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Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?

Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/15/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: James 2:14-26 & Romans 4:1-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I feel really lucky to be preaching today. We’re in the middle of our sermon series on James, and I get the passage that is maybe the most memorable out of the entire letter: “Faith without works is dead.”

In this passage, James says it’s not enough just to believe in God. We need to follow him, become like him. Real faith looks like action: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.

But what’s really interesting is that a lot of Christians, now and throughout history, have not agreed with James’ view of faith. A common belief throughout Christian history – perhaps even the predominant one in many times and places – has been the idea that pure faith is the only way that human beings can find relationship with God. Because of our human sinfulness, they argue that we are totally incapable of doing anything righteous. We are so lost, so mired in sin, that the only hope we have is to have faith in a God we can never understand, and a kingdom that we can never truly enter this side of death.

Christians who have this view of sin, faith, and righteousness, tend to be really big fans of Paul’s letter to the Romans. That’s not surprising. Paul takes a deep dive into some really deep and mysterious theological questions in this letter. He spends a lot of time reflecting on the law, sin, and what it means to be a righteous person. Romans is a fascinating letter, and well worth our attention.

Given how important and influential Paul’s letter to the Romans is, I thought it was worth reading together with today’s passage from James. Paul and James seem to have such divergent views on what it means to have faith, and the role that works play in this whole process of salvation.

Before we get to Paul, though, let’s just walk through James for a minute – make sure we understand what he has to say. Our passage today starts with this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This passage really convicts me. I work near the White House, and after I drop George off at daycare, I walk through Chinatown and most of downtown before arriving at my office. On my walk to work, I pass a lot of homeless people. Some of them are just hanging out, doing their own thing. But some are usually panhandling, asking for money. Most days, I get asked for money at least once.

I usually don’t give them anything.

I don’t have any legit excuse for this behavior. Jesus says pretty clearly in the gospel accounts that we should give freely to everyone who asks of us. It doesn’t speak well of my faith in Jesus that I don’t even manage to follow his clear and basic teachings.

I know I should do better, but the truth is, much of the time, my faith in Jesus is outweighed by my desire for comfort. I don’t want to have that awkward interaction with a person I don’t know, asking me for money. I don’t want to stop in the middle of my commute and get pulled into someone else’s life. I don’t want to give some stranger my money. But most importantly of all, I don’t want to be drawn into an interaction that makes me feel nervous, guilty, or diverted from my goals for the day.

And that’s OK. That’s pretty human. But it doesn’t exactly scream, “follower of Jesus,” does it? How much faith can I really have in Jesus if I don’t even stop to give change to a beggar?

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

I can believe in Jesus all the live-long day. I can believe that he healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor, and triumphed over death. I can believe these things as historical facts. And James says, “that’s all well and good – but the evil spirits believe all those things, too. You’re still in the realm of facts. That’s not the stuff of faith.”

Real faith, for James, involves doing something about it. Faith in the Lord Jesus is powerful. He raises us from the dead. Any life that is being touched by his is going to be radiant. Faith in Jesus changes a person. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

As James goes on, and he uses the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab to show us what he means when he talks about the kind of faith that brings life:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I think this just about sums up James’ view on what it means to live a faith-filled life. Faith is brought to completion by works. Faith is the seed, but works are the necessary flower. Without the growth of the flower, the seed has no meaning.

Now what’s really interesting for me here is that James and Paul use the exact same example to make what appear at first glance to be contradictory arguments about faith. James points to Abraham as an exemplar of faithful works. He notes the phrase from Genesis, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” From this, James concludes that Abraham was such a faithful person in his works, that he was called a friend of God.

Paul takes a different view on the relationship between faith and works. And what’s fascinating to me is that he uses the exact same example from scripture to make his point. Like James, Paul zeros in on Abraham as being an exemplar of faithfulness. But listen to where he goes with this, starting with the same phrase that is the crux of James’ argument:

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Paul is saying here that is that Abraham’s righteousness is itself a gift from God. Abraham didn’t earn it through his actions. He was without works, but God “reckoned his faith as righteousness.” Abraham was righteous because God said he was righteous. According to Paul, it wasn’t works that saved Abraham – it was trust in God.

For those of us who grew up in traditions that told us that every word of scripture is dictated by God and divinely guaranteed for its accuracy, this presents a conundrum. It seems like James and Paul are in disagreement here. Which is it? Is faith only real when expressed through works, or are we saved through faith alone, without works?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to look at what James and Paul meant by “works.” Because while I do think these two men were in general agreement about what the word “faith” means, I would argue that they have very different definitions of works.

