April 10, 2016 Sermon Titled: A Faith to See, Not Only to Hear About

First Mennonite Church

April 10, 2016

A Faith to See, Not Only to Hear About    

Text: James 2:14-26

Imagine you are riding in a bus full of people. Next to you is a woman who says she is a doctor and works for the CDC (Center for Disease Control). She asks you if you have heard of an unknown strain of virus found recently which is spreading very quickly. And with obvious worry in her face. She tells you there is no previous record of anything related to this virus. She tells you that the reason she has come to town is because she is checking with the county’s Public Health Department to see how well it is prepared to address the imminent arrival of this disease. When a diagnosis is made, the window of time for treatment is very small for the patient, she tells you.  The good news, she seems eager to tell you, is that a vaccine has been prepared for the virus and even more good news is that the vaccine is already in stock at local hospitals and health care centers. She seems determined to tell anyone who’s willing to hear her message.

As you listen to her, you eagerly wait for a break to ask a bugging question in your mind. Then you ask her if she has gotten her shot but she casually responds, “Nah!” Assuming she is not suicidal, you will likely conclude that she is not serious about what she just told you. Would you believe anything else she might want to tell you? Probably not!

When it comes to religion or faith, why don’t people take us seriously? Sometimes they listen to what we have to say but only out of respect. Why do people take faith matters so lightly?

The great American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, sometimes known as “the father of pragmatism” when dealing with the issue of making our ideas clear, wrote:

And what, then, is belief? First, it is something that we are aware of;

second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit.

The essence of belief is the establishment of a rule of action or habit . . . . [1]

According to Pierce, a belief has the power to move us into a given direction or to cause us to live in a certain way. Every belief becomes a rule of action. A belief creates in us a certain habit. If we believe that good dental hygiene is not only good for a great smile but also for the heart, we develop the habit of brushing and flossing our teeth daily. The casual approach to the news of an unknown virus by the CDC doctor revealed she did not believe it was true or at least it was not as serious as she seemed to portray it.

Charles S. Pierce captured the essence of James’ statement. Faith without deeds is dead, affirms James. It is of great importance for us to take notice that James is not saying that faith is not enough. James is not calling for deeds to complement or supplement faith. What James does say is that faith moves to action. If you see your brother or sister in need of food, you don’t just say, “Eat your fill, sister, and God bless you.” For James, it is impossible to believe in God, a God who is always seeking the wellbeing of others, and not act in a God-like manner. The God in whom we confess to have faith goes far beyond what any human would go to provide for our deepest needs.

Hear again what James says:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

What James is pointing out is that anyone who claims to have faith in God and yet does not reflect God’s character in life is simply contradicting him/herself. Claiming to have faith and yet not making the choices in life congruent with the claim is like calling a corpse a living being although it does not have heartbeat or brain activity.

The greatest challenge Christians have is not that they are not believing the right stuff. The challenge we have is not that we lack enough knowledge of the holy book. The greatest challenge Christians have in convincing a skeptical society is that our life-choices, our attitude toward life, personal goals are often incongruent with the Christ we confess to believe in. Very often the convictions we say we hold are not visible in the way we live. Christians spend their money on the same things non-Christians do. Christians dedicate their time to the same things the world does. Our priorities are basically the same as those who do not confess Jesus as Lord. The only difference is that we come to church on Sunday.

This is not a new problem for the followers of Jesus. In Luke 6:46, Jesus rebuked his followers for this very same reason. There he told them, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say”?  A confession of faith in Christ that does not have a heartbeat in the way of obedience is as dead as a body without a pulse or brain activity. A confession of faith in Christ that does not move us to follow in his footsteps is a dead confession of faith. A confession of faith in Jesus that does not act in the way Jesus acted is dead. That is what James is talking about.

