9/16/12, Just as the Body Without the Spirit is Dead...

Isaiah 50:4-9, James 2:14-18, Mark 8:27-35

Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps.  If you would save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will SAVE it.” 

My brothers and sisters, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to SAVE.”

If you were listening carefully to the reading from James and then to the Gospel reading, you might have noticed that both of these passages contained the word “SAVE.” 

What does “being saved” mean to you?

Save is an important word in our Christian language.  Christians hold the hope that somehow in our lives of religious faith, we will experience what our scriptures promise: salvation.  Most of us came to feel that being saved was primarily about the assurance that after this life, we would get to heaven.  This happens, we’ve been told, by believing without question in the saving work that Jesus did for us through his sacrificial death on the cross.  Salvation, we’ve been told, is about escaping the suffering of this world for the safety and blessing of the next. Therefore, the important thing was to make an intellectual assent to the doctrines taught by scripture and Church tradition. This is what I did as a child. Probably many of you did too.  And so we have shared a long history of reciting the creeds and listening to the lectionary readings and saying “Amen” when we receive the bread and drink the wine.

But Jesus says to his disciples that the way to “save” our lives is to lose them.  James, the person writing to first century Jewish Christians, says that the profession of faith without practicing good deeds is no guarantee of “being saved”.  There’s no mention of intellectual belief in any sacrificial system here. Could it be that Jesus by his own teaching and his own actions showed us that salvation is not about holding on to the certainties of religious systems for the sake of assuring our place in the next world?  Could he be teaching us that being saved is about finding our freedom in this world by offering our lives for the sake of making it a better place?  Is it possible that James is echoing what he learned from Jesus when he says that the mere profession of faith without living good works is not the means to salvation?

Don’t you just love it when your preacher lays out all her own questions in front of you and shows you just what a totally befuddled human being she is? 

Well, the reason I’m doing this is that I suspect that my questions are your questions too.  And they are questions that faith-seeking people have held forever, as is demonstrated by the fact that we have these ancient scriptures that provoke our questions.  So the invitation I see in this for us today is that we simply allow ourselves to explore the questions raised by James’ letter to the early Christian community, who were themselves trying to follow the examples of living that they had learned from Jesus.

You will notice that we have a new liturgy guide for this Autumn Season. Although the construction of this guide is up to me, the collective wisdom of others in this community is invaluable as we move towards finding relevant ways of being Church in the 21st century.  So this week I had a fairly intense conversation with several others about the question of including a creed in our liturgy in the place where a statement of Christian beliefs is traditionally recited.  (Below or See Page 4 in the Liturgy Guide)

We believe in God,

             source, essence, and aim of all things,

             spirit that enlivens all beings.

 We believe in Jesus, 

             who found God in himself

             and shared a way for others to find God in themselves.

             He was born through love,

             He lived for love,

             He suffered for love,

             He died for love,

             But love never dies.

 We believe in the Spirit,

             who leads us in the love that is God,

             that we may be compassionate to all beings,

             that we may live and serve in community with others,

             that we may ask for and offer forgiveness,

             that we may praise and enjoy God forever.  Amen!


If we have a creed, what should it say?

The first line of our reading from James today says, “What good is it to PROFESS FAITH without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save.”  It could just as well be read, “What good is it to RECITE A CREED without carrying out the actions our beliefs imply?” In this regard, notice that the Nicene Creed requires no action, just intellectual assent.

Belief is more than intellectual assent.  Belief that “saves” involves not only the searching mind that seeks to understand and know God, but the loving trust of a heart devoted to Jesus and the sacrificial action of a body devoted to the Spirit’s leading.  Loving God with heart, mind and strength and neighbor as self are the commandments that lead us to a belief that saves.

You see, through centuries of doctrinal distortion, we have not completely understood what the scriptures have tried to tell us about “being saved.”  Salvation has been all about our escaping this world for the next.  However, realizing that the Jewish ancestors of Christianity did not believe in an afterlife, contemporary scholars have looked more closely at what salvation really meant within the metaphorical framework of the stories, prayers and prophecies told in scripture, particularly the Old Testament (where the words salvation, save and savior are  used more often than in the New Testament.)

As they do this, they point us to the fact that our scriptural forefathers in the faith thought of salvation as God’s grace experienced in this world.  It was experienced by humans as liberation from economic, political and religious bondage, as rescue from perilous situations, and as transformation from spiritual death to a vitality of life.             ( refer for more information to Marcus Borg’s book: “Speaking Christian, Chapter 3”)

That makes sense of what James says.  “What good is it to profess faith without practicing it?  Such faith has no power to save.”  The early Jewish Christians to whom James was writing would have understood that without practical actions that emanate from love of God the world we live in cannot experience liberation from economic, political or religious bondage.  And when we act out God’s love, we as individuals are spiritually freed too.  You know this by your own experience. Serving others in ways that show God’s love makes you feel so much better than hoarding your time and energy and wealth.  Through losing yourself, you save yourself. You become vitally alive!

We live in a world that cries for such liberation.  As individuals we are each bound by our own chains that make us long for freedom.  “Being saved” requires personal and corporate action that makes changes in this world for the glory of God.  It’s not all about some heaven that lies beyond.  It’s about “the Kingdom of Heaven” that is among us right now. Jesus said, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) With these words, Jesus voiced a universal and timeless teaching. Every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition offers this the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us. 

So if the Kingdom of God is within us, how should we practice what we profess?  I suggest that over this season of Autumn, we each take time to reflect deeply on the words of the Creed in this guide. Sometimes we will read it together, sometimes not.  But keep living with these questions: How do I practice what I profess?  What kind of “salvation” do I experience as I put God’s love into practice?


May the Spirit of God energize us as we experience our own freedom through the actions we take to liberate others.                                                                                                 

 A side note: I heard a little story this week about a Grandma’s experience that tickled me so much I just have to share it.  It seems that Grandma was charged with putting her grandson down for a nap, but at the moment this little boy had a habit of removing all his clothes whenever he was in his bed.  A few minutes after putting him in his crib, Grandma went to check on little Jake and sure enough, he was wide awake and nude.  Grandma helped him dress and told him, “Jake, you must go to sleep and you must keep at least your diaper on.”  A half hour later, Grandma checked on Jake again.  Jake was sound asleep but completely naked.  However, he had minded Grandma by wearing his diaper- on his head.

I think this story grabs me because it speaks in a way to our human condition.  We want to do the right thing, the thing that pleases those who have authority over us.  And yet… we want to be freed of constraints that seem to us unnecessary.  We want to keep what is important but we want to do it in our own way.  Maybe that’s what happening to some of us in the church right now.  We want to keep what’s important but we want to ask questions: is there another way to clothe ourselves with the life of faith?

By Sandi DeMaster