For James, his entire discourse is immersed in this idea of works being based in mercy, social justice, and acts of risk-taking to express the love of God. In the case of Abraham, the example of works that James holds out is his willingness to sacrifice his only, beloved son. Abraham was willing to take real, tangible risks for God. His trust made him able to sacrifice the things – and even the people – that meant the most to him.

I don’t think anyone thinks that human sacrifice would be an example of good works, but the fact that Abraham was willing to give up everything for God demonstrates how much more powerful his faith was than mine. I know I don’t have the strength to sacrifice one of my children for God. Most of the time I can’t even muster the strength to stop and open my life up to panhandlers on my commute through downtown. This road of uncomfortable faithfulness is what James calls me to when he says that “faith without works is dead.”

Paul’s vision of works is different. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is singularly fixated on the Jewish law. He’s doing theological reflection on what the law means to him, to Christians, and to the Jewish people. He’s taking a look at religious ritual and trying to make sense of what role it should play for the followers of Jesus.

Above all other aspects of the Jewish law, one that was most concerning for the early church was the rite of circumcision. For Jews, it was required of all men. For most pagans – and for Christians who had once been pagans – it was a painful form of genital mutilation. Honestly, how many gentile converts to Christianity would there have been if the price of admission had been cutting off part of your penis?

The early church was wrestling with this. Paul, above all, as an apostle to the gentiles, was digging deep to understand what really mattered in the life of faith. Was circumcision an essential matter that the church had to stand firm on, or was it an optional rite that some could take part in and others didn’t need to?

In this context – in the midst of all these thoughts about the law, the gentiles, and the Jewish people – Paul writes about the relationship of faith and works. And what a difference that context makes! Unlike James, Paul views works as a secondary matter. The crucial thing is to believe God, trust God, have faith in God. Everything else flows from that. Works – religious rituals – are at best a reflection of faith. Not strictly necessary.

When Paul talks about works, he’s not talking about the same thing James is. There’s no mention of social justice – care for the poor, the weak, the elderly. For Paul, who is thinking very deeply about Jewish/Christian tradition and liturgy, the “works” being referred to is the keeping of religious traditions and observances.

When Paul talks about “righteousness apart from works,” it’s proper to understand works as referring to things like circumcision, wedding ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday-morning worship, water baptism, hymn singing. These kinds of religious observances and rituals may serve a positive purpose. They may build us up and bind us together. They can help provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our community and our religious traditions. But these works are incapable of saving us. Without faith, they are empty and dead.

When you start to consider the context out of which both James and Paul are writing, their different views on faith versus works start to make sense. It’s true that faith is dead without the works of justice and mercy. It’s also true that the works of religious rites, ceremonies, and seasons are dead and useless without the power of faith to animate and redeem them.

Faith without works of righteousness is dead. The works of human religion are empty and without meaning in the absence of faith. True faith is demonstrated by acts of justice and repentance, not ritual and adherence to tradition.

So what does this mean for us? What does faith mean in our community? Do we believe God? Are we open to the ways he reveals himself to us every day? Do we believe Jesus? Do we believe him when he teaches us, through the written words of scripture and the living word of his resurrected presence? Do we believe the Holy Spirit when she speaks in our hearts?

If we do believe – if we believe God and our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness – what do those works of righteousness look like? Are we more focused on the religious works that Paul talks about – our worships and conferences and baptisms and songs? Modern day circumcision. Ways to remind ourselves that we want to follow Jesus, maybe. But not enough to save us.

Where are the works of righteousness that James talks about, the works without which our faith is dead? Maybe it’s time for me to start stopping and interacting with people who ask me for money. Maybe it’s time for me to start questioning the way I interact with the money economy altogether. Certainly, it’s time for all of us to follow the clear commands of Jesus and the witness of the early church. To care for the poor and marginalized, turn away from greed and selfish pleasure, and turn our lives towards those in need all around us. These are the works that our faith can’t live without.

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Works Versus Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What’s Real?

With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What’s Real?

With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What's Real?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/1/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: James 1:19-27 & Philippians 2:1-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

I know anger very well. It’s my primary emotion, the feeling that comes most easily in any given day. Anger can be very useful. It flags when something is going wrong. When there is injustice, disorder in a relationship, a situation that should not be allowed to continue – anger identifies it immediately. At its best, anger is that trusted friend who tells you, “you don’t have to put up with that!”

