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Sunday, September 20, 2020

“This Is Eternal Life...”

A sermon based upon John 17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday, September 20th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

One of most ‘spiritually’ informed movies in recent years was Contact, a Sci-Fi movie staring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.  Foster played an atheist astronomer and McConaughey a divinity professor, who accidentally came together to try to answer a big question:  What kind of life is out there? 

That movie had a simple plot, but it became more and more complex.  The childhood dream and lifelong work of the female Astronomer was to make contact with life ‘out there’ but the surprise is that life ‘out there’ makes contact her.  But the surprising message from ‘out there’ is not about what’s out there, but what happens to humans after they die.  That’s certainly not the contact she, nor we would have expected.  So, the major point of the story, is that both religious people and scientific people need hope beyond this life.

Near the end of John’s gospel, Jesus is praying for his disciples and he gives us a definition of the hope of eternal life.   This is eternal life…’, Jesus says.  Now,  we don’t get many direct definitions from Jesus.  But here is one: Jesus defines for us the meaning of the phrase: ‘eternal life’.  Interestingly, he doesn’t define it like we would think.  Instead of telling us what life is like after we die, as the movie intended, Jesus focuses on what eternal life means now. 

Most all of us are familiar with this phrase, ‘eternal life’.  It’s a most basic part of our Christian Faith.   We know it because of John 3:16: “…’whoever believes in him shall have eternal (or everlasting, KJV) life.  

John 3:16 affirms that the promise of eternal life means through faith in Jesus Christ we are given the promise of life after death’—the promise that when we die we will live in heaven with Jesus.  Eternal life and heavenly life are one in the same.  What ‘heaven’ means, eternal life means.   We might not be able to describe this in detail nor precisely, but we trust that faith in Jesus gives us exactly this hope of life beyond death.  Eternal life affirms the promise of life everlasting and life forever with God.

But of course, such a belief and trust in the hope of eternal life goes beyond the best, most polished, and precisely proven human knowledge we have, which we call Science.  Science promises so much for our lives now and it adds so much quality to most every facet of our lives: electricity, appliances, TVs, computers and cell phones.  Who could imagine their lives without these things, humans didn’t have a generation ago, but which we take for granted and couldn’t imagine life without today?  But it is exactly this this kind of ‘knowledge’ that is unable to say anything about what happens after we die.  All that the very best science can say is that death is ‘eternal’, not life. 

For the person who only believes in human knowledge, or in science and the highest technology we have, there is no such thing as eternal life.  Eternal Life is just wishful thinking the the fictional, eternal fountain of youth, an unachievable fairytale even to possibilities and methods of science.  Science can’t prove that eternal life isn’t real as a reality beyond this reality,  but science simply ignores and disregards it, because it can’t be proven in the reality we know.  There is absolutely no scientific evidence for eternal life.  It doesn’t appear to exist in the same way you now exist, your appliances exists, or our universe exists.  While matter is eternal, the forms of matter aren’t.  Eternal life, as we are now known, resides outside of scientific exploration.

While there are, of course, people who claimed they’ve had Near Death Experiences, or say that they have returned from the dead, such claims are still not recognized by mainstream Science.  This isn’t supported by science because it could proven otherwise; they had dreams, hallucinations, or visions, or they weren’t really dead.  All that Science can prove and preach is ‘Eternal Death’; ‘When you are dead, you are dead.’

I find it most interesting that when Jesus defines Eternal Life that Jesus says nothing here about going to heaven, or what happens after we die.  In another passage, Jesus did speak about this—going to prepare a place for his disciples.  Here, however, Jesus gives a definition of Eternal Life based more on who God is, not based on where we will go when we die.  In fact, right here Jesus says that to know God is to have eternal life.  Was that the definition you were expecting—That Eternal Life begins in knowing God right now.  Eternal life begins even before going to heaven, and before being reunited with loved ones.  Eternal life is knowing God right now.

This definition of Eternal Life comes in the form of a prayer.  Do you see that?   Jesus prays; ‘...this is eternal life, that they (his disciples) May know...the only true God and Jesus Christ whom (God) has sent.”   Do you catch it?   Eternal life is not what you must wait on; Eternal life isn’t just about where you go when you die, but again, let me repeat, to be perfectly clear, or at least as clear as this can be; according to Jesus, Eternal Life is also about knowing God right now.  Through Jesus the Eternal has entered into our very temporary lives now, right now!   When we come to know and live in God, and when we let Jesus live in us, the eternal is here; the eternal is in us now!

I realize this sounds a bit strange to our modern ears.  We live in a world that doesn’t think a lot about God or much about eternity either.  We’ve kind of pushed thoughts about God and eternity to the ‘back burner’ of the many things we want and need to do ‘now’.  We don’t have much time left to think about God until something tragic happens; like it did when basketball great, Kobe Byrant, and his young daughter, Gianna were tragically killed in a helicopter crash.  When Kobe’s wife spoke at their memorial service she spoke sorrowfully, but also hopefully about how she had to believe God took them both so they could look after each other in heaven. 

