September 9, 2012
The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 18
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“So, Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
The Epistle of James is short, powerful and unequivocal. This letter may have actually been written by St. James, the brother of Our Lord, who at the time of its writing was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. It is probably based on a sermon, written in the mid-60’s, just months prior to James’ martyrdom. This sermon was recorded, and then sometime after the fall of the Temple, in the 80’s or 90’s, was edited, expanded and circulated to the churches around Jerusalem. This and Jude were the final letters testifying a Jewish Christianity, that is a religion of Jews following a Jewish Messiah into new understandings of God and the Law, the Torah. This epistle has been characterized as “ ‘the second voice of Jesus,’ reminding Christians that a faith that fails to bear fruit in the moral life cannot save.” James does not mince words.
This passage from James is a fitting lesson for today, what with the start of Sunday School, the breakfast ministry happening this morning, and the ministry fair directly following Mass. As we launch into another busy program year here at Resurrection, another busy school year, another “the summer’s over” season, we need to get clear on what and how we are church, together. James, I think, will help us in this.
A big, big question about church is, “Does what we do matter?” This has two sort of angles. First, does the church stuff, the religious activity we do, worship, prayer, intercessory prayer all of that, does that matter to the world, and how? And from another angle, the question is: do the things we do in the world somehow matter to God, can finite actions have infinite consequences? So, does our religious conduct affect the world and does our worldly conduct affect our life in God? These are the questions at hand.
This question brings up two themes from the Protestant side of our Anglican family. The first is, “We are justified by faith not works” Who said that? Martin Luther. And the second? It is a Calvinist or Reform saying. “Works Righteousness.” Not as famous, but it is a critical concept in the lives of some Christians.
“We are justified by faith not works.” What does this mean? Very basically, it means that we are saved by faith, and faith is a gift of God by God’s grace alone. Salvation is underserved, unearned and unearnable. We cannot earn salvation though our actions, not by doing good in the world nor being observant in our religious practices. Martin Luther’s protest against Rome came to him as he read Paul’s letter to the Romans. In that letter, Paul critiques Judaism for being too concerned with adhering to the letter of the law and not concerned enough with God. He felt that they were too concerned with works, with things they did or abstained from doing religiously. In Luther’s time, the Church had a lucrative business called plenary indulgences. You could buy absolution. And the wealthy did, in droves. Luther was disgusted by this legalistic practice, and equated it with the same category of sin Paul was critiquing.
There are not many funny stories about plenary indulgences, but I have one. I don’t know if anyone remembers 10, 11 years ago, there was labor unrest at Harvard. The custodial workers were unionizing much to the chagrin of Larry Summers, the eventually fired president of Harvard, and overall real piece of work. Even with his bonafide liberal credentials, he was virulently anti-union and fought the custodian’s efforts to earn a living wage tooth and nail. Yuck.
Well over at the divinity school, we were organizing with SEIU’s Jobs with Justice campaign and we had a fabulous idea. We planned an action to have people at all of the gates to Harvard Yard carrying collection cans and asking for donations to buy Larry Summers a plenary indulgence for his obvious and egregious sins. We were going to give the money to the strike fund. For the life of me I can’t remember why we did not do it, but it was pretty funny. In any case, justification by faith, not works.
Then there is works righteousness. It is our effort to act in the world, do good in the world in order to follow God’s standards, meet God’s expectations. It does not so much imply that if you do good you can earn your way into Heaven, but rather if you don’t do good, or enough good, well, you could get a transfer from the ladders to the chutes, if you know what I mean. Works Righteousness ties our fate and life in relation to God to meeting expectations of conduct in the temporal realm, in the here and now. And who determines what is enough, how much good work is needed… very hard to tell.
These two ideas seem to be coming from opposite directions. Our works don’t matter on one side, they do on the other. The key here, though, is “matter.” To whom does it matter what we do or don’t do, and how?
We do lots here at Resurrection. What do we do? ______ We give charity, helping people in all sorts of ways. We relieve suffering. We care for one another. Our money goes out to help those in need. We teach children. We witness justice in the world and amplify and encourage the witness of others.
What else do we do? ______ We keep the sacraments. We pray together and alone. We study the Bible and other religious books. We are formed for God and ministry.
The former, the works of mercy in the world, the good of these works is clear. The reduction of suffering is a moral imperative of the Christian life. We learn this from the Great Commandment’s admonition to love your neighbor as yourself; to Jesus recalling that when I was hungry you fed me, thirsty you gave me water, a stranger and you welcomed me, a prisoner me and you visited me; and back to James writing, “…you did not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” We have a moral and religious obligation to serve the needful world. “A faith that fails to bear fruit in the moral life cannot save.” This work is not guided by a “works righteousness” ethic because the call to action is not some quid pro quo formula of meeting God’s expectations, it is following a moral path that the practice of our faith in God leads us to, both individually and collectively.
How then does our religious life matter? Do our religious works, the saying of the prayers, the Mass and our study… do we slip into Paul or Luther’s zone of suspicion of trying to be saved by works? I don’t think so. Here’s why: A sacramental practice of religion is critical to the world for two reasons. First, great is the mystery of faith. We don’t know why, but it does matter. I love the logic of theology. I don’t know exactly why or how some Carmelite nuns pray 15 hours a day, year after year, but I am grateful that they keep that prayer wheel turning. How does the eternal and actual presence of God arrived at in the sacramental act help, save, change the world? Why does the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the keeping of the prayers and study of scripture matter to God? I do not know but I have faith that it does. Immersion in the sacramental mystery of God is a Good in and of itself. That’s all I have to say about that.
But second, it matters because it puts us in a position to become closer to God, more receptive to God, in closer, deeper, more intimate relationship with God, more able to hold up the first half of the Great Commandment: to love God with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul and all of our body. The religious life is practice, practice putting ourselves in the postures that we need to be in to be fully formed people. Religious practice helps us practice being kind when know that that miserable jerk doesn’t deserve kindness, merciful when the world says “You were already warned.” Humble when we are successful. Religious practice trains our souls to be to be like weebles, we wobble but don’t fall down, or when we do, our inner being, our core, our Christ-nature knows because it has been trained, to follow the bubbles up to the surface. It is simple conditioning of ourselves to be the people God made us to be, the community God means us to be, the people, the species the part of the creation that God created us to be. The religious life matters, the religious life of this place, matters. Your own religious life, your practice in relation to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit matters. It matters to you, to the world, and to God. As our year begins, let us keep up the good works, that our faith and our world may live. AMEN.