It’s interesting to me how often people – perhaps especially Christians – demonize anger. I’ve heard people say that anger is destructive, corrosive, unhelpful – a sin! But I’ve always known that can’t be true. That can’t be the whole story. How could something that God made such an important part of my personality be without any good purpose? Both the Old and New Testaments speak frequently of God’s righteous anger. The gospels say Jesus got angry. How could an emotion that Jesus himself experienced be sinful?

Anger isn’t sinful, but it certainly is dangerous. The most powerful and important things often have the most potential for misuse and destruction. Anger is such a powerful emotion that the authors of the Bible are very interested in its right use. Like sex, anger is not something to be taken lightly. The authors of scripture warn us not to be promiscuous in our anger. As the author of James reminds us this morning, we are not called to be without anger. But we are called to be quick to listen and slow to anger.

Why do we need to be so careful with anger? What is it about anger that makes it so dangerous? Strange as it may sound, anger is one of humanity’s most God-like characteristics. God is truly powerful, a world-shaking Spirit – and anger is about power. Anger is about changing the things that are out of order in the world. The God-given purpose of anger is to cause disruption that clears space for new life, new order, greater wholeness in the world.

That sounds great to me. I’d like to let my anger rage, so I can clear out lots of space to remake the world as I think it should be. And therein lies the danger. Unlike God, the same things that are wrong with the world are also wrong with me. When my anger focuses outward, I may make some changes, I may clear out a space for a new order. But I’m liable to fill that space with the same old brokenness and sin that I carry inside myself. So often, my fallen nature uses anger to create not the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of my ego.

This is why the author of James exhorts us: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” He says that our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Anger that emerges out of my own selfish will cannot produce godly results.

What is the alternative to this ego-driven anger? How we place God at the center of our lives, rather than our raw will to power expressed through self-centered anger? James tells us that the first step is to turn inward, to rid ourselves of the wickedness and self-will that draws us into unhealthy anger.

So how do we do this? James knows that it’s impossible for us to cure ourselves from sin and spiritual blindness, from the anger that destroys life rather than healing it. The solution, says James, is not any reliance on our own strength or abilities. Quite the opposite. Instead, we are to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls.”

What is this “implanted word” that James talks about? It’s what the author of Second Peter refers to when he says that “we have a more sure word of prophecy, which you do well to heed, as to a light shining in a dark place.” The implanted word of God, the word of God within, is the Spirit of Jesus. It is the Spirit that inspired the authors of the Bible, the Spirit that created the world. This same Spirit is available within each one of us. We have direct access to God’s teaching. James reminds us that this indwelling Spirit will guide us into all truth, if we will wait on her and listen with meekness.

Hearing the word of God is not simply a matter of reading the words of the Bible. The scriptures are a vital resource for us as Christians, but they are not sufficient to bring about our salvation and transformation into new life. The Bible can’t make us followers of Jesus. Only this “implanted word”, the living presence of Jesus in our lives, can accomplish that. We have to obey the command of God, which he gave us on the day of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan: “This is my son, the beloved – listen to him!”

As James goes on, he reminds us that listening to Jesus, listening to the implanted word of God, involves more than just hearing. He says:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

It’s easy to hear the word. So many of us have heard the word of God, both through the teaching of the church and through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But a huge number of Christians throughout history and to this day have rejected the word of God and chosen our own way. This is how you end up with Christian crosses carried by crusaders and conquistadors. That’s how so many of us, myself included, end up calling ourselves Christians and going to church, while struggling to obey most of what Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount.

We’re doing a lot of hearing. But are we listening? Are we doers of the word?

James tells us that when we choose to hear but not obey, we aren’t just being naughty. We aren’t even merely separating ourselves from God. When we fail to act on the message that we are hearing from God, we risk losing our most fundamental identity.

When we hear God’s word for us and fail to act, James says that we suffer a sort of spiritual amnesia in which we forget who we are. It’s like we’ve seen ourselves in the mirror, but then turn away from our reflection and can’t even remember what we look like. Paradoxically, when we choose our own way rather than listening to God, we are actually lead away from ourselves. When we turn away from our true identity in Christ, there’s nothing left for us but blind groping in the darkness and destructive anger.

So, let’s say we actually do manage to not just hear Jesus, but to listen. What does it look like when we are doers of the word? James is always practical, and he gives us a pretty straightforward answer to this question:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

What can we take away from this last passage of our reading from James? First of all, those who are doers of the word demonstrate it through lives of self-control. When we are doers of the word, there’s no room in our lives for the ego-driven anger that James warns against. This kind of damaging, godless anger comes out most frequently through hateful words and hurtful speech.