Besides trying to comfort ourselves in times of tragedy, our world normally pushes God out.  There’s hardly any room left for God in public spaces.  There’s also hardly any room left for God in many private lives.  Where do we even have time to even encounter an eternal God in our own ‘now’?  How often do we speak of the eternal or seek God right now?  But here, Jesus prays for his disciples to know the Eternal God, revealed through himself, into their own lives and in our own lives too, right now?

I realize we don’t think in these terms of looking for the ‘eternal’ in our own now, so let me share a story of how practical could be.   Pastor Will Willimon tells “while he was once traveling home one night after a speaking engagement in a remote part of South Carolina, his car began to sputter, to falter, and finally rolled to a stop.  It was ten or ten thirty on a summer evening. The stars were out, but otherwise no light could be seen anywhere.  

He said: ‘I had no idea where I was. I got out and stood beside the car in the darkness. Five, ten minutes passed. At last, I could hear a car in the distance. I could see its lights now, and yes, here it came. I looked into its lights, smiled hopefully, as it . . . passed on by, barely slowing for me. Well, at least someone is on this road tonight, I thought. But it was another fifteen minutes, a virtual eternity, before another car came. And it, too, passed by. I got in the car, put my tie back on, straightened my hair, and resumed my post beside my stricken auto. It was late now. Who in their right mind would stop for me at midnight on a country road? Would I be stranded here all night?

Again, I saw lights coming toward me. As they came closer, I could hear music, loud music, emanating from this car. It was coming at a high rate of speed. I could tell that this car was really flying. No chance of them stopping. But as its lights shined in my eyes, the driver of the car put on brakes and skidded, finally coming to a stop a hundred or so feet beyond me, sliding all the way around on the pavement. Then, throwing the car into reverse, he backed up nearly as fast as he had come, screeching to a stop when he was even with my car. I gulped. It was a multicolored old Lincoln with fender skirts, some part of some sort of animal waving from the radio antenna, and two little red, blinking lights on the back of the rearview mirror. Oh, no, I thought. What now? Here I am in the middle of nowhere; I’m gonna die.

 I could see two large men in the car. The one on the driver’s side was wearing a T-shirt; the man on the passenger side was bare chested. He held a large can of beer and looked at me through a pair of dark glasses. “Hey, man,” he shouted at me from his window. “You got trouble?” Now, I’ve got trouble. “I’m just resting, counting stars, letting my engine cool; don’t trouble yourself over me.”

Before I could say anything else, these strangers were out of their car, had my hood up, offered me refreshments, and were tinkering with my motor. Nearly an hour later, long after a dozen other cars had passed by on the other side, with the moon well on its way down the western sky, the two shook my hand, bid me farewell with, “Take it easy, neighbor,” and squealed off into the darkness of a low country summer night. I headed home.

If you can’t see God in another human person, where else can you find him?  And if you only see the eternal in what happens after you die,  or only in the true God you can’t see, and never see or look for God in the person or people you do see, don’t you miss something (-one) very important?  Didn’t you miss knowing the eternal, here and now, in another person, and even knowing how the eternal can be known in you?

So, what’s the big deal about the ‘eternal’ coming into our now; about God being known by us and being known through us? 

At the core of our Christian Faith is the story of how God becomes flesh and lives among us through Jesus Christ; the incarnation we name it.   But the incarnation is only half of the good news.  The other half is the atonement, which is about how Jesus remains alive in flesh and blood through us, and dies for us, to restore our relationship with God so that God can be restored and reflected in our lives right now.   God is revealed in Jesus so that the Spirit of Jesus can be alive in us.  The incarnation becomes the way that restores our own relationship with God.   Is that so difficult to understand?  I hope not.  Because the Jesus way of dying for us, also relates to Jesus’ desire to live in us now, and this for the living of our own days, here and now.

A good example of how challenging it can be to have Jesus alive in us can be understood in the growing challenge to show Christlike love and compassion in this world bent on division, confusion and hate.  Recently, a very sad story was told in the news about a Hispanic Transgender child who was living on the streets.  It appeared that the family and community had disowned the child.   As the teen was encountered to be living from McDonalds to McDonalds, homeless and hopeless, rumors got out in social media that this child was threatening others.  That warning for avoidance created fear, and fear created rumors and the fear turned to hate and this confused, abandoned and lost teen, who found no human pity or compassion, was eventually found beaten, and murdered.  When the family refused to have any kind of memorial or remembrance for their child, it became clear just how ‘lost’ that child had been.   Only one person tried to help.  No one else cared.  No one else tried.  They all seem to be overtaken by fear and hate, rather than to be filled with compassion and love.

Jesus would have cared.  Do you doubt that?  If you do, then you don’t really know Jesus.  One of the hardest things to do is to separate the person whom God loves, from the behavior; or as we say in church, to separate the sin from the sinner.  Jesus was able to do that.  Jesus was able, as Dottie Rambo wrote, ‘to look beyond my fault, and see my need ‘.    And he doesn’t only do this for you, Jesus can do it in you, and Jesus also does it for ‘them’ too.  And for us to do this is still hard to do, whether you are looking at another person who is struggling through life, or you are looking honestly at yourself.  It’s hard to look, to see and not feel the fear and resist the truth, that left unredeemed, can become cruel, cold hate.   That’s part of what it means to be living in a broken, fallen, and complex world. 

