Tuesday, August 15, 2006

James 3:13-18

James 3:13-18

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

“What does it mean to be wise?” asks James. Images of wisdom come to mind in rapid succession. A tweedy professor smoking a pipe while legions of adoring students stream by the office to talk, soaking in his wisdom. A pastor’s office provides a respite for the lonely in her congregation. A daughter making pies with her mom, transmitting the silent wisdom of the ages with each crust. Children gardening with their father, hard-won lessons on sweat equity and how to lovingly coax the soil being shared.

Is this what it is to be wise? Sometimes. And sometimes it is the palest imitation of wisdom.

There are two kinds of wisdom in the world. Some people think they are book wisdom and life wisdom; that one of these is true wisdom and the other is false wisdom. Some people believe in book smarts and some people believe in street smarts.

James believes in two kinds of wisdom too; but he divides it differently. Rather than divide it between book wisdom and life wisdom, James divides it between “envious, selfish wisdom” and “pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful” wisdom. For James, there is a certain kind of wisdom that sees the people of the world as obstacles to our personal happiness. Envious, selfish wisdom knows how to manipulate such a world to get oneself ahead. Envious, selfish wisdom knows just whose neck to step on and just how hard to step on it to get what you want.

This other sort of wisdom does not see the world this way at all. People are not obstacles to be avoided or overrun; rather, people are cared for and loved unconditionally simply because they bear the image of God. Rather than seeking one’s own good at the expense of others, this type of wisdom seeks the good of others--even when it means yielding when one could press ahead, even when it means showing mercy when punishment is justified.

What of the pastors and professors and mothers and fathers of this world? Are they wise? Some are and some aren’t. We all can be thankful for some of the wisdom we’ve learned from folks like this. Pastors, professors and parents at their best teach us how to see the world as God sees it, full of people to love. But some of the “wisdom” we wish we could throw back and forget. At times, even these good people fail, falling victim to the wisdom of this world which seeks our own gain at the expense of others.

What kind of wisdom is on display in your life?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, August 13

Hi all--this was preached yesterday at our church, based on two texts.

Romans 3:28: "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law."
James 2:24: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."

Few theological debates have been as controversial as this one. On the face of it, these two verses seem to say completely opposite things. In the book of Romans, Paul appears to be telling his audience that justification–a person’s being counted as right before God–is entirely a result of faith and that our works, those good or bad things we do, have no bearing whatsoever on whether God reckons us righteous or not. But in his book, James appears to say something quite different: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” For support, he turns to the story of Abraham. Abraham was called by God to go from his country far away, across a huge desert, to a land that God would show to him. And Abraham did just that. It wouldn’t have been enough for Abraham to say, “Yes, I have faith in God; I believe in God.” Abraham had to put it on the line–it was his works that showed God that Abraham was righteous. He closes by saying, “just as the body without the spirit is dead, faith without works is dead.”

Now these are two very different perspectives, both of them found in the Bible. And for this reason sometimes people look at this and say, “Aha! I told you the Bible couldn’t be trusted! That book is full of contradictions.” Yet, I think a closer look might show us that, yes, there is some tension between these passages. But the fact there is this tension might just give us in the end even more insight into this important subject. The fact we have to wrestle with the tension might just help us to understand the issue of what makes us right before God in a more complete way than we did before.

It’s also important for us to look at this because we are Baptists. As Baptists, we have always held that the Bible is our supreme and final authority. The Bible is given a unique place in our world, because we believe that is inspired by God, for many reasons, one of them being the ordering of our lives. And since we are people whose lives are governed by the Book, it is important for us to have a sense of how to work through this dilemma.

And so, the big question: Are we justified, made right with God, because of our faith, because of what we believe inside? Or are we made right with God because of what we do? The short answer: yes. Yes, we are made right with God by what we believe and what we do. But this answer has to be fleshed out.

So, a few thoughts that might help us to have a little bit of clarity. First, we must remember that Paul and James are writing to two unique audiences in unique situations. Let me give you a quick example. The church I grew up in and this church are very different churches. I love both churches and both churches have taught me a lot, but they are very different. Theologically, culturally, ethnically, these two important churches in my life are simply very different. Now I have preached at both churches. But my messages are different when I preach at my home church than when I preach here. There are different theological thrusts that I wish to make with that congregation as opposed to this one. I have a different perspective about what that congregation’s growing edge is as opposed to your growing edge, a different understanding of what I think God wants them to hear as opposed to what God wants you to hear. I even have a different perspective of the speaking style I should use with that congregation as opposed to this one, the individual words that I should choose.

