works is a dry, lifeless, dead thing. If our faith does not lead us to action, then it has become a dead creedal affirmation of lifeless beliefs. Some of us are already giving of our time, talent and treasure to the limits of our ability; others, maybe not. In either case, Jesus has given us all that is good in life; even love that makes it possible for us to love others. By loving us first, God makes it possible for us to love others and Jesus asks only that we share that love. But in so doing he tells us that we must take up our cross and follow him. Our hands must reach out, pick up the rough wood, and carry it — for ourselves and for others.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you not only by our words, but also by our actions; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
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