A lot of people want to say they love, but they can’t get beyond the flaw, the fault, or the sin.   Other people say there they have love, and they say they show love, because there see no flaw, no fault and no sin, but what does that kind of ‘blind’ love do toward bringing universal hope or healing?  Musn’t brokenness still be acknowledged for full healing to come?  Isn’t it only when we see flaws, see the wounds, and acknowledge the hurts and the needs, that genuine help and the fullness of healing comes?  If we become like Christ, we can be the person who sees the sinner, but how is still given the strength to love, and to overcome with love.  Only in God’s strength can we overcome sin with love.   This is still the only way that healing and hope break into the hurt and brokenness of the world. 

Jesus sat and ate with sinners, but he loved them too, just as he loves us, even as we are still sinners; either righteous or unrighteous sinners.  Jesus came to call all sinners to turn toward God’s love find hope and healing. While I don’t think any sinner can overcome all sin in this life, I do believe that God’s love can transform our lives ‘while we are still sinners’ beginning with us, right where we are, here and now, ‘warts and all’. 

Transformation for any of us, can begin now, in he Spirit of Christ’s own compassion, Christ’s own understanding, Christ’s own acceptance and his healing love and hope offered to us, and alive in us, any and all of us, right now.  We all ‘fall short of God’s glory’.   We call can be restored to his glory, even in our own brokenness by learning to acknowledge and live in the healing ‘truth’ that only God can fully save and heal us from our own sin.  We certainly can’t get over sin, any sin, all by ourselves through our own determination in this world.  We all need to accept our brokenness, that we must learn to live with, and we have to learn to accept God’s love that none of us can live without, either now or in eternity.  As John himself wrote of the hope of God’s transforming love and hope: ‘It does not yet appear, who we shall be, but we know, that when Christ shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

There are so many things ‘breaking’ up in our world today (families, traditions, relationships), that it can become easier to live in fear, out of hate, than it is to choose to live with Faith, Hope and love.  But it is important for us to choose faith, hope, and love in every situation because only through this ‘eternal’ perspective breaking into our ‘now’ can we receive the joy that Christ can give us, even in troubled, challenging, and difficult times. 

Do you see that joy is also why Jesus was praying for his disciples to know the eternal God here and now?  The joy Christ prays for us isn’t a prayer for perfect happiness or for the removal of all life’s troubles and challenges.  The joy Christ desires for us is his own ‘joy’ which included his own struggle in life and his suffering on the cross.  There is no wishful thinking, and no illusion (or delusion) in Christ’s prayer for us.  What here in Christ’s prayer is a prayer for the ‘glory’ that God revealed through Christ’s own life to also be realized as God’s eternal now revealed in and through us.  What is this ‘glory’ that comes to be ‘joy’ known to us in our own here and now?  Can we also name it?  Can we name the ‘joy’ that God can give us right now; that we don’t have to wait on heaven to know and to receive?

I find it interesting that the ‘eternal life’ Jesus names as God becoming known to us now, is also named the joy Jesus owned for us and wishes for us.  This prayer aimed at the very source of how we receive knowledge of God and joy through Christ, is named, not once, but twice as the ‘glory’ that is found when ‘they may be one, as we are one’,  Do you see what Jesus is praying as the key that unlocks it all; knowledge of God and the joy of Christ?   All this talk of eternal life, all this talk of God, and all this talk of fulfillment and joy, comes down to finding God’s glory in the ‘oneness’ and ‘unity’ we can have in each other, which reflects the oneness of God the Father and God the Son.  

Now, I realize that this is mysterious, spiritual and religious talk---to speak of how God the Father and God the Son are one.   It is a mystery so great it took several hundred years for the Church to come to grips with it.  But what did that really do?  For as soon as the church settled on what they should believe about the Trinity, the church lost its own unity and eventually broke into East and West, then Catholic and Protestant, and then finally, as we have today, into all the many different kinds of Christian religious expression we find in our world.  Looking back at what the Church and Christians have argued and divided over, often looks silly and ridiculous.  Can’t we look at it and understand that it is much more important and Christlike for us to stay united in our differences, than to be divided by them? 

If there is any hope of answering the ‘oneness’ prayer which Jesus offered, which is also meant for us, here and now?   It’s so easy to get stuck on the sin, on the differences, focusing only on our own ideas and ideals, rather than having to face, and deal with what’s real.  It’s so easy, in a fallen world, to let remain divided by the ‘us’ verses the ‘thems’, rather than to see how we are all more alike than we could ever be different.   How can Jesus prayer for knowing God, receiving joy and becoming one through him, be realized by us in our own here and now?

In the middle of this entire passage is part of the prayer, that we must decide for our own lives, if this happens.   Right in the middle of everything Jesus says in this prayer, he asked, hopes and prays to the Father, that he will ‘sanctify them (his disciples) in the truth.   This is clarified by God’s word (John 17:17).  

Of course, the Bible can be used to be divisive too, as we all might see portions of it differently, but Jesus isn’t speaking simply about the Scriptures, but he is speaking the main ‘truth’ of the Bible, that guides us to God, to fullness of life and joy, and to seeking unity with each other and for God’s great dream for this world.   This ‘Word’ of ‘truth’ is, of course, Jesus, who once challenged the experts of his own day: “You search the Scriptures for eternal life; but the Scripture speak of me, and you do not come to me?”  

