September 9, 2012

On Having Faith

Passage: James 2:17

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Helen is the Roman Catholic cathedral in the English town of Brentwood, Essex.  Early in July of this year the shocked congregation had their worship interrupted when a block of ice believed to have fallen from an aircraft crashed through their cathedral roof.  Fr MacKay told the BBC he was trembling with shock after hearing the collision, but had continued with the service.  "I was trembling with a bit of shock. After a couple of seconds of shocked pause I said “right, let's crack on” and we did so."

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority confirmed that while ice can fall from aircrafts, they can be caused by natural weather conditions.  My guess is that at the moment of impact with the Cathedral roof more than a few parishioners though God was trying to get their attention.  (It is akin to a preacher having the point of his sermon fortuitously timed to be punctuated with a peal of thunder.)  I have met people on their way into a worship service who comment that their rare presence might cause the church roof to crumble; it seems borne of an idea that God has a quarrel to pick with them because of their infrequent attendance of worship.  I wonder if any such soul had ventured into the Brentwood Cathedral that morning.

1. I wonder sometimes if people think that an encounter with God would have to have, by definition, a certain shock element to it.  It would need to be so distinctive as to leave us without doubt.  But like all questions that seek proof of God’s existence one should first ask, “What would I regard as sufficient proof”?  What would be distinctive enough about an experience of life for you to say, “Now that was an encounter with God”?  Friends, sunrise came again today and the Bible tells us that this occurred at God’s behest; in Him (Christ Jesus) all things consist (or are held together)—this includes the universe.  The same scriptures say that God knew you when you were being formed in your mother’s womb; God has been pursuing us from the very start.  Somewhere along the line the believer throws caution to the wind and trusts this truth and discover the One who is as near to us as our very breath.

Faith, biblically speaking, is an encounter with God that God initiates; after all, he has pursued us since the day we were conceived. Through this encounter God initiates with us he awakens us to him, turns us to face him, and wants only that we look upon him as longingly and lovingly as he has long looked upon us.

Faith is entrusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. This is how it begins. Regardless of how much we think we know of ourselves, we know very little. And if we are taking our first steps in faith, then of course we know very little of God. Still, we begin by exposing as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him – which is to say, faith begins as simple encounter with God. It is an elemental meeting with God; dialogue with God.

To say it all differently: in Jesus Christ, and specifically in the arms of the crucified, God embraces us. In the strength and desire that his embrace lends us, we now want to embrace him in return. Faith, then, is an encounter with God as he awakens us to his initiative and awakens our response.  When the Apostle James writes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” he is countering false teaching already at work in the church to reduce faith to a private inner religious matter.

When James wrote his letter the church has been alive for thirty years and now false teachers are creeping in who distort the gospel and mislead people. Persecution has intensified as well. When James writes his letter, Paul, widely known in Christian congregations, is a prisoner in Rome awaiting trial (and execution.) Within eighteen months James himself will be murdered. In a word, the world has proven to be more hostile than expected. In the face of the world's resistance to the gospel and the world's nastiness towards Christians, James is afraid that Christians will simply retreat into themselves and lick their wounds; he's afraid that Christian existence will become nothing more than a private psycho-religious “trip” inward.  James is worried that Christians might take refuge in a private inner gospel they believe with their heads—and yet no longer do the truth of the gospel with their lives. He insists that truth must be done; faith must be lived.  If Jesus Christ is appropriated inwardly in faith then the same Lord must be exemplified outwardly in life.

2.  Who was James? Certainly neither of the two disciples named James, “James the son of Alphaeus” and “James the Lesser.” I am convinced by the scholars who make the case that the author of the epistle is the James who was brother of our Lord.  After the resurrection, Paul tells us, under the impact of the same kind of resurrection-appearance that turned Paul himself around, James came to believe that his brother Jesus, a Jew of course like James himself, was indeed the Saviour of the world and the Lord of the whole creation.  In view of the fact that James and Jesus were brothers, it isn't surprising that parallels abound between the epistle of James and the teachings of Jesus.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount his concluding parable was of the two men who built homes—one on rock and the other on sand.  The point?   “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock”, said our Lord.  It is no surprise then that James insists that faith must be lived; that truth must be done.

3.  One aspect of our lives which James addresses forcibly is reflected in his statement which most of us have heard many times over: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Here James is often played off against Paul. Paul had said that faith in Jesus Christ—faith alone—is sufficient to make right our relationship with God.  Yet James speaks of faith plus works.  But in fact there is no contradiction, for the two men had two quite different meanings for the word “faith”.

By “faith” James meant mere belief, religious ideas held by armchair-sitters who never get out of their armchair to do something. Such “faith”, so-called, is mere “beliefism”, merely a religious daydream, nothing more than lip-service to the gospel, simply an idea rattling around in one’s mind.

On the other hand, by “faith” Paul meant our whole-hearted embracing of the person of Jesus Christ himself. As we embrace him he constrains us to follow him in his service of human need. In other words, when Paul speaks of faith he means so living in the company of Jesus Christ that we can’t pretend we don't see the human distresses which Jesus always sees.

