Practicing Our Faith
A Sermon on James 1:17-27, 2:14-26
With Allusions to Genesis 12 1-5a and Matthew 7:24-29
Although Jesus often had crowds around him, as Matthew 7:28 reports, not everyone was a true disciple, a true follower. Some just liked to listen. Some were curious about him. Some wanted healing, and indeed, they came to the right place, and Jesus did help. Some came to Jesus because they wanted to argue with him. A few, like certain religious professionals, were out to catch him doing or saying something wrong.
Not everybody was there to actually be a follower of Jesus, and he knew it. Some would put his teaching into practice, and many wouldn’t. Nevertheless, Jesus was clear: he expected people to do what he said. He ended the Sermon on the Mount with a bang, a parable of two builders. People who hear my word and do it, he said, are like a wise builder who builds on a rock foundation. Then when rain, and floods and wind batter the house, it doesn’t fall, because he built it on rock.
Those who hear my word, and don’t put it into practice are like a foolish builder, who set his house on sand. Disaster strikes, and that house falls, and great is its fall! The wise hear and do. The foolish merely hear.
This is what integrity is: what you do matches what you think and say. You walk the Christian walk and well as talk the Christian talk. Christian integrity means being doers of the word, and not hearers only.
That’s how James puts it. Yes, he later saw the need to make Jesus’ point yet again. Even in the early church—which we often think of as a golden age—not everybody who called him-or-herself a Christian actually practiced discipleship. Some thought it was enough to subscribe to the right beliefs and adhere to the right doctrines. It’s enough to have the right knowledge. Some thought that was faith.
Not James. Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves, he warns. And here’s how he reinforces his point: Those who don’t act on the word are like a person who looks in a mirror, and then doesn’t do anything about what he sees there. Indeed, he walks away and forgets.
How you speak and act matters, James says. Genuine religion is about compassionate care for widows and orphans. It’s about being different from the world.
What’s more, James declares in chapter 2, faith without action isn’t genuine faith at all. Faith must be lived out in action. No, it’s not enough to think right thoughts and say the right words. Faith without works is dead!
Then he reminds his readers of some of the heroes of the faith who all put their faith to work in action. He gives the example of Abraham laying his son on the altar, trusting God for the outcome. I read another example of Abraham’s faith in action this morning. Abram was well on in years, but when God called him to move, he moved. He voted with his feet. He said “Yes” to being part of God’s plans to bless the whole world.
Then there’s also Rahab who exercised faith by taking a big, big risk. She sheltered the Israelite spies and helped them escape from Jericho. In other passages James mentions Job, who endured, and Elijah who prayed.
It’s not enough, James says, to tell a hungry person, “Go in peace, keep warm and be filled,” and not work to supply the need. If you have means, you must use it, James says. Faith without works is dead!
Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy and a man of deep faith and conviction, has written extensively about what discipleship means. Discipleship means following Jesus. The goal is to do everything you can to think and speak and act like Jesus. You can see it in people who are trying to implement the Sermon on the Mount, who are trying to love enemies and work for peace, and walk the second mile. Willard says, “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ.” (Excerpted from The Spirit of the Disciplines in Richard Foster, Devotional Classics. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990, 1991, 1993, p. 14.)
Put simply, it is the case now that not everybody who wears the name of Christ is truly a follower of Christ. Is poor worship attendance one symptom? Worship is not just a time for us to get fed spiritually, something we consume and take home. It is a time to meet God. We do it for God’s sake. Worshiping God is the heart of life.
Is coming to worship a mark of discipleship? We’re not talking about the sick and those that are shut in who can’t physically come. Is coming to worship something disciples do?
Disciples of Christ pastor Jan Linn thinks so. I think so, too, but I’m not as blunt as he is. He doesn’t worry about offending people, but I admit I do. Linn has written a very provocative book entitled Rocking the Church Membership Boat: Counting Members or Having Members who Count. He talks about a widespread phenomenon. A poor percentage of church members actually show up at worship regularly. Here’s one of his examples: Out of a church that claims 1600 members, only 1000 actually participate in the church’s life, and on Sunday, an average of 500 come to worship. He got this example from a pastor who said things were going well at his church. I don’t know! Where are the other 1100?