What this means is that Jesus is praying for is ‘unity’ around himself, nothing and no one else.   “I in them, and you in me”, he prays.   So, in order to have unity in the church, and in the world, we have to seek him, and only him, and we must also allow Jesus to be Lord in everything, especially in how we love others who are different.

The year was 1939 and trainloads of Jewish children with pale, thin faces and sunken eyes were piling into Sweden. These boys and girls, mostly only three or four years old, would file off the trains with nothing except a large tag around their necks stating their name, age, and hometown. Most of them had already seen and experienced more than anyone should see or experience in a lifetime.

Swedish families were taking the children in for the duration of the war. One of the Swedes who opened his home to them was a man by the name of Johann Erickson, a middle-aged man who had no children of his own. When he learned that a frightened nine-year-old named Rolf needed a home, he responded and the little Jewish boy began to adjust to life in his new Swedish Lutheran home. At first, any knock on the door or loud voice outside would drive Rolf to the closet where he would hide and cover his head, but slowly the warmth and love of his new Swedish home began to change him. He put on weight and a spark of life returned to his eyes. Eventually, he even began to laugh and trust again.

Later after the Nazi invasion of Sweden, men at the machine shop where Johann worked warned him that he would lose the boy, that the Nazis would come and take him away. "They'll never take a child of mine," Erickson declared. "Not as long as I'm alive."

In keeping with the promise the Swedish government had made, Johann tried his best to respect Rolf's religious heritage. Even though he took Rolf to Lutheran services with him, he also saw that the boy learned his Jewish traditions and when the time came, he arranged for Rolf to be bar mitzvahed. For when the war ended, Johann wanted to be able to return to Rolf's parents a son who had been raised as closely as possible in the way they would have raised him themselves.

But when the war ended, the family was not reunited. Rolf's parents and all of his brothers and sisters had perished in the Holocaust, their fate one with the millions of others who had not survived the war. Rolf did not leave Sweden. Instead of returning to Germany — to the hometown scribbled on the note around his neck, Rolf remained in Sweden and became part of Johann's family. He was the son Johann never had. And over the years that followed, Rolf became a successful businessman and whenever Johann needed someone, Rolf was there. He took him to the doctor. He cared for him when he was ill. And when he lay on his deathbed, there was Rolf at his side to comfort him still. For in his time of need, Johann had offered him the love of God — and they were one in service.

As the candles of the Passover meal were burning short, as the meal drew to a close and Jesus’ time on earth way fading, Jesus gathered his disciples around and prayed for them in the time to come.  He prayed that God be known to them, that God’s joy would still come to them, and he also prayed that they would be one.  He prayed for them and he prayed for us.

Remember that great Old Testament text: “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and lean not upon your own understandings.  In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”  I memorized that text young, because I needed it then.  And I still need it now.  You do too.  This is true guidance for anyone, anywhere, and anytime who always must face the limits of who we are and what we know. 

If we really want this kind of unity, which brings this kind of joy, and reveals this kind of God, who is here, right now, we too, will have to grow up to become who God has called us to be.   This is exactly what ‘sanctify’ means, that we become more like the God who created all of us, rather than thinking only about ourselves.   Oneness and unity does not mean we have to give up expressing ourselves, but unity in Christ determines how we express ourselves and how we live together for the sake of the eternal glory of God.  This is the very God who asks us to ‘humble ourselves’ so we will one day be fully, finally, and rightly exalted by him.  

This is how eternity breaks into the our own now, and how we become ‘one’ not only with each other, but we find ‘oneness’ with the eternal, true, redeeming, loving God who is still being revealed in Christ’s spirit; in whomever that Spirit of is found.  Amen. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

“The Elementary Teaching...”

A sermon based upon Hebrews 5: 11- 6: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday September 13th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

Do you know the name Tom Dooley? Not the folk song Tom Dooley, but Dr. Tom Dooley?

You need to know his story, because Dr. Tom Dooley was a Twentieth Century saint. While serving in the Navy, he saw the physical suffering of the people of Southeast Asia - so much illness and suffering, so few doctors to deal with it. When his tour of duty was over, he resigned his commission and went to Indochina, now Laos, to serve as a medical missionary. There he poured out his life on behalf of the people. He saw patients in consultation. He prescribed. He did surgery. But not only that; he also recruited and trained doctors and nurses. And, he raised money and built hospitals.

Tom Dooley was a Christian, a devout Catholic. He had been made compassionate by the compassion of Jesus. And, he felt that he had received a call from God -a call to minister to the needs of those suffering people. His Christian commitment was symbolized by a religious medal he wore always around his neck. On the back of that medal he had inscribed some words by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Because of his Christian commitment, he had made some promises to God. His healing ministry was his way of keeping his promises. He had come to love the people of Laos. Because of his love for them, he had made promises both to God and to them. He worked at fever pitch, sometimes driving himself to near exhaustion. How would he make a dent in the need? So much to do-so little time with which to do it.