You remember the story in Mark 2:1-5 where Jesus was inside a house and the crowd had not only filled the inside of the house but was also crowded around it. There were some men who wanted Jesus to heal their friend. They acted on the belief that if only his friend could get a chance to be face to face with Jesus, he would be healed. They carried the man on a sheet of cloth and broke the roof of the house where Jesus was and then lowered their friend from the hole in the roof. Belief is a rule of action. Faith is visible by the way we live. Faith in Jesus is costly. Faith in Jesus is demanding and involving. The men in this story knew and loved someone who was sick. They worked out a plan together. They found the necessary tools to do what was needed to be done. They, in broad daylight, did what might have been seen as foolish. They got in trouble with the neighbor, possibly. Nobody likes to have the roof over his or her heads torn apart, not by falling branches and much less by other people. And when everything was said and done, they had to repair the roof they cut open. They did all that because they believed Jesus was going to heal their sick and helpless friend. They acted on their faith.

Why is there a prevalent inactive faith?

So where does the problem lie? We have misinterpreted Paul’s words about grace and grace alone for salvation. Contrary to a passive faith, Paul demonstrated an active faith. He risked it all for the sake of the Gospel. He taught love above all things. He urged a Christ-like practice on forgiveness, sacrificial love, generosity, and loving care for the needy. In short, Paul’s faith and grace were visible, active and alive in the heart of the Christian communities he planted and gave pastoral care to. Paul demonstrated his faith in Christ through unwavering obedience. Paul remained in God’s grace by upholding his covenant with the Christ who called him. Paul challenged the communities he planted to do the same. He invited his Christian friends to remain in the faith:

if we are faithless, (If we do not abide by the commitment we made with Christ)
he remains faithful, (He remains committed in the covenant he entered in with us)
for he cannot disown himself ((2Timothy 2:13).

The problem that has caused us to have an inactive faith is the wrong understanding we have of grace and faith in Jesus. For many Christians, faith in Jesus is something acquired when they prayed the “sinner’s payer.” For many, having prayed the “sinner’s prayer” makes them believe that is all there is to having faith in Jesus. It is a past experience. It is by grace; thus, it is free. And indeed there was nothing you or I could do or give God to receive his grace. But the grace God offered us is within a covenant to continue living with him and for him in the context of his people.

Let me bring back the comparison of faith with marriage. Almost two weeks ago Lilian and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary. And I said two Sundays ago that I am grateful to God for Lilian. She loves me and I love her. Yet, each of us has been committed to the other every day for these 20 years. When I am sick, as I was last week, Lilian cared for me because she loves me. What would a marriage look like if when one of the parties says, “I am sick,” the other one says, “That is fine with me, but you know I care for you. You should know that I promised to love and cherish you in sickness and in health when I married you. You know I promised you that,” but then she or he does nothing to show that indeed he or she is committed to the other.

For many faith is something they received like an acquired contract in the past. Along with faith came a dose of biblical truths they were taught. These biblical truths were just enough to get them acquainted with the Bible and to help them with the basics of religion. Faith in Jesus for many is a matter of a past experience, not a daily commitment.

Next Sunday I will talk about how our beliefs and the way we view the Bible can be obstacles to having a committed and active faith.

For now let me close with the words of James and a brief comment on them.

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

Believing in God and having faith in Christ are good things to have. But James reminds us that the demons also believe and they even shudder, which we do not. You see, the devil knows and believes there is a God and that Jesus is the Son of God. But the devil cannot enter into a covenant with God. We can. We have been invited to enter into the new covenant of Jesus through his death. But our faith must be accompanied by actions, just as was Abraham’s faith. He obeyed. It was heart wrenching what he had to do. Yet, Abraham trusted God that even if he (Abraham) offered his son in sacrifice, God will somehow find a way in which he will give Abraham children like the dust of the earth or as numerous as the stars of the heavens. Faith is a living commitment with the Living Christ in the midst of his people.

God calls us to enter into the new covenant in his Son. In a covenant both parties are bound to abide by the agreement they made. Christ has done everything there was on his side to fulfill. It is upon us to fulfill the other side of this commitment. Faith is this covenant. Faith without visible display of a Christ-like life is dead. Faith with a Christ-like way of life is the most compelling witness we can give the world. Let your faith be seen, not only heard about. Amen!

[1] Charles S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear: Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878), 286-302 (www://courses.media.mit.edu/2004spring/mas966/Peirce)