James was writing to a church which had grown weary and disheartened; weary because of the resistance it met everywhere, disheartened because of the persecution its faithfulness brought upon itself.  Surely the easy way out was to reduce Christian existence to a private religious head-trip, ignore everything else, and thus spare oneself frustration, fatigue and pain. It's a temptation for all of us. If we succumb; if we reduce faith to a private religious fantasy which embraces neither the risen one himself nor the people for whom he still suffers, then James has a one-word description which he pronounces twice in ten lines: “dead”, our faith, so-called, is dead.

I can understand Christians being weary because of the resistance we meet.  Somehow in our culture the word “public” has come to mean “secular”.  Think of how “public education” somehow means a “secularized curriculum” dominated by agnosticism.  I am not sure who gave the keys to the education system to secularists but to even raise a question about that is labelled as extremism.  Religion is ok as long as you keep quiet about it.

James has raised a very important point that Christians need to be careful to understand the meaning of “faith” as it is used with respect to the gospel.  We sometimes hear the word “faith” used as a generic term for religion—i.e., when people talk of faith-groups to speak of various religious groups.  In this use of the word faith it is term applied to a wide variety of spiritual self-identification.  “Faith” as used in the gospel means an encounter with Jesus Christ that he initiates.

Sometimes faith is used as synonymous with belief.  The idea is that my faith contains assent to certain ideas or doctrinal statement.  Doctrine is important because understanding is important for confessing the faith.  Doctrine may be likened to a recipe or a roadmap; important because apart from the recipe the meal may turn out inedible if not toxic; and apart from the roadmap we shall fail to find our way to our destination.  It must be noted however, that the recipe is not the meal or the roadmap the terrain to be traversed.  Affirming doctrine about Jesus Christ is not to be confused with encounter with him; though doctrine about him helps us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Hyrum W. Smith, author of The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management, wrote: “Your behavior is a reflection of what you truly believe.”  Predicated on this axiom that belief and behaviour are directly related you can find any number of books and seminars that help you create a personal mission/vision as the ground for a fulfilling life. And I think there is much wisdom here.  The link that we experience between our thinking (i.e. the way we conceive of ourselves) and our experience of life underlines the importance of what we believe.  But is it simply a matter of plugging right beliefs or a new vision of one’s self?  If we really could simply adjust our thinking and achieve results why is there so much difficulty; whence all the heartache and turmoil?  Our sin blinds us to our true predicament.  According to the gospel faith is a gift of God; encounter with God is at his initiative; an initiative that is generous and persistent.

4.  I have stressed the importance of faith as encounter with Christ.  Faith is to embrace the risen one himself. Faith also means that we embrace the people for whom he gave his life.  The gospel turns us to God and to one another.  If Jesus Christ is appropriated inwardly in faith then the same Lord must be exemplified outwardly in life.  James wants one thing for the readers of his letter regardless of the century in which we read it. He wants a heart and mind so sensitized to God as never to be desensitized to human suffering.

It is my conviction that it is the heart sensitized to God that is prepared to be sensitive to human suffering.  I will not speak for you but I find all the awareness raising campaigns, international days for the eradication of this or that malady, pleas to support that latest run or walk—i find these numbing. (I am not decrying these efforts, I am reflecting on my own response).  I find that as I come again to the foot of the cross and reflect on what my Saviour has done to put all things to right I am sustained again to do.  Individually we cannot meet every need but we can some needs.

You have heard the story of the man who professed great love for his wife; he would face any foe to protect her, climb the highest mountain to be near her; swim the widest ocean to be with her.  All she wanted was that he would get up from the couch and do the dishes.  The example that James offers has a similar touch of irony/humour.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”   To alleviate suffering is to do the Lord’s work.

Allow me to change James’ example slightly: “If a brother or sister is lonely/depressed ...” Hunger and nakedness may be more readily noticeable and we can see the immediate impact of supplying clothing and food.   For the lonely/depressed the blessing of friendship is powerful and far reaching.

5.  Another aspect of life the James takes on is favouritism borne of outward appearance.  Favouritism is according the rich one treatment and the poor another, esteeming the learned while disdaining the unlearned, favouring the socially prominent while ignoring ordinary people, “kow-towing” to the influential but manipulating the powerless.

Jesus had condemned it before James. When our Lord's detractors were searching high and low in order to find something about him for which they could criticize they finally had to admit that Jesus showed no partiality. (Luke 20: 21) As a faithful son of Israel, Jesus certainly knew Torah. And the word of Torah, the way appointed Israel to walk, was plain: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” (Leviticus 19:15)

This passage from the Hebrew bible, which James obviously has in mind, forbids us to show partiality to rich or poor. For just as there is a snobbery born of a groundless adulation of the rich, so there is a snobbery born of a groundless exaltation of the poor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, no friend of the Russian upper class, nevertheless maintained that if you had ever lived among the proletarian class you would never be tempted to think its people inherently virtuous, inherently humanly superior—as Marxist ideology continues to do. The gospel forbids us to flatter the rich just because they are rich or to fawn over (romanticize) the poor just because they are poor. We are to show no partiality in the Christian fellowship.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level; there are no grounds for partiality.

I started out in this message asking how you recognize encounter with God.  Whenever I read James letter I find myself challenged about living the faith; such challenge tells me that I, yet again, am in the company of James’s greater brother, our Lord Jesus Christ.