In the midst of all of that, it was discovered that Tom Dooley had cancer. The doctors told him that if he returned to the United States, availed himself of the best medical care, and got plenty of rest, he could extend his life by some considerable degree. But, his work was not finished. His commitment was not complete. So, he decided to spend whatever time he had left continuing his work there in Laos. If anything, he worked even longer hours. He continued to see patients, train doctors and nurses, raise money, build hospitals. He worked and worked and worked, until one day he collapsed, and shortly thereafter, he died.

At the funeral service, the priest told the inspiring story of his life - a life that looked very much like Jesus’ life of compassion. He told of how Tom Dooley had invested his life in the healing of the people of Laos. He told of the medal he had always worn around his neck, and he read the inscription:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Then the priest added, “And now you can sleep, Tom Dooley, because you have kept all your promises.”

The Christian life can be described in many different ways, but there no better way to understand it than becoming a person who makes a promise to God and keeps it.
And the most important ‘promise’ we make is to follow Jesus, as the old gospel song says, ‘wherever he leads’. 

To keep following Jesus is what Hebrews is talking about.  Before the writer goes on to speak of God’s promise, he addresses what it should mean for us to keep our promise to God by continuing to follow a Jesus to grow, mature and keep moving forward in faith.

The lack of spiritual maturity among certain Christian is the major concern of Hebrews.  These Christians are not moving forward ‘to perfection’ (maturity) as they should (6:1).  They have started drifting, and have become disobedient, precisely because they aren’t maturing like they should (3:12-15). God had made them a promise that one day, after the labors of life are over, they would enter his rest (4:1-12).  Now, they are in danger of forfeiting God’s promise because of they have drifted far away from Jesus (2:1). 

Fear for their future prompted one of the most famous warnings ever recorded in Scripture: ‘How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation.’  (2:3).  This was not a fear that they would not find salvation, but this was a fear that they might neglect and drift away (2:1) from the salvation offered to them through the hope of Jesus Christ.  Could we also, who have tasted of the heavenly gift of God’s love, as they did, neglect, drift and ‘fall away’ through our own immaturity or disobedience? 

We want to address that, but first, let’s begin where Hebrews begins.  The writer of Hebrews is encouraging his readers to ‘move on to perfection’, which is to move on  toward growth and maturity in Jesus Christ.  His point here is that they should have already moved beyond foundational, ‘basic teachings about Christ—-and others that he has listed here, like ‘repentance’, baptism, and these other basic teachings.  They should have moved beyond the basics, but they haven’t.

This reminds me a controversial book that came out a couple of years ago, by NC pastor JD Greer, entitled, ‘Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart!’  That title coming from a conservative pastor of a large, growing, mega church shocked a lot of people, and made a few others angry and upset. 

Regardless of the shocking title, the pastor was making an important point.  He said that when he was a young Christian, he was very insecure and kept asking Jesus into his heart.  He did it again and again, every time a new, dynamic evangelist came to town. He kept walking down the isle.  He got baptized four times.  He wanted and needed to be ‘sure’ of his faith.  But then, one day, he grew up.  He came to realize he should have been living his faith, not just ‘getting saved’ over and over again.  He even came to question whether being a Christian should mean having security.  He realized that being a Christian should be mean trusting Jesus and learning to take risks just like  Jesus challenged his own disciples to ‘launch out into the deep’ water (Lk 5:4).  He realized following Jesus isn’t something that happens because you say a simple ‘Sinner’s Prayer’, but it’s proved by how you live your life with and for Jesus.         

This is exactly the point the writer of Hebrews is making.  The Christian life isn’t about getting saved over and over, nor becoming sure in everything, but it’s about  growing up into maturity in Christ, and becoming the person you decided and promised Jesus that you would become in him.  Another way to put it is that sometime or other, you have to graduate Sunday School.  I don’t mean that you should stop going to Sunday School, but you need to grow from being a student to becoming a participant and contributor to the faith.   

The reason this is important is because, as the old saying goes, ‘if you don’t use it you’ll lose it’.  Any person who does not set goals, take steps, make advancements, and show improvements will lose interest in most anything they undertake.  And as a follower of Jesus, as the Apostle Paul told the Philippians,  you have to ‘strain forward’, press toward a goal, and hope to win ‘a prize’ of your heavenly calling (Phil. 3:14; 1 Cor 9;24).   

If you aren’t growing and advancing as a Christian, you are retreating and regressing as a person.  And just like the plant Hebrews refers in this text, you are like a worthless crop and are ‘on the verge of being cursed... dying, and ‘burned’ up (6:8).  What are we to make of such direct language as this?      

Well, we could decide to make nothing of it.   We could have the attitude which says: What’s the big deal? We all die, eventually, don’t we?  You could say: So, I remain an immature Christian.  Do I really have to go deeper, higher, further?  I like to keep things simple.  I have other things to do.  I’m busy.  I don’t have time to advance in my faith. 

This is the attitude of many, but Hebrews has a warning.  If you remain immature in your faith, the result is that you don’t stay ‘where’ you are or the ‘way’ you are.  You drift away (2:1) and eventually you fall away, Hebrews says (3:12; 6:6, see also Mark 417, 14:27; Lk 7:23, 2 Pet. 3:17).  Your faith becomes worthless (6:8).   This is what happens when your faith sits still, but life moves on.  Life is always moving.  If you don’t move with it, nurturing your faith and growing in faith, you’ve got problems.  It’s like flying a plane: You’re either soaring, or crashing.  It’s like a swimming in the water: Your either swimming or sinking.  Or, as Hebrews gives in an example:, it’s like the crop in your garden:  It’s either growing and producing, or your faith is being choked (6:8), is dying and will rot.   