This speaks to my condition. I like to talk, and I have a pretty loose tongue. If I’m not careful, I can say things that are hurtful to other people without even really thinking about it. I see myself as being a straightforward and honest person, but a lack of care and self-discipline is not the same thing as truthfulness. James challenges us to embrace self-discipline in all aspects of our lives, including our speech.

But talking a good game isn’t enough to make us doers of the word. In addition to bridling our tongues, James says that real religion consists of two things: simple acts of tangible compassion, and separation from the wickedness and confusion of the world.

James is pretty explicit in his instructions here. If we are to be doers of the words, we are to “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” When James says we’re to care for orphans and widows, he means this literally.

In the ancient world, just like in many places today, women who lost their husbands and children without parents were the most vulnerable members of society. Both women without husbands and children without parents had no means of social support, no place to plug into the family structure that gave meaning to life. Widows and orphaned children were often desperate, destitute, and reduced to begging or prostitution.

When we are doers of the word, we will care for those who are the most needy, of the lowest status, and least able to pay us back. This is in keeping with the teaching of Jesus, who says in Luke 14, “…When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

To be doers of the word is to utterly defy the rules of our capitalist economy. The world we live in rewards us for meeting the needs of those who have money to pay and honor to bestow. But Jesus calls us to turn our attention to those whose need is greatest, even when they have nothing to offer us in return. When we become doers of the word, we encounter God in meekness and let selfish anger give way to self-giving love.

So, the other passage we heard this morning was from Philippians 2:1-13, in which Paul describes Jesus’ humility, the way that the living Word of God became a human being. He took on all of our limitations. Jesus embraced the lowest position in society. The Word of God, the one through whom all things were created, should rightfully have reigned as king of the world. Instead, he took on the form of a slave. He suffered torture, shame, and death on a cross. He went as low as a human being can possibly go.

In his ministry on earth, Jesus was the ultimate doer of the word. He demonstrates for us what it looks like when a human life is entirely in sync with God’s will. And it doesn’t look pretty. It doesn’t look glorious. It doesn’t involve “so much winning that you get tired of winning.” As doers of the word, our way is the cross of Jesus. It is the path of downward mobility, emptiness, and renunciation. It is the life of poverty and surrender, with no room for any anger but the true righteous anger of God that brings healing to the nations.

But as James reminds us, we can’t get there on our own. We can’t be doers of the word without listening first. We’ve got to humble ourselves. We’ve got to abandon our own hopes, fears, and ambitions, and listen within for the living word of God. This life and power is implanted within us. This Spirit has the ability to save and transform us. If we’ll get still and welcome it with meekness.

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Works Vs Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

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Works Versus Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Works Versus Faith? You're Asking the Wrong Question
Which is more important – works or faith? Christian leaders and theologians have been fighting over this question since the beginning of the church.

Even in the pages of the New Testament, you find an intense conversation about the role of faith versus works. The Book of James seems to argue for the supremacy of works as the path to being in right relationship with God. Paul in his epistle to the Romans makes a strong case that faith, not works, is the foundation of life with God.

Why would the apostles hold such diverse views of what it means to live in faith? How could the early church lift up writings that seem to contradict themselves on this subject? Which is the true path to God – works or faith?

There must be something deeper going on here. Contrary to the opinion of some skeptics, the Bible is not riddled with contradictions. Not when it comes to substantive matters of faith and morals. However, it can often seem that way at first glance, because the witness of scripture is rich with paradox.

The core paradox of the Christian faith is that God is at once utterly transcendent and overwhelmingly powerful, yet he took on the form of a slave, suffering shame, agony, and death. The eternal Word of God, through whom the world was created, became a weak and helpless baby, and was nailed to a cross by sinful men. These two truths, as outrageously contradictory as they seem, are at the heart of the gospel.

These things don’t make rational sense. It’s the kind of truth I have to accept in order to understand. This kind of truth requires humility and submission to God. To receive it, I’m forced to abandon my own defenses and rational arguments. I’m forced to recognize that God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts.

All this makes me wonder if the apparent contradiction between works and faith might be a similar divine paradox. What if faith without works really is dead, and good works without faith are hollow and sterile? Alternatively, could it be that neither “faith” (in the sense of right belief) nor good works (in the sense of right action) are sufficient for life in the kingdom?

Can someone to believe all the right things and do all the right actions, and still be lost? On the other hand, what if someone believes all sorts of wrong things and acts wrongly on a regular basis, but still finds themself walking in the way of Jesus?

