September 30, 2012

Whoever Brings Back A Sinner From Wandering

Passage: James 5:19-20

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Two weeks ago I shared with you the finding from a study entitled Hemorrhaging Faith.  The study by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and several partner groups examined why and when Canadian young adults are leaving, staying and returning to church.  It stated that “By young adulthood only one in 10 respondents raised in Catholic and mainline traditions reported attending religious services at least weekly.”  This is not news for the mainline church; we know that many young adults raised in the church do not now frequent worship services—the report simply quantifies the actuality.

In the year 60 A.D. (C.E.) the Apostle James (Jesus’ brother) pens his letter to the church; the church has been in existence for about 30 years.  “If any among you wanders from the truth and is brought back”, wrote James.  It would appear that they are facing a similar phenomenon in that people once committed to the faith in Jesus Christ have disappeared from the fellowship of the church.  The church faced opposition to the gospel and outright persecution; it had a chilling effect for some.  We see in James the heart of a pastor shaped by his experience of Jesus.  His view towards these people is to bring them back home; “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after his denial is definitive for the church; Jesus’ question wasn’t “why did you do deny me?  His question to Peter was, do you love me?  It is the same question our Lord asks of any who wander and long to return—do you love me? The Apostle James calls on the church as followers of Jesus to be a people who help those who wander from faith to find their way home.  There are many of our neighbours who have a memory of Sunday school; they do not now claim an active faith but had exposure to the gospel when they were young people.  Never underestimate the impact of a word you might offer of commending Jesus Christ.

I came across a short video entitled “Strangers” that explores the ongoing impact of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and his saving work in our lives; take a look. (video)

1.  Religiously speaking the Roman Empire of the first three centuries was pluralistic.  When Rome conquered a people they were generally content to let them have their religion as long as they added to their practises the religious observance of allegiance to Rome and its emperor. In this system those who would comply gained status as a legal religion.  The Jews, who would have no other gods but the Lord, had won an always-tenuous peace with Rome; though they refused the additional religious observance to Rome’s Emperor Judaism was granted legal status.  In the early days of the Church Rome regarded Christians as a sect of Judaism and therefore the church came under the banner of Judaism’s legal status.

As the church grew in the Gentile world the relationship between synagogue and church became strained.  In addition, Rome’s war with the Jews (68 – 72 A.D.) changed their status as far as Rome was concerned.  In the aftermath legal religious status for Christians evaporated; now regarded  illegal they became a target of persecution depending on the whim of the Emperor and local Roman governors. Christians, like the Jews, refused to offer worship to the Emperor and had no legal status to draw upon.

One of the challenges that the church had to deal with was the reinstatement of Christians who abandoned the church for fear of persecution.  Persecution would rise and abate depending on the attitude of Roman governors and during times when persecution abated some would seek to rejoin the church.  This was particularly acute in the early part of the fourth century when Christianity became a legal religion under Emperor Constantine.  Many in the church felt abandoned by those who left and did not think that those who wandered away should be allowed back.

When people drift away from the fellowship of a church we need to note that it is not always because they have abandoned faith in Jesus Christ; we need also remember that the church is the means Christ gave for sustaining us in the faith and to neglect this fellowship is not healthy for faith.  All those joined to Christ are joined to each other; we need each other in the walk of faith.  Those who have drifted away and those who remain need each other.  There is a loss we feel and those who remain can feel resentment towards those who have drifted away—we were the ones who kept things going and bore the responsibility.  On the other side those who drift away somehow think the church will just simply continue to exist for when they need it (weddings, funerals).

Friends, Jesus shows us the way; we are to be a people commending Christ and in that work be on the lookout for the wanderer to make it possible to come back home.  Come back and know that you are loved by Jesus and can rekindle your love for him.  It was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that the risen Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?”  Imagine what may have happened to Peter if the other disciples had made it clear that they really would prefer Peter to go away; he was such a disgrace.  Our attitude is to be people who facilitate re-acquaintance with Christ.

2. “Whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”  This was James’ concluding commendation to the church to be doers of the word of Christ.  Note that James considers the stakes to be very high; to bring back the wanderer is to “save the sinner’s soul from death”.  We read in Mark’s gospel of one of Jesus’ sayings that makes a similar claim with regard to the high stakes of faith.  “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Too often these kinds of warning have been read as if the author were shouting angrily.  It is true that James is serious, unquestionably, but he's also warm-hearted. After all, he uses the expression, “my brethren” or “my beloved brethren” or simply “brethren” fourteen times in his brief letter.  Jesus’ love for us is unquestionable; but a love that is true will warn the one loved of danger.

Sometimes our concern for people who have wandered is personal; we want our children and grandchildren to nurture faith in the One who is life.  James reminds us that “the prayer of the righteous (rightly related to God) is powerful and effective.  Commend your families to Christ in prayer; he loves them more than even you do and is unabated in his pursuit of them.

James declares that to bring a wanderer home is to “cover a multitude of sins.”  I think that he has Proverbs 10:12 in mind—“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offences.”  Please note that love does not say that offences are not offences.  Love, however, does look for a positive way forward.  Holding on to resentment puts a stumbling block in the path of the one who needs to come home; love is a well-lit, well-maintained pathway that leads home.