Your faith in Jesus can be like taking in food too.  If you have tasted of the heavenly gift (6:4) as Hebrews suggests, and you have ‘tasted the goodness of the Word of God’ (6:5), but you did not swallow, your life isn’t being nourished and your spiritual life will be malnourished and it will die.  How can you be saved by faith when you have no faith left?  As Hebrews puts it, How can you escape, if your neglect so great a salvation? 

The language of Hebrews is pretty direct and sharp,  whether you are reading it directly or reading between the lines.   As Hebrews 4:12 says ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, ...we are all laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.   In other words, to put it simply: ‘You can run, but you can’t hide.’

Many Baptists, at least in America, have resisted such warnings from Hebrews’. Many throw up the phrase ‘eternal security’ or ‘once saved, always saved’ and try to say to themselves, this surely can’t happen to me.   I can certainly understand why people say this.  This text is troubling, threatening, and challenging too.  It suggests that our salvation is a work left unfinished.  It suggests that saving faith might not rest upon faith alone.  It suggests that our “Peter Pan-Faith” needs to leave “Neverland” and grow up and go to work just like a twenty something ‘tween’ needs to do.

Hebrews is suggesting something else too.  Faith is not a ‘once and for all’ transaction. Too many Christians have the mistaken notion, that to ‘walk down an isle’ at church , to make a profession of faith, and to get baptized is all that it means to be a Christian. Of course, Faith begins with all these kinds of things, just as Hebrews says, and our Faith in Jesus is based upon the finished ‘saving work’ of Jesus on the cross.  Still, as the Scripture affirms, this faith in Christ’s saving work must still be  worked out...with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2: 12 ) in our own lives.  Of course our salvation is finalized and finished on the cross, but it still must be appropriated into our lives in the ‘work’ we do and the live we live.  If our faith doesn’t work and mature, this says something we too need to ‘pay attention’ too (2:1). 

In 1984, one of the greatest biblical scholars ever known in Southern Baptist life, professor Dale Moody, studied Hebrews and came to believe that many Baptists were misreading Hebrews if they held to the mistaken idea that no matter what you do, no matter how you live, you won’t ‘lose your salvation’.   In his statement to Baptist Press, Moody said “there is a superficial faith and a saving faith, a temporary faith and a permanent faith.  The superficial faith falls away, but the saving faith perseveres to the end.”   Also Moody added that once those who had experienced a temporary faith, that is a faith that does not grow and mature, and they fall away from it, it is impossible to restore them.  In other words,  if your faith is superficial and temporary, and you lose it, then you can’t return to faith in Jesus ever again, as Hebrews says, even in the King James Bible: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt (Hebrews. 6:4-6).

Despite the scriptural foundation for his beliefs, Moody’s views did not agree with the Southern Baptist idea of the ‘security of believers’, and so this man, who was called “the most knowledgeable biblical theologian among Baptists” (Duke McCall) was dismissed and fired from teaching.  Dale Moody’s thirty-five year tenure at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary came to an end because of his biblical views on apostasy.   These are views that most all biblical Christians in the world hold, except Southern Baptists.

‘There’s a lot of biblical dynamite here.  You may not agree with Moody and you may not like to hear or read what Hebrews warns.  Even Moody used to try to clarify this conclusion with a cute little phrase, ‘The Faith that fizzles before the finish had a fatal flaw from the first.’   What he was trying to say is that you certainly can’t lose your salvation by accident, like you might lose your keys, your wallet.   As I used to hear baptist preachers quoting Jesus in John, ‘No one can snatch us out of God’s hand,’ but as a Methodist friend once rejoined:, ‘This doesn’t mean you can’t walk out’.  

For me, we just can’t take Hebrew’s warning away.  While I don’t think you can ‘lose’ salvation that shows evidence of being alive, active, and well,  I think anyone should have reason to be concerned if their faith is ‘dead on the vine’.  I don’t think anyone should trust their faith to any popular interpretation of Scripture, but we should actually read what Hebrews says, and take it very seriously.   If you faith isn’t maturing, growing, and developing, and is adrift, you could be at risk.  The key that unlocks the door to God’s future is to have a living, active, viable ‘Faith’.  And this isn’t the faith you once had, nor the faith you want to have, but it’s ‘a living’ faith that ‘meets the test’.  As Paul reminded the Corinthians: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! ( 2 Corinthians 13:5).