In my experience, this happens. All the time.

Rather than pitting faith against works, it may be better to think of them as two sides of the same coin. Both works and faith point to something deeper.

I think that the story that best illustrates the holy center that animates both works and faith is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee held all the right beliefs. He also did good works – even tithing a tenth of his income. But he lacked all humility, all real trust in God. He thought that through his beliefs and his works that he had God figured out.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knew that he had neither works nor faith. His job was rooted in extortion and collaboration with foreign occupiers. His faith was limited to coming to the Temple and asking God for mercy, knowing that he didn’t measure up in any way.

Yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God, not the pious Pharisee. The tax collector had something that the Pharisee, with all his orthodox beliefs and righteous actions, did not. The tax collector demonstrated sincerity of intention. Despite his lack of works or faith, his heart was aligned towards God. He wanted to know God, to draw closer to him. He longed for God’s mercy, and was acutely aware of his need for God.

God readily moves into this broken space of humility. When we become aware of our need for grace and mercy, the Spirit intervenes. Our lives are filled with energy for good works. Our hearts are opened to faith. Sincerity of intention before God opens up the possibility of both faith and works. Through our living relationship with God, we discover the way of Jesus.

This is a liberating realization for me, because it means that I don’t have to fret about belief or actions. Instead, I can focus on opening my life to God and seeking him with sincerity and a willingness to change. He will give me faith I need, and he will direct me in all good works.

What is your experience of faith, works, and the role that God plays in both? Has God given you the gift of faith? Has he directed you to do right actions? Have faith or works seemed more important to you at one point in your life or another? What have you found to be the source of them both?

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How Can I Ever Measure Up?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?
Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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Is Your “Justice” Just Revenge?

Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?

Is Your "Justice" Really Just Revenge?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15 & Romans 12:9-21 & Matthew 16:21-28. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

They say that to achieve mastery in something, you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. You’d think that after spending more than a decade learning about God, going to seminary, doing ministry out in the world, and trying really hard to follow Jesus – you’d think after all that, I’d have more than 10,000 hours of practice put in. You’d think I’d be good at this by now.

But for me, the process of discipleship, of becoming a follower of Jesus, has been all backwards from what I expected it would be. As funny as it sounds, I think that I peaked, as a Christian, a few months after I decided that I could be one. In a way, it’s all been downhill from there.

When I first became a Christian, I was super excited about everything. I thought that my generation was going to change the world. I was sure that my ministry was going to be really impactful and important. I felt the power of God in my life, and I assumed that this meant that I was on the right path. I didn’t really take into account the stories I was reading in the Bible about how God often shows up in the most desperate of times, when things are at their worst.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve been going through a process of continually realizing that I’m way less awesome than I thought. The further I get down this path, the more I realize that not only is the world not the way I’d like it to be; I myself am not in the condition that God created me for. I’ve got anger issues. I’ve got selfishness issues. I’ve got all kinds of problems with my character and my behavior. And every time I see those traits in others, it’s a reminder that they’re present in me, too.

It’s amazing how much is hidden from us. It’s like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, but much harder to notice the log that’s stuck in my own eye! This is one of the most powerful things that the Holy Spirit can do for us. She exposes our selves to us. She shines light in the dark places where we don’t want to look. All those selfish, hateful, fearful tendencies that we hide beneath layers of excuses, justifications, and imaginary virtue. The Spirit has the power to cut right through that. If we’ll let her.

I knew, during my first week at seminary, that there were deep, dark places of my soul that I wasn’t even ready to look at yet. The Spirit was revealing them one piece at a time, at a pace I could handle. Years later, I know that this is still true. So much of my psyche – my subconscious will and motivations – lies like an iceberg beneath the surface.

I’ve got all sorts of hidden ice inside me that gets in the way of following Jesus. Of being fully human. Of completely giving myself over to God and allowing him to guide my life. One of the biggest of these submerged blockages is my instinctive need for vengeance.

I like to call it “justice.” That’s how I’ve been able to carry this iceberg around for so long. I take my need for vengeance – which God denies me – and name it “justice” – which God demands of me. As if a change of vocabulary could sanctify my thirst for retribution.

This is an old human problem. Ancient. Every human culture that I’m aware of has established a way for people to deal with the need for violent retribution against others. In most times and cultures, this has taken the form of ritual sacrifice, often of animals – sometimes of people. That’s a big reason we still have the death penalty in the United States. It’s why so many Americans got very excited when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. Deep down, we have this primal need for blood.