Linn knows how people tick. People have different priorities. He tells the story of how as an adult, his father did not attend church, but his mother took Linn and his brothers every week.
Linn tells of the Sunday School superintendent who worked hard to get Linn’s father to attend. The Supt. decided that he would have to get the father to join first. Complication: it was a church that only accepted baptism by immersion, so they insisted on rebaptizing the older Mr. Linn. He finally agreed, and this is what happened when the appointed Sunday arrived. As was the practice in that congregation, Mr. Linn was rebaptized before the evening service began. Jan and his family waited anxiously for him to change and join them in the pew. “It didn’t happen,” Jan Linn writes. “As time passed, Mother grew more and more anxious. By the end she was beside herself and wasted no time getting my brothers and me down the street to our house, where we found Dad sitting in his easy chair watching television. When Mother asked him why he hadn’t come to worship, he replied without hesitation, ‘Bonanza was on.’ He adds, “I am glad to say that later in his life he made the decision to become a “real” member of the church.” (Jan Linn, Rocking the Church Membership Boat. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, p. 30.)
What about worship? Can a person be a “good Christian” yet skip worship? Can a person be a faithful disciple of Christ without making some connection to the body of Christ?
What is necessary if we want to walk the walk and not just talk the talk?
Here’s what the Presbyterian Book of Order says in its chapter titled, “The Church and Its Members:” Quote: “A faithful member accepts Christ’s call to be involved responsibly in the life of his Church. Such involvement includes: a. proclaiming the good news,
b. taking part in the common life and worship of a particular church,
c. praying and studying Scripture and the faith of the Christian Church,
d. supporting the work of the church through the giving of money, time and talents,
e. participating in the governing responsibilities of the church,
f. demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,
g. responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,
h. living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,
i. working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment” (G-5.0102).
Now that’s expecting a lot! But Linn says the church should expect a lot of its members. He says the common pattern is for congregations to try to bring in as many people as they can, hoping that a few will actually practice the faith, or if not that, at least do something to help the institution keep going. Clubs have stronger expectations of their members than many churches do. They take roll, for example, and if you miss too many meetings, you can be removed from the roll. But the church often doesn’t even have minimal expectations. Sometimes that comes out of fear, fear for institutional survival, and sometimes it comes out of a deep seated belief that faith is not only personal, it’s also private, so what can the church say?
Linn says that membership truly needs to be a covenant, with expectations of time in attendance, energy in ministry, to serve one another in the church, and in mission beyond; attention in prayer and money in support. Church members should recommit to this covenant every year, he recommends. All people are welcomed as participants. Everyone is welcomed. But they should wait to actually join until they are ready to make that covenant. (Linn, p. 13). That shows integrity.
Well, what do you think? What do we need to do to be clear that Christ calls us to a way of life, not just a set of beliefs? What do we need to do to call people to discipleship? Our bulletin welcome tries to get at that in a small way. It reads, “If you would like to profess your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, become his disciple, and a member of this congregation, you may speak with the pastor or with a member of the session.” But what more must we do to mature in faithfulness ourselves and invite others on the journey?
What James would look for are things like compassionate action for those who suffer, caring for the defenseless. He would look for a quality life that’s not just a repeat of the same attitudes and activities you find out in the world. He would look to see whether people take care in how they speak and act towards one another in the body of Christ. As James says in 1:26, “Who can truly be religious without bridling their tongue?” The body of Christ really is a body, and what happens with one member, a hurt or a joy to one, affects all the rest.
Jesus is going to be looking to see whether we are practicing his word. He is going to be looking to see whether we are wisely founding our lives on him, or foolishly staking our lives on something else. Elsewhere he calls it caring for the least ones, his sisters and brothers. Elsewhere he calls it dying to self, and taking up the cross.