Will Willimon tells a story he once heard from Rabbi Friedman.   A pastor was called to meet someone at a beautiful location high up on a cliff.  When they sat down together to have a conversation,  the person commented how ‘loving and caring’ the pastor was.  The pastor answered “Thanks, but why did you want me to meet you here?”
“It’s a beautiful spot but a bit unusual location for a conversation.”
 Well, it’s because this place, this cliff overlooking town, the view from up here, has become an obsession for me. I just can’t get it out of my head. Thought that maybe you could help.”
 “Help you with an ‘obsession’?”  “In what way?”
“It’s kinda hard to talk about. But you are always so affirming and are such a good, open listener.  “You see,” the person continued, “For the longest time I’ve had this urge to come up here and jump off this cliff. Just to see what happens.”
“What?”  “See what happens, are you serious?”  “You could die!”
“Well,” the person answered, “I don’t see it as jumping off!  I’m just planning on walking on the edge and see what happens!  I’ve always been kind of lucky. Besides, life’s been a getting stale lately, and I thought this might give me a rush.”
“No, You can’t be serious. Why would want to do this?”
“Pastor, don’t you know that in the Bible, didn’t Jesus say that ‘God will send angels to take care of you.”
“No, Jesus didn’t say that, the devil did.  The devil was trying to get him to do what you’re talking about.”
“Well, maybe it is the devil, maybe not.  Who am I to judge? “No pain, no gain!”  Isn’t that what they say.  I’ve a got a real spiritual of adventure in me.  I like living life on the edge.
‘Man, you’re talking crazy!  The pastor said.  This is scary!  ...You don’t have to do this!”
As the person looks over the cliff, the pastor reminds him: “Now, please don’t do this, but if you jump, it’s your decision, not mine!”  I can’t stop you....
“Why not!”  The person said, as they jumped.” (Stories, by W. Willimon, 2020, Abington Press, Location 284, Kindle Edition).   

That story was told to remind pastor’s they aren’t Saviors.  We can help people, but we can’t save people.  But the story also reminds us of something else.  This is something that never stops, even after we become a Christian.  We always have ‘free will’.   While I don’t think anybody can accidentally ‘lose’ salvation, we can lose faith.   And it takes faith to ‘endure to the end’.  

Our need for faith doesn’t stop when we become a Christian.  We always have the freedom to follow and grow in faith, and we also have the freedom to drift and fall away from faith.  Does this mean we lose our salvation, or does this mean our faith wasn’t true faith?  That’s really the wrong question.   The right answer is that any faith that doesn’t isn’t growing and doesn’t follow through, ‘has a fatal flaw from the first’.  Even ‘flawed’ faith can appear real, just like counterfeit money.   The only one who knows the difference is us, and God. So, it’s up to us to constantly ‘examine ourselves‘

There’s certainly good reason to keep growing and maturing in our faith, rather than neglecting it.  And we are reminded, as this text ends, that God isn’t out to get us, but this direct talk is to warn, remind, and prevent the ‘worse’ from happening.   The author writes to encourage the Hebrews toward maturity in their faith.  He wants them to affirm their faith in Jesus and to rest assured of ‘hope to the very end’ (6:11).

Isn’t this always the nature of God’s warnings to us in all of Scripture?  God isn’t out to get us, but to save us.  And the greatest enemy we have, is not an enemy ‘out there’ somewhere, and it’s certainly not God; who is for us, not against us; but the greatest enemy is ‘within us’ —it is our own selves.

During the early years of football, as the second quarter ended in the championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, Green Bay Coach Curly Lambeau thought about what to say.  This would be one of the most important chalk talks of his career. With the Packers losing 16-14, the players counted on him for a revised game plan.

Unfortunately, Lambeau never gave that all-important halftime talk. He got lost in thought on his way to the locker room. He opened the door to what he thought was the clubhouse and wound up on the street. Before he realized his error, the door slammed shut behind him. The coach was locked out. Lambeau pounded on the door, but it did no good. Then he raced to the nearest gate. The security guard refused to let him in. "If you're the coach, what are you doing out here on the sidewalk?" the guard sneered. Lambeau hustled off to another gate and another guard. But no amount of pleas or threats could get him in there either. The second guard shoved him away saying, "Yeah, sure, and I'm the King of England."

 Meanwhile, back in the locker room, the Packers were wondering where their coach went. As the halftime minutes went by, the puzzled players waited. They couldn't agree on a new game plan. By this time, their angry, red-faced coach had charged the main gate, only to be stopped once again. Screaming at the top of his lungs, Lambeau attracted a big crowd, including some reporters.

 The reporters recognized Lambeau right away. They convinced the guards that he was indeed the Green Bay coach. By the time he reached the locker room, though, the second half was about to begin.   Without Lambeau's instructions, the Packers faltered in the last two quarters and lost the championship 23-17.  (Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, THE FISHING HALL OF SHAME (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1991).

Coach Lambeau's blunder reminds us of something God would never do.   God would never lock anyone out from his love. As CS Lewis once said, the gates of hell are locked only from the inside.  If we find ourselves outside of God's loving mercy and grace, its because we have locked Christ out and neglected to heed his call to forgiveness, redemption, and grow to maturity in his love.

Recently, when Harvey Weinstein was convicted of terrible crimes against women, a news reporter asked one of the jurors how he felt when they voted to convict.  The young juror answered very wisely:  ‘I took what we were doing very seriously.  This is a human being not anyone less.” 