For us as followers of Jesus, we have access to blood. The blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross, has the power to take away the sins of the world. This isn’t some esoteric religious jargon. It’s practical and actionable truth. Without Jesus, without his sacrifice for us, we are trapped in the cycle of violence. The only justice we know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for life. Our spiritual ancestors often mitigated this by sacrificing animals instead of people, but these rituals could never remove our visceral human need for something that we like to call “justice,” but which is more properly called vengeance.

The God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, is a God who says, “Vengeance is mine!” These are the words from the book of Deuteronomy that Paul references in Romans 12, which we heard this morning. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul repeats Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He reminds us that the way of Jesus is to feed our enemies when they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. As followers of the risen Lord Jesus, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is far easier said than done. I know it is for me. I’m still carrying around this deep, hidden iceberg of fear and vengefulness inside me. It’s hard for me to trust in God’s power when there are people who threaten me, threaten my ideals, threaten the people I love. I want to protect myself and the ones I love. I want to punish the evildoers.

All this reminds me of a scene from Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean has recently been released from prison. He’s hungry, he’s desperate. He’s cut off from all human society. And in the midst of his despair, he is taken in by a local bishop, who feeds him and gives him a place to stay for the night.

And how does Jean Valjean repay the bishop? By acting like an animal. By stealing all of his silver and running off into the darkness of night.

But with all that clanky silverware, Valjean is a pretty obvious target for the police. They bring him back to the bishop in shackles the next morning. Jean Valjean has told them that the bishop gave him the silver, which they know is a lie. But to their shock, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story. And he takes it a step further: He insists that Jean Valjean has forgotten the silver candlesticks, and insists that he take them with him. Valjean is released, a free man with a bag full of silver.

After the police have left, the bishop says to Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

There’s this supernatural, unexplainable love of God pouring out of the bishop. Like his master, our Lord Jesus, the bishop is willing to be wronged rather than wrong another. He blesses those who persecute him. He seeks after the good of his enemies. He sees the thief as a brother who is not beyond the love of God, whose life can be redeemed through the way of the cross.

The bishop has “done the work.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishop has spent decades wrestling with the part of himself that demands vengeance. Now, as a true follower of Jesus, he is able to accept the passion and the blood that frees him. God has released him from any need to violently balance the scales. Trusting the Spirit, he has the strength to leave justice in God’s hands. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he has become a loving imitator of the Master. Where once there was hunger for retribution, the bishop is filled with compassion and concern for a man who abused his hospitality and robbed him.

Wow. Awesome story. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were like that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t want to be presumptuous. Maybe there are some folks here who are at the “some dude just robbed me so I told the police I gave him the stuff” level of holiness. But I’m not. Apart from a lightning bolt-level intervention by the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine myself doing what the bishop did. That big iceberg of vengeance inside me bristles at the thought!

God is calling me to be more like the bishop, more like Jesus. But I’m also realistic about the fact that this is a really hard road to go down. It was for Jesus’ original disciples, too. In our gospel reading this morning, we heard about how Peter reacted when he heard Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Peter took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Come on, Rabbi. What’s this crazy talk? We’re not following someone who’s about to die. You’re going to win! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, the king of Israel! You’re gonna rule the world, and we’re coming with you!”

Now, if you look at the Scripture in context, just a few minutes before this, Jesus was praising Peter. In fact, it was just before this moment that Jesus called Simon Peter “Peter” for the first time. Peter means “rock” – as in, “upon this rock I will build my church.”

So imagine how shocked Simon must have been when Jesus turned around and let loose on him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s quite a turnaround, from hero to zero in about thirty seconds!

Jesus was inviting Peter to go much deeper, to embrace the real meaning of Messiahship. The disciples were expecting Rambo. They were expecting a hero of violence to bring about the vengeance that they thirsted for. They believed in a God who punched Romans and made it go viral on Twitter. It was hard for them to hear that Jesus really meant all this stuff about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. The iceberg of darkness, vengeance, and fear cried out within them. Their hearts rejected the way of the cross that Jesus insisted he must go down.

Two thousand years later, not much has changed. I want to consider myself a follower of Jesus, but just like Peter in our reading today, I’m still a long way from truly accepting the way of the cross. Loving my enemies is a heavy lift, especially when they’re real enemies who want to harm me or the people I love.

