By Pastor Cherie Dearth
It is Reformation Sunday! On Tuesday, it will be five hundred years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, and what is modern-day Germany.
These were 95 propositions regarding corruption in the Catholic Church. He was by no means the first person in the church to suggest that there was need for reform, but Luther’s action that day had an impact like no other before him.
His main grievance was the sale of indulgences and the theological basis behind them. Indulgences were used to raise money for the church to do things like build the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and fund wars and crusades. One could buy an indulgence to indulge in immoral behavior without penalty. If you were afraid that a loved one who had passed was spending too long in purgatory, a kind of jail to pay for your sins before going to heaven, you could bail them out by buying indulgences for them.
Luther said that there was nothing biblical about this penitential system, a system where you have to do penance, suffer punishment, in order to be made right with God, to be able to be in God’s presence. And Luther was right. There is nothing biblical about it. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:17, and many other places:
“For in the gospel of righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by Faith from the first to last, just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith’ (Hab 2:4).”
This faith is something that God gives us through what John Wesley would describe as prevenient and justifying grace. Prevenient grace being the grace we receive from God that makes us want to seek after him before we believe. Justifying Grace being the grace that God gives us in order for us to have believe, to have faith.
We cannot earn it. We cannot do enough to pay God back for all that God has done for us. The idea behind these indulgences the church was selling was contrary to all of that, and Luther called them out with his 95 Theses.
Though Luther was by no means a perfect man, we have a lot of things to thank him for. He promoted the idea of the priesthood of all believers (c.f. 1 Peter 2:9). This means that everyone can have direct access to God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit and does not require some human intermediary. This also means that all people are called into a personal relationship with God and can carry out the duties of the church, of the Kingdom, not needing someone else, like clergy to do it for them. We are all equal in the church. As part of that he translated the Bible into the local language, which for him meant German. Due to the printing press, copies could be distributed more widely and be read by anyone. The fact that we have Bibles in English was started by the tradition that Martin Luther began almost 500 years ago. We are all here today as part of a Protestant church because of what Luther did that day.
Therefore it is ironic that our scripture passage today comes from a book that Martin Luther didn’t care for. The two books we’ve been focusing on the last several weeks are the ones that he wished were not in the Bible at all, James and Esther. Esther because God is not mentioned explicitly in the text, but as we’ve been seeing God’s fingerprints are all over it, as they say. We will see even more of that in the coming weeks. Luther also had some issues with James, especially the passage that we will be looking at today. He was concerned that it gives people the impression that they have to earn their salvation, that it was contrary to the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. That can be a concern. It is something we have to understand completely. We can never do enough to earn our salvation. It is a free gift, and not free because it’s worthless, free because it’s priceless.
James is not talking about earning salvation he is addressing something else. Let’s look at the passage.
James 2:14-26 NIV
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
The first question is what is faith? Through the scriptures you see the word faith and belief. In English they have slightly different connotations. Faith says to many of us, “I’m not sure, but I hope it’s true.” Belief implies a certainty you know that it’s true.
Both are from the same Greek word, with the connotation of certainty, where you know it’s true. I believe the sun is going to rise in the morning. Even that is a figure of speech. I really believed that the Earth is round, and it revolves on its axis. I believe that it makes a complete revolution in 24 hours, therefore, once a day I will see the sun in the eastern sky. I’ve not seen it from outer space myself. Have any of you actually been up there, so far up that you can see the relation between the Earth and the sun with your own eyes? But, you believe how this whole thing works too, right?
Then, there is the difference between people who say they believe and those who really believe. This is what James is talking about here. His concern is about lip service. He makes reference in verse 19 to the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4, which begins, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” In verse 19 James talks to the people who say they believe and do nothing, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shutter.”
But Cherie, I thought you said that belief or faith was enough? Ah, yes I did. You get a gold star for noticing that. It is enough, but the question that James is asking, Is it authentic?
In the New Testament you hear a lot about fruit, actually it is all through the Old Testament too. Is it that God and the biblical authors want us to eat right and make sure that we have enough fruit in our diet? I’m sure that this is a good idea, but they were usually talking about something else.
In Matthew 3: 8 John the Baptist said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
In Matthew 7 beginning at verse 15 Jesus says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit in a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
And Paul talks about fruit in Colossians chapter 1 beginning at verse 9. “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work growing in the knowledge of God.”
What does fruit represent in all of these passages? Evidence, indicators of faith.
Earlier I mentioned different descriptions of grace that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to describe our faith journey, prevenient grace, the grace that makes us want to know God or is active in our life before we are aware, and justifying grace that which God gives us that makes us capable of believing in God, and now we come to the final one sanctifying grace.
Once we believe, the Holy Spirit works with us, changes us. The bad things we used to do, we don’t want to do anymore, or at least at first we feel bad about doing them or wish we didn’t want to do them – and “at first” can last a long time. Before we didn’t care. Now, we do. Caring is fruit. This change is called sanctification, and it continues to throughout our lives. It is our Christian Journey, what some in Christian circles call our Walk.