Now the core message is the same, and yet there is much different in what I’d say there than here, even though it comes from the same heart. In fact, I preached there once last year when I had a Sunday off from here, and I preached a sermon that I had once preached here. But in tailoring it to that occasion and that congregation, it wound up looking different.

Paul and James have very different intended audiences. Paul appears to be writing to Jews who found some solace in the fact that they were good at keeping the ritual law. They believed that by keeping the law well, God would be impressed enough to see them as righteous. One of Paul’s enemies throughout his writings is a group called the Judaizers. The Judaizers were a group of people who insisted that all the ceremonial Jewish laws must be kept, even by Gentile Christians. So Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and had to keep kosher, among other things. Paul is consistently angry at the Judaizers and he uses some very harsh language against them, because what he believes they are doing is making outward works more important than a faith-relationship with Jesus Christ. So against this tendency, Paul tells them that righteousness cannot come from their own actions, whether it be circumcision, ritual prayer, whatever; but their own faith in Jesus, their own willingness to choose Jesus and identify with him, this is what brings righteousness. James is also writing to Jews, but to a group of people who believed that the way to be right before God was to believe all the right things. In fact, some scholars believe that James is writing to people who had heard Paul’s argument and had kind of twisted it to their own good. So because they are writing to different people, they have different emphases out of the same truth.

Another point that has to be made is that James and Paul used the word “faith” differently. It is important to remember that even though James and Paul are both in the Bible, they are separate books. They are separate works of literature, and they have their own way of using words.

Let me give you an example. Suppose, 2,000 years from now, an archeologist digs up two works of literature right next to each other. The first one is a steamy Harlequin romance novel, you know, one of those books with the guy with the long flowing hair and the rippling muscles and a swooning woman on the front, that talks about two people in love with each other and all that entails (sometimes in fairly graphic prose). The second one is a sermon I’ve written about “loving your neighbor” and how it’s important to “love your neighbor.” If the archeologist reads the Harlequin novel first, and then reads my sermon, he’s going to think I mean something very different from what I really mean! I’m talking about the word “love” in one sense, and the Harlequin novel is talking about it in quite another sense. It’s the same word, yet the romance novelist and the preacher mean different things by it.

The same can be said of Paul and James; they mean different things by the word “faith.” For Paul, “faith” is never just up here (in your head); it has a strong component of obedience. In Romans 1:5, for example, Paul talks about how it is his job to preach “the obedience of faith” to the Gentiles. Paul understands faith as simply implying obedience. One cannot have faith without being obedient; otherwise, we’re not sure what you have, but it’s not genuine faith. In fact, Paul says that what brings about justification is confessing “Jesus is Lord;” that is, allowing Jesus to be the master of your life. This implies obedience.

Now, this is very different from what James seems to be talking about. When he talks about people who have faith alone, he is not talking about people who have faith like Paul means. He is talking about people who have an intellectual commitment but do not have a commitment to actually living the faith out. It is lofty speech and no action. It is having the correct belief about who Jesus is and what he did, and what he preached and putting absolutely none of it into action. For instance, it is knowing that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, knowing that in your head, and having absolutely no concern for the poor in your life, remaining stingy and self-
absorbed. When James talks about faith alone, he means it differently than Paul means it.

Neither Paul nor James thinks that kind of faith is worth anything. They think it’s miserable, not helpful at all, certainly not justifying you in God’s sight. The only difference is that James calls this “faith without works” while Paul would say it’s not faith at all.

So James and Paul are essentially in agreement here. People who want to drive a wedge between them are just not remembering that the same word–faith, in this case–can be used differently by different people.

Now the last thing I want to look at in this sermon is an important question. The person who asked me to preach this specifically asked the question, “Are works necessary to salvation?” In other words, when we stand before God, will any of the judgment be about what we do or will it all be about our faith?