Sometimes we are afraid to go home; we have imagined that everyone there hates me or wants no more to do with me because I left home.  Small fissures have become, in our minds, wide cavernous unbridgeable divides; the person who drifts away believes the lie of the enemy that   they are now unwelcome at church.  We just need a friend to bring us home.

3. James writes “if any of you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another”.  Perhaps you hear these words and simply can’t imagine that you might drift or wander away; your faith feels so strong that it is at this moment unthinkable that it could be otherwise.  Are we immune to wandering?  At the meal in the upper room with Jesus Peter adamantly declared he would hang with Jesus no matter what came his way; within a few short hours and he was denying he ever met Jesus.  We need sustaining in the faith and the church is means ordained by Christ for this purpose.  We know in our experience of life that even our most intimate relationships need effort to sustain them; intimacy alone won’t carry them along.  So too our faith, which is ever weak even at the moments we think strong.

In Mitch Albom's book Have a Little Faith, he recounts the following conversation with his elderly rabbi: "When I was growing up in the Bronx," the Rabbi said, "everyone knew everyone. Our apartment building was like family. We watched out for one another. I remember once, as a boy, I was so hungry, and there was a fruit and a vegetable truck parked by our building. I tried to bump against it, so an apple would fall into my hands. That way it wouldn't feel like stealing. Suddenly, I heard a voice from above yelling at me in Yiddish, 'Albert, it is forbidden!' I jumped. I thought it was God."

Who was it? I asked. "A lady who lived upstairs." I laughed. Not quite God. "No. But, Mitch, we were part of each other's lives. If someone was about to slip, someone else could catch him."

In 1986 I gave up pastoral ministry due to an unhappy upheaval in my personal life (mostly self-inflicted).  I knew myself called to ministry yet in the crush of that brokenness I set it aside.  It was twelve years later that I returned to ministry.  I am so grateful for those along the way who played a pivotal role in facilitating a return to ministry; they each had this posture commended by the Apostle James to ever be pointing to the possibility for a return home.

4. When I read this phrase from the Apostle James’ pen—“whoever brings back a sinner from wandering”—I realize that it may sound strange among us.  We don’t talk this way today.  Words like “backsliding” and “evangelism” are rarely mentioned in our United Church faith lexicon.  The fact that Canada is a religiously pluralistic society is thought by some to preclude evangelism; some think it judgemental to suggest that faith in Jesus Christ might be preferable experience for human existence.

Evangelism is simply commending Jesus Christ to people; one beggar telling another where to find bread.   We are not locked in a competition for who has the best religion.  James speaks of the one who “wanders from the truth.” He means the truth that is Jesus Christ; we commend Jesus Christ in his truth.  Truth isn’t some commodity that exists apart from God by which we judge him to be correct.  Jesus said “I am the truth.”  In other words we don’t possess truth as if we have cornered it and say to the world we have figured out that Jesus told the truth.  We bear witness to him in his truth.

I know that is a bit philosophical so let me come at this another way.  Evangelism, as we noted, is one beggar telling another where to find bread.  The bread we tell people about is the Biblical bread called “salvation”.  The Christian message is that you find “salvation” through the experience of faith in Jesus Christ—a very particular kind of bread.  Too often we have thought of other religions using Christian categories.  I.e., we may ask of other religions wherein salvation lies.  Salvation is a Christian category; that humans need saving from sin is a Christian declaration; another religion may or may not say anything about these things.

I don’t know what other religions are saying you will find if you embrace them—or even if there is an idea in any particular religion’s thought that humanity needs something in particular and a person can find it in embracing what they say should be embraced.  We take our lead from the Apostles; in the religious pluralism that was their world they bore witness to Christ.

5.  Evangelism, welcoming the wanderer home; in all of this let me underscore the importance of the testimony of your personal experience of encounter with Jesus by faith.  When I was young I thought that faith could solve any problem; what I know in the maturity of life is that faith bears you up in the things that cannot be solved but must be borne.  Our testimony may sound simple—I am not sure how but week by week as I worship Christ I find myself sustained to face the things I must—but such testimony that commends Jesus is powerful.

The famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh wandered away from the truth imparted him in his Christian home and sank into depression and destruction.  By the grace of God, as he later began to embrace Christ again, his life took on hope, and he gave hope a colour. Yellow was that colour.  The re-emergence of faith in his life is seen in the gradual increase of the presence of the color yellow in his paintings.

Yellow evoked (for him) the hope and warmth of the truth of God's love. In one of his depressive periods, seen in his famous The Starry Night, one finds a yellow sun and yellow swirling stars, because van Gogh thought truth was present only in nature. Tragically, the church, which stands tall in this painting and should be the house of truth, is about the only item in the painting showing no traces of yellow. But by the time he painted The Raising of Lazarus, his life was on the mend as he began to face the truth about himself. The entire picture is (blindingly) bathed in yellow. In fact, van Gogh put his own face on Lazarus to express his own hope in the Resurrection.

Our testimony is simply painting the picture of our life with the colour Jesus puts in our lives.