In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” There are no secrets anymore between us and God. Anything we want to know, all we have to do is ask. We know that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of yielded love and gospel nonviolence. The dark icebergs that dwell within us are still there, but Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to illumine us, to melt our hearts, and empower us to walk in the way of compassion and love with him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as holy as the bishop from Les Miserables. I’m grateful that I don’t have to earn this kind of love. Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples based on our performance. He calls us first in our brokenness, violence, and sin. And then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God begins the work of transforming our hearts.

God already knows the full depth and breadth of that iceberg within. He’s not scared to look at it, and he won’t turn away from us. The question is, are you and I willing to see what he sees? Will we let God shine his light on us, so that we can recognize that darkness that so desperately needs a victim, a sacrifice, a violent resolution to our trauma?

Through the gentle, persistent, and powerful leading of the Spirit, we can become people of the cross. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, we can learn to accept Jesus’ sacrifice as the only justice we’ll ever need. Through his cross, we can gain the strength and confidence to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Through his sweet spirit, we can embrace a love so powerful that we are compelled to work for true justice in the world, which is the healing and restoration of each person – a society that reflects that love, justice, and priorities of Jesus.

Related Posts:

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For Radicals, Living in Peace and Quietness Can Be A Challenge

For Radicals, Living in Peace and Quietness Can Be A Challenge
I’ve never been a quiet person. By temperament and training, I’ve always been outward-focused and active. I’ve always wanted to change the world. I’ve wanted to be a person who changes hearts and minds. Someone who develops new institutions and structures that serve humanity better.

I want to be where the action is. I have an innate desire to ponder and debate great ideas, to wrestle with difficult decisions. I want a role in shaping our society. For better or for worse, I am driven to be a leader.

In recent years, I’ve been wrestling with a new and surprising experience. It’s a sense of leading that pushes back against my own natural tendency to leadership and action. Every step I take leads me deeper into silence, self-questioning, and observation.

Something is changing inside me. In my twenties, I possessed a remarkable amount of clarity. My sense of vision was strong. My faith was sure. I knew exactly where I was going.

I no longer feel that way.

My sense of moral integrity remains steadfast. But my ability to articulate a clear way forward has diminished. I’m astonished at the complexity of this world. What I once considered “radical” now appears foolish to me. It’s easy to push for immediate, revolutionary change. What’s challenging is to produce change that is truly positive. Change that heals people and avoids harsh backlash and unintended consequences.

Complexity. I guess that’s what I’m learning. Human beings are extremely complex, and we live in a natural world that is even more complex than we are. It was arrogant for me to think that I had an easy answer for anything. There are no easy answers.

So what’s left? If I can’t provide solutions for the world – if I can’t be the radical change-maker I always thought I was – what can I do?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’ve been praying the Episcopal liturgy lately. There’s a particular prayer in the liturgy that has been standing out to me:

Most holy God, the source of all good desires, all right judgements, and all just works: Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, so that our minds may be fixed on the doing of your will, and that we, being delivered from the fear of all enemies, may live in peace and quietness; through the mercies of Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen.

After all these years of “radical” thrashing, I’m resonating with this prayer to “live in peace and quietness.” I’m realizing that, for me, “revolution” had become both means and end. There really was no end game. I wanted change for the sake of peace and justice, yes. But ultimately, I wanted to make change for its own sake. It was a way to exert power over the world and feel important.

This need to change the world is something I am being called to shed. That doesn’t mean I stop caring about justice. Quite the opposite. But the goal of my life isn’t to change the world – though love may often require substantial change. Instead, for me as a follower of Jesus, life’s meaning is to participate in the peaceable kingdom of God: To love my neighbors as myself. To bless my enemies. To give freely, just as I have received freely.

Change isn’t an end, it’s a means. The change that God wants to see isn’t something that I have to produce. I don’t need to stress out about winning the struggles of this life – whether my personal worries or the grand concerns of planetary survival. Instead, I am invited to receive “that peace which the world cannot give.” Offering my whole life to God, I am freed from the need to change the world. Instead, I can allow myself to become an agent of Christ’s love. That’s revolutionary.

Related Posts:

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How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.
We’ve seen horrifying things this weekend. Nazi banners, shamelessly unfurled just a short drive from the nation’s capital. Armed gangs of white nationalists in the streets of an American college town. Unchecked violence. Murder in the name of radical hate. All this comes as a reminder that white supremacy is one of the founding doctrines of the United States. Our nation remains captured by the demonic influence of systemic, generational oppression of non-white – and especially black – people.

It should go without saying: White supremacist ideology is not merely mistaken. It is evil. It is anti-Christian. White supremacy is a blasphemy against the image of God in humanity. It is impossible to embrace white supremacy and to be a follower of Jesus, the crucified Jewish Messiah.