Let me tell you a story. Two Mondays ago was our seventh anniversary. Now, to celebrate our anniversary, I brought home a dozen roses and a card telling Jill that I loved her. Her mom came down for a few days and watched Gracie while we went out to dinner to the Dilworthtown Inn, a fancier establishment than either of us is used to going to. I even managed to work hard the other days of the week so I could carve out some time off the day after our anniversary so we could go somewhere with her mom the day after. All in all, it was a pretty successful anniversary, I think; I think I did pretty good.

Now imagine, for a second, that it did not go so well. Imagine that I kept assuring Jill how important our anniversary was, how much of a special day it was to me, how I was so glad to be married to her. But instead of bringing home a dozen roses, I brought home a brand new Lyle Lovett CD. Instead of going to the Dilworthtown Inn, we went down to the sports bar and watched the Phillies while eating 25 cent chicken wings. Instead of working hard to get some time off to spend with her and her mom, I worked just as hard to get some time off to take a road trip to catch a concert in New York while Jill stayed home with a crying baby.

Now Jill is not a shallow person. She judges me not by my actions, but by my intentions. It wasn’t important that we go to the Dilworthtown Inn, or that I got roses instead of some other flower. She wouldn’t have been angry if I couldn’t get any time off. On our first anniversary, we couldn’t afford to go to the Dilworthtown Inn; as I recall, we couldn’t afford a dozen roses or a day off either–I guess we could afford the card. But that was still a sweet anniversary because it was not about the actions, but the intentions.

But what we often forget is that our actions tell a lot about our intentions. I could say one thing with my lips–“Our anniversary is very important to me”–but my actions demonstrate whether or not I actually believe it. When determining whether or not I truly believe our anniversary is an important day to me, you don’t measure me by the words I say; you measure me by my willingness to change my life to make it a priority. The actions bear out whether or not the words I say are true. It’s not the actions but the intentions that are important–but our actions do say a lot about our intentions.

It is quite the same in our relationship with God. We can believe all the right things about God. We can insist that we are good-hearted people who mean well. We can talk about how loving or inclusive or holy we are; but if we are not willing to back that up with actions, it will be clear that we don’t really mean what we say. Our actions bear out whether or not our faith is genuine. It is true that our faith alone saves us. But our actions tell us—and tell God—whether or not that faith is real.

Our actions bear out whether or not our faith is genuine. What does this mean for us? It means, for one thing, that we should be more attentive to our actions. When we find ourselves harboring bitterness, or when we find ourselves being controlled by our inner compulsions and addictions, it should give us cause for concern. Not that we’re bad people, or that we’re hopeless; rather, it should make us ask the important question, “What’s going on in my spirit?” Why am I living in a way that the godly part of me doesn’t want to live? Why are my actions not lining up with my words? Sometimes we say, “Well, it doesn’t matter if you’re perfect; it does matter if you believe in and love Jesus.” And that’s true; but our actions point to how real our love for Jesus is; our actions point to how real our faith is.

Now the question we are looking at is: “Are good deeds necessary for salvation?” And the answer, as with many difficult questions, is “No...and yes.” No, God doesn’t have some kind of cosmic scale in heaven where he puts all the good things on one side and all the bad things on the other and judge you accordingly. Instead, God judges us based on the character of our faith. God judges us based on whether or not we commit ourselves to the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought in, trusting in his death to bring us new life. Again, though, we can say one thing with our lips: “I believe in Jesus and want to follow him”–but our lives will bear out whether or not I actually believe in Jesus. Our lives will demonstrate whether we mean that or whether that is simply an empty phrase.

Now none of us can be perfect; but the life of a Christian should be a gradual growing into the ideals we say we believe. Our actions can never perfectly match up with our intentions; our works can never perfectly live up to our faith. Yet our whole lives as Christians should be one of learning to match our lives to the ideals of the Kingdom of God.

I will close with a quote from Martin Luther. Luther believed strongly that “faith alone” is what saved us, not our works or our deeds. But, like the Apostle Paul, Luther also believed firmly that that faith that could save you was not just in your head but was part of your whole life. Listen to what he said about that kind of faith:

O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

May we be people who have true faith–a faith that finds its natural expression in the love we have for the world and the deeds by which we care for it. Let’s pray.