First Mennonite Church
May 9, 2021
We Are Called to Follow, Not Simply to Believe
In a way, the proposition of my sermon last Sunday was to relocate ourselves from the world we knew, (not that it was any better) to new reality and context of the church today. We are aliens and strangers in this world. As such, we recognize not only the difference there is between us and the world, but even the vast contrast there is. Our values and principles are not compatible with those of the world and vice versa. Yet, this is the place God has called us to give witness of our heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20). In that regard, God has given us a unique privilege, which is to make known his light in this place of darkness. It is an opportunity God is giving us to be his caring hands in a world of indifference. To us has been given a space where God’s reign, even as little as a mustard seed, can grows and becomes a place of shelter, a refuge to the weary. God’s people have been placed as a lighthouse to those adrift the raging sea. The Christian church is a beckon of hope to a hopeless world.
So the question for us today is, how do we begin, not only to settle in this new foreign land, but to thrive as God’s ambassadors?
We begin by reassessing the bases of our relationship with Christ who has called us. Fundamental for any relationship to thrive is clear understanding of the level and implication of the commitment there is between the parties. For example, employer and employee’s relationship is spelled in a contract. The boss should not call the employee after working hours. The employee must know and abide by the rules of the workplace.
Marriage is a covenant for life, which means a married couple is set for a life-long relationship. With that in mind, whatever each of the couple does, it should be done to strengthen and secure their relationship. In the case of our Christian calling, we can only live worthy of our calling if we know the basis of our relationship with the one who has called us. Hence, let us make a historical review of how Christians have understood their relationship with God.
Last Sunday, during the Sunday school class, Bud made mention of the significance Martin Luther’s discovery of faith, as the grounds for human and divine relationship. During Luther’s time, the weight of the demand of the Imperial church, the Roman Catholic Church, was very heavy. Obedience and absolute compliance to all the codes of the Roman Church were a heavy burden on every citizen within the Holy Roman Empire and that not to mention the economic burden and the prevalent corruption were there too. Luther’s father had wanted his first born to become a lawyer. But soon after enrolling at the University of Erfurt, Luther abandoned his studies. He said that reason cannot lead man to God and that philosophy is unsatisfying. One day while returning to the university on horseback after a home visit, Luther was caught in a rainstorm and a lightning bolt stroke close to him. Luther not only prayed for safety for the rest of his journey, but also promised God he would become a monk. On July 17, 1505, Martin entered the St. Augustin Monastery. His father was very angry that Martin did not continue his law studies. But even after becoming a priest, Martin’s sense of guilt never left him. He thought God was angry at him. So, he frequented the confessional, but as he said, even before he exited the church more sins had come to his mind that he had to return to confess again. Martin found that according to the Catholic teaching, pleasing God by obeying all the rules of the church and complying with all the demands was impossible.
Martin’s fight with guilt ended on the day he found what Paul writes in Romans one, verse 17. “The righteous will live by faith.”
Luther’s sola fide, faith alone, view that salvation comes by faith and is by grace was a major discovery for Luther. He was so forceful about this view of salvation that he rejected the letter of James, in NT because it called for works. He called James, the letter of straw, because it says, “A faith without works is dead,” says James (2:26). Luther’s view about salvation and relationship with God became the core belief of millions, ever since. Only faith is needed in order to be saved. Believing is all that is needed.
In the blue song book, there are two songs about trusting and believing in God. “Only Trust” and “Only Believe” are the titles of these songs. The first one in particular, emphasizes the idea of faith alone. Faith trumps everything.
Only trust Him, only trust him, only trust, Him, now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you, now.
Luther’s emphasis on faith alone for salvation and to be in right standing before God was also taken by other Protestant movements during the reformation period in the sixteenth century. Faith trumps and diminishes actions as part of the Christian response to Christ. This idea that having faith or believing in Jesus Christ is the most important part of the Christian relationship with God became pervasive in the populist Protestantism here in the US. Ordinary actions as part of the Christians’ response to God for salvation fall from being a priority. That led to a Christianity that was more focused on believing the right doctrines than the imitation of Jesus by following his example. Faith became an inner and private spiritual experience rather than an outward and public witness of Christ’s presence in the world. The Christian life was one of believing only.