American racists often hide behind a veneer of Christian piety, but white supremacy is utterly incompatible with the way of Jesus. The Nazis understood this. In Nazi Germany, and in many other countries where other versions of fascism emerged, Christianity was actively corrupted, subverted, and opposed where it dared to challenge the authority of the fascist state. Adolf Hitler’s inner circle of rogues and radicals were generally atheist or pagan, preferring the false gods of their imagination to the humble Jew who died on a cross.

The the quasi-fascist Donald Trump regime is similarly anti-Christian in its convictions. It’s impossible to love God while hating others. No follower of Jesus can incite racial hatred, threaten nuclear war, and spread lies and fear in the way this administration has done. We see Nazis parading through American streets. White nationalists dictate policy in the White House. GOP leadership in Congress either does not have the courage to confront this evil, or is actively encouraging a politics of hate, violence, and fear.

How are we to respond? As friends and followers of Jesus, how will we challenge white supremacy? 

There’s not one answer for each of us. Our family is expecting a newborn baby any day now, so I probably won’t be joining protesters in the streets anytime soon. Others of us are already being called to be physically present in the streets where many of these struggles are taking place. There is both room and necessity for a diversity of gifts, actions, and tactics as we seek to be faithful in these times of hatred and fear.

In this diversity, though, there is an unmistakable unity. While we all have particular parts to play, the character of Jesus does not change. He sends us into the world according to the spirit of love, not according to the fearful spirit of the world. Each one of us has different roles to perform, but all of us are called to walk, and speak, and act in the spirit of Jesus.

What are the marks of a Christ-like response to evil? How can our communities identify the way of Jesus, and encourage one another to walk in it?

The way of Jesus is always marked by love. Love for neighbor. Love for enemies. Love in the face of violence and persecution. The love of Jesus isn’t intimidated or overcome by fear. It doesn’t give in to slogans or posturing. It rejoices in the truth. The love of Jesus seeks healing and reconciliation for everyone, even the people who nail him to the cross.

Many of us – myself included – are tempted by the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that we can destroy evil by attacking the evildoers is a powerful one. Especially for men in our society, there is an expectation that we prove our strength and care for others though our willingness to inflict violence on people who threaten our loved ones.

Jesus was the strongest man the world has ever known. His life, death, and resurrection repudiate the false narrative of redemptive violence. Through his courage, God has shown us that true love is cruciform. His love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So must we. If you and I wish to follow in the way of Jesus, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that our violence can transform the world. We may be called to die for love, but never to kill. Jesus calls us to be light in the midst of the darkness of white supremacy and Nazi ideology. As friends of Jesus, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with those who are being directly impacted by personal and structural racism. All followers of Christ must stand against violent ideologies and powers.

The tools of our resistance cannot be different from those that Jesus himself has given us. He has commanded us to heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor. Through his faithfulness on the cross, he has shown us how far we must go to seek the healing of others, even those who despise us. Being willing to die for our friends is challenging enough; Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, too.

No one who is paying attention can deny that we have enemies. Those who promote race hatred and fascist violence – whether in the streets or in the White House – are enemies of God and his people. Yet our response, as maddening and unnatural as it is, must be to seek healing and transformation even for those who seek to destroy us. Not because we would choose this for ourselves. Not because we are sure it will “work” as a strategy. But because Jesus himself has borne the cross of genocidal oppression. He has shown us the way from death into life, and it comes through love of enemy. 

This is a truth that most professing Christians have failed to embrace. The way of Jesus is one of good news for the poor and oppressed. Sight to the blind, liberation for the captive, resurrection from the dead. We obtain this resurrection through indiscriminate love.

What does it look like to love a Nazi who is pepper spraying you, beating you, running you over with a car? What does it mean to be the face of Jesus to a soul that is twisted by the evil of white supremacy? These are hard questions, and I don’t pretend to have easy answers.

Rather than trying to provide a pre-packaged solution, I urge all the friends of Jesus to turn ourselves over to the wisdom, compassion, and power of the Holy Spirit. She alone has the ability to transform us from frightened children, lashing out at every threat, to mature imitators of Christ’s joy, compassion, and power. We need her now more than ever.

Holy Spirit, come. Transform our hearts. Inspire our response to the evils that afflict our nation. Make our lives good news to the poor and oppressed. Teach us how to love the world so much that we are willing to lay down our lives and privilege, in imitation of our friend and savior, Jesus.

Related Posts:

How Can God Love Both Me and My Enemies?

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