As James would put it, someone who is just paying lip service, saying things like, “Yeah, yeah God is One, whatever,” but does not show any evidence in the way they live their life, does not exhibit any fruit, cannot really believe or have faith.
Does your walk match your talk? Or your thought? Do your words and actions match? Do we live out in our day-to-day lives what we say we believe? Do we at least want to and try to?
Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we do to others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7: 12)? Otherwise known as the Golden Rule. The thinking on this has been expanded to what is referred to as the Platinum Rule.
I could say, “Sure, I do to others as I would have them do to me.” The problem is that not everyone wants what I want. I love steak, so I would want to offer it for dinner. But, what if the person who comes over doesn’t like red meat? They wouldn’t have anything to eat.
The Platinum Rule says that what I should do to others, in the most loving way, is to take their needs into consideration. I will make sure my guest has something they can eat, as I would want them to take what I need into consideration.
In the same way, I don’t drink coffee. As much as I have wanted to like it over the years, I never have. But, I make sure that if I have guests over, I have coffee available because it is likely they will want it.
Of course, I am using very superficial kinds of examples. But it could become very important with things like offering pork to a Muslim or failing to offer privacy to a modest or shy person because it isn’t important to me. The person and what their needs are, as they see them. Not just what we think is best for them because it would be best for us.
Caring for the needs of others in the way I would like someone to care about my needs. That’s the Platinum Rule. And it is certainly a way of interpreting Jesus’s verse here.
In John Chapter 13 starting at verse 34, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
It is like the hymn, “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Even when it’s hard, even when it’s challenging, even when we think the person in front of us is unlovable. They push our buttons. They smell funny. They do things to hurt us. Love them anyway. “By their fruit you will know them” (Matthew 7: 20). That is fruit. That is walking the talk.
What else could be fruit? Wanting to make health kits. Giving money or resources to help with the kits, or to help with other ministries of the church, like children’s Sunday school, for example. Wanting to teach Sunday school. Donating of volunteering to the Humane Society or another local charity. Reading your Bible, God’s Word, or going to a study group to learn more about it with others. Prayer is fruit. Prayer is so important. Jesus is often recorded going off to pray. Helping children at Christmas, like will do in a little over a month with the Children’s Christmas Store. Making a meal for someone. Donating clothes. Helping someone else is on their discipleship journey. Sometimes that means being willing to lead a Bible study or facilitating and accountability group, even if it isn’t our first choice of things to do. It can be helping someone else learn how to follow Jesus. Even by being a participant you can help others in the group, by the questions or insights you bring. If nothing else, we are all called to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
Because we all must understand our why. Why are we doing this? Why do we want to be a follower of or have a relationship, friendship with Jesus? It is so important, but it can’t stop there. We have to put what we learned into practice. We have to give it more than lip service.
That is one of the things I have always appreciated about the United Methodist Church. It emphasizes study and helping, doing for others. One without the other is like a rowing boat with only one ore. You go in circles, and you don’t get anywhere. We need both.
Today, we are emphasizing the doing. After this worship service and we have some brunch, you are invited to stay and help us put together health kits for the United Methodist Committee on Relief or UMCOR. After a disaster lack of hygiene is one of the major concerns. We have heard about conditions on Puerto Rico after the hurricane.
When you were a kid, or maybe you are a kid, what a treat it would be to not have to get up and wash your face and brush your teeth, like on a Saturday morning.
Now, think of what it would be like if you couldn’t wash your body or brush your teeth because of a disaster like a hurricane, not likely in eastern Oregon, or a fire, which is much more likely. It’s been a week maybe two. You had to evacuate or maybe you have lost everything. You would be tired and dirty. Teeth are all fuzzy. You could rub them on your shirt but after a while I think my shirt would be too dirty even for that. Then, someone gives you a health kit. It has a washcloth, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a comb. What a relief it would be to wash your face, and other places too, to brush your teeth. For the first time in a week you feel fresh and clean.
That is what you do when you help put together health kits. You are giving the gift of that experience to someone else. You’re loving your neighbor. It is doing for someone what you hoped someone would do for you under similar circumstances. It is living your faith.
You might feel like you shouldn’t do this on a Sunday. It’s working after all. In Matthew chapter 12, on the Sabbath, Jesus went into a synagogue where there was a man with a shriveled hand. Some of the people there asked him if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then Jesus proceeded to heal man. (Matthew 12: 9-13)
We are not under the law, but even if we were, it would be okay. For us it is always good to do the Lord’s work on the Lord’s Day.
Today, is one opportunity, just one of many, to show your walk matches your talk. This particular project may not work for you, and that’s okay too. There are many other ways to show that we have more than Sunday morning Faith. Have a faith that last the whole week through.