A pastor tells the story of what happened one day he went to a wedding rehearsal dinner. As he sat around one of the tables that night, a young couple plunged into a detailed conversation with him about their love story, their active sexual life, and the preferred drug they use. They are not married yet, they admitted, without qualms. Then they asked him what he did for a living. He told who he was and that he was going to officiate the wedding the following day. Shocked, but undaunted, they interjected right away, “Oh, we believe in Jesus, too! And that’s all that really matters, right?”
This couple was reflecting the common misunderstanding in the church that belief is evidence of grace. It is a mistake to believe that by saying we believe in Jesus we can rest assure of having everything that really matters before God. James says that even the demons believe in God and they tremble. Often times when people say they “believe” they mean to say, “we are not trusting in ourselves.”
However, this misunderstanding about believing only, erodes the value of Christian service, love, of working out our salvation “with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). It nullifies the call we have of “discerning what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:2). This mantra of believing only reduces godliness, compassion, acts of mercy, and the pursuit of justice as mere add-ons to Christian life. The mantra of believing only is exactly what James tried to correct:
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 (James 2:14-17).
Jesus was the perfect model of what James says. Thus, his invitation to Peter, James, John and the others was not “believe in me,” but rather, “follow me.” That means that if we are going to pursue our call, we trust and follow Jesus. Following Jesus is an act of trust and obedience. And obedience certainly becomes the demonstration in life—behavior and motives, that we are indeed following Jesus. It is true that we are not saved by our actions, but we are saved to become the hands of mercy of Jesus, the heart from which compassion flows, and the visible and palpable presence of God in this world.
With this goal in mind, where do we start? Jesus prayed to the Father. If Jesus felt the need to keep a close relationship with the Father and he did so through prayer, I believe we have an even greater need to follow his step. Jesus’ intimate relationship with his Father through prayer was reflected in the words Jesus said and the things he did. Jesus said that the words he spoke and the deeds he performed came from the Father who lived in him (John 14:10).
When we seek God in prayer the Spirit of God unifies the inner life with the outer life. The Christian life that gives primacy to believing only puts greater emphasis on the inner spiritual life. It sounds really attractive and desirable. But this kind of spirituality is not the kind Jesus practiced. From the early times of the Christian church, Gnosticism became a major problem. Gnostics emphasized the spiritual over the material, knowledge over concrete expressions of piety, the inner experience over outer expressions of devotion. That is why prayer is important. When we seek to know the will of God—what is good, acceptable and perfect, as Paul says in Romans, the Holy Spirit unifies the inner life with the outer, that is, God produces in us not only the desire to obey him, but he actually gives us the strength and boldness to act concretely. Your concern for others will move you to act on their behalf. Pity for those who suffer is turned into concrete acts of mercy and compassion. The Holy Spirit will move you from feelings to actions.
In your prayer time surrender yourself to God. Offer yourself to his service. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to the opportunities he will put before you each day. It might be that of simply giving a word of encouragement to someone who is going through a difficult time. It could be by reaching out to a friend you have not heard from recently. There are brothers and sisters who cannot come to church, reach out to them. Give them a call. Offer to pray for someone you is ill or is taking care for someone who is ill. Be the presence of God by praying with someone in need of God comfort. Do not be bashful about that. I have prayed with many people in their homes or over the phone, but the other day, I did while I was on the street. Someone called me after having received terrible news from their loved ones. Not far from where I stood to pray, there was a gentleman in his truck watching what I was doing. Christians should not be ashamed of pray anywhere, if there is need.
These days the pantry our church supports with food items is not receiving donations, but once it starts again, let us continue giving to those who get food there.
If you know someone who suffers violence, domestic, institutional, or other kinds, pray for a change of heart for the abuser and for healing for the survivor.
In prayer, our heart becomes fine-tuned to hear the voice of God. In prayer our eyes are opened to see beyond what we are used to see. But more importantly, prayer transforms our faith, our belief into actions. We are called to follow Jesus, the incarnate God, not only to believe in him. Amen!