By The Rev. Dr. Meredith Woods Potter
Purpose: to empower every member of St. Gregory’s Church for mission; drawing on James as written for people who had become complacent in how they were living their Christian lives, the sermon develops how worship helps us to live as missionaries.
I have a neighbor who shares her home-grown tomatoes, volunteers at her children’s school, is active in a number of civic organizations, participates in several fund-raising marathons, and reaches out to family and friends in many caring ways. She is often the first to arrive with a casserole when a friend or neighbor becomes ill. From everything I’ve observed, she is a devoted wife, a loving mother, and a thoughtful neighbor. But, I’ve never been able to engage her in a spiritual discussion; I’ve never been able to convince her to see God at work in her life. She absolutely insists that if there is an afterlife, and she’s not really convinced of that, she will be judged only by her “works” and not by her “faith” or lack thereof.
On one occasion when I tried to raise the question of faith, my neighbor was quick to quote Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the author John Bunyan suggested that on Judgment Day, we will not be asked “Did you believe?” but only “What did you do?” That attitude seems quite contrary to our Christian understanding of salvation, which the apostle Paul tells us, is a gift from God, not the result of our works. “By grace you have been saved through faith,” declares Paul.
This difference in understanding of the purpose of human life, this battle between “faith” and “works,” has raged almost since the formation of the Church. The controversy between “faith” and “works,” as raised in this morning’s lesson, reached a crescendo at the time of the Reformation and was instrumental in precipitating the split with the Catholic Church. It was during the rise of the Protestant movement that Martin Luther, enraged by what he thought the author of this morning’s lesson was implying, declared the Book of James,as a “Book of Straw” and even tried unsuccessfully – to get it removed from the new Protestant Bible. Does this morning’s reading run counter to our current understanding of Christian faith? Does James, its author, promote “works” at the expense of our “faith”? I think not, and here’s why.
James is addressing his lecture (and it really was much more of a lecture than a letter) to the early Jewish believers, who feeling emancipated from the laws of Moses, had often become somewhat complacent in how they were living their lives as Christians. They were “coasting” in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They were practicing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once referred to as “cheap grace.” They believed incorrectly that Christian faith was merely a matter of “profession”: what was important was what they said, not what they did. James wrote to correct those who were thus distorting Paul’s teaching. James was not promoting works as a means to salvation; James was not even suggesting that our works are penance for sin. James was talking about how to live the Christian life.
But today, I would like to take James’ teaching one step further. I would like to suggest that James was describing the “mission” of the Church. Historically, “mission” was considered the work of the Church. The Church sent missionaries abroad to spread the Gospel; the Church undertook outreach ministry. And the Church community supported such efforts with their prayers and money. That understanding still constitutes a very important part of the Church’s work today. It is the basis for our decision here at St. Gregory’s to tithe our operating budget, and how that tithe supports missionaries and outreach ministry is a very important work of our Missions Board. But the Church’s understanding of “mission” has become broader than only church-generated outreach ministries. We now understand “mission” to be God’s work, and each one of us is called to cooperate with God’s mission by becoming missionaries in our daily lives – by becoming what we in this congregation call “Ambassadors for Christ.” Our homes, our work places, our communities – are our mission fields. And that means that the primary work of the organized Church is to nurture and empower its members to mission. The church exists to help its members put their beliefs into action – to help you and me respond to our “faith” by our “works.” Worship, Christian formation, all our programs and activities are the means by which you and I receive training and support for our work as missionaries.
With that expanded understanding of “mission” let us look at how our gathering together this morning for worship carries out the function of empowering us for mission. Our opening hymn and prayers asked God to prepare our hearts and minds to be open to discern the work that God was giving each of us to do. And so next we listened to God’s word speaking to us in Holy Scripture, and we are now reflecting on that Word. Soon we will reaffirm our faith. We will assert our belief in God the father; our belief in God the son; our belief in God the Holy Spirit. James tells us that proclaiming our faith is the beginning, not the “be-all” and “end-all” of our lives as Christians. And so, having affirmed our faith, we will then be ready to receive our marching orders. In the Prayers of the People we hear and pray for the needs of the world, our community, our friends and loved ones. Those prayers identify our mission fields for each of us. The prayers help us discern the work God is calling us to do, and we seek God’s grace in helping us do that work. The Holy Communion nurtures and strengthens us for our mission. We gather at the altar, at the Lord’s table, to be re-charged and empowered to carry out God’s work in the world. It is here, as we kneel to receive Christ’s body and blood, that we receive the strength and courage to put our faith into action. Our worship this morning will end with our asking God to “send us out to do the work that you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” We pray that our faith will become visible in our lives and through the work that we do in Christ’s name. In that way each of us will demonstrate our faith to others, as James declared when he said, “I by my works will show you my faith.” After being blessed, we are sent forth by the deacon to begin the task: “to love and serve the Lord.”
Our worship together makes it clear that “works” are a natural outgrowth of our “faith.” Since our “works”are our response to our “faith,” works and faith cannot be separated from each other. That’s what James meant when he said, “faith without works is dead.” Think about how incomplete this worship service would be if we simply went home after reciting the Creed. And in the same way our faith is complete if it doesn’t result in our works. Conversely, works, standing alone without faith, are separated from God’s mission and hence cannot be expected to change the world. That’s the tragedy of my neighbor’s good intentions. That is also why it is important for you and me to recognize that our work in our homes and workplaces and schools and communities – our help to the poor and the hungry – our work for justice and peace, are all part of God’s mission. And so when we respond to faith in Jesus Christ with work for Jesus Christ we are working with God to change the world. Thanks be to God.