I found it interesting that a person who many might call a monster, but that the juror who had voted to convict, with all that power in his hands, understood that every person should be respected, even when they have no self-respect for themselves.   In the same way, a person is loved by God unconditionally.  God does not lock any sinner away from redemption, but we can lock God out.  We are given free will.  We have the freedom to grow and mature in love, or we have the freedom to turn and fall away from love.  God gives us this freedom.  God will give us what we choose.  Why would anyone ever neglect to choose him?   Amen

Sunday, September 6, 2020

“...Not By Faith Alone”

A sermon based upon James 2: 14-26
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday September 6th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

Happy Labor Day Weekend!    I find it quite interesting that today’s Scripture passage is about having a Faith that ‘works’ or ‘labors’.  I didn’t plan this.  All I planned was to be preaching on Spiritual Growth passages from the New Testament books in the order they are believed to have been written.  It just worked out this way.  It’s one of those coincidences that invites us to think beyond the coincidence.
And speaking of thinking, it would be good for you to put on your ‘thinking caps’ for understanding today’s biblical text.  This text will require some serious laborious, and deeper thinking.   Even in the King James Version, James writes: Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (2:24)
When James appears to question whether ‘faith alone’ can save you and me, he is getting into some ‘deep’ territory.   It seems like he’s going against what most of the New Testament says about salvation by grace through faith and not by works (Eph. 2: 8-9).  It also seems like he’s going against what Paul, the first great missionary-theologian wrote: “For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds…(Rom. 3:20)…he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26)   It even seems like he’s going against what the great reformers said in the five great ‘Solas’ (Latin for ‘by only’) of the reformation:  we are saved, sola scriptura, sola fida,  sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli deo Gloria;  by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. 
If this is not what James meant, he needed to explain himself, but he doesn’t.  He does say some other very important things, which is why his letter made it into our Bible.  But still, it was because of this very text that Martin Luther called James’ letter ‘an epistle made of straw’’.  And indeed, it does sound as if he is going against Paul, against what the Reformed and even the Baptist Faith was founded upon.   How did something that sounds so contradictory  the ‘righteousness by faith in Jesus’ slip into this ‘New Testament ‘by (his) blood’ (Luke 22:20)?
Didn’t I just say this was going to be a ‘put on your thinking cap’ message?  If you normally don’t think this much, today, if you understand what’s being said, you’ll have to grow in your spiritual and biblical maturity.  Today, you will have to ‘put an end to childish ways, as Paul said (1 COR. 13:11) and grow into the kind of knowledge he called ‘perfect’, which means mature or adult-like (1 COR. 13:10) Unfortunately, not everyone grows up into this kind of spiritual maturity of thought, but today’s Scripture can help you make a step forward, if you will.

So, first, let’s try to understand why James was so upset about, that he called people who would trust in being saved by faith alonesenseless’ (v. 20).  This word ‘senseless’ means ‘dim witted’ and it’s a very strong word for Christians to be throwing around at each other, don’t you think?     
Hearing Christians disagree like this is why many people don’t like church and what many also don’t like about the Bible.    It’s just not always clear, they say.   It seems too contradictory at places.   It requires too much study, too much reading, and too much work to understand.    For instance, in Genesis chapter 1, God is said to create light before he creates the Sun (cp. 1: 3; 17ff).   How could that happen?  Or, how about the infamous question about Cain, who after killing his only brother.  By the Genesis storyline, Cain’s brother Abel appears to be the only other human in the world besides Adam and Eve, but then, we are told how Cain runs away to get married.  Where did Can get his wife (4:17)?   And what about the really big one.   Compare the very same story being told in 2 Samuel to how it is stated differently in 1st Chronicles: In 2 Samuel 1: 24 it reads: “The LORD'S anger against Israel flared again, and he incited David against the Israelites by prompting him to number Israel and Judah.   But in 1 Chronicles 21:1 it reads: “And Satan rose up against Israel, and he enticed David into taking a census of Israel.”   Equating the Lord’s anger to Satan?  Now that’s really does require some thinking, explaining and further reading, doesn’t it?  
Of course, some will say that’s the Old Testament, but right here, in today’s text, the New Testament requires thinking too.   Why is James so intent on making every ‘saved-by-grace-through-faith’ Christians upset and angry?   And why is this Bible, which has for us the ‘words of life’, so difficult to understand at times?  When it comes to life and death, which in the Bible means questions about ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal death’, shouldn’t James have been a little more careful with his words?   
 Perhaps you’ve heard about the young minister who was being interviewed for his first pastorate. The Pulpit Committee had invited him to come over to their church for the interview. The committee chairman asked, "Son, do you know the Bible pretty good?"
     The young minister said, "Yes, pretty good."  
The chairman asked, "Which part do you know best?"
He responded saying, "I know the New Testament best."
"Which part of the New Testament do you know best," asked the chairman.
The young minister said, "Several parts."
The chairman said, "Well, why don't you tell us the story of the Prodigal Son."
The young man said, "Fine."    "There was a man of the Pharisees name Nicodemus, who went down to Jericho by night and he fell upon stony ground and the thorns choked him half to death.   "The next morning Solomon and his wife, Gomorrah, came by, and carried him down to the ark for Moses to take care of.  But, as he was going through the Eastern Gate into the Ark, he caught his hair in a limb and he hung there forty days and forty nights and he afterwards did hunger. And, the ravens came and fed him.
      "The next day, the three wise men came and carried him down to the boat dock and he caught a ship to Nineveh.   When he got there he found Delilah sitting on the wall.  He said, "Chunk her down, boys, chunk her down." And, they said, "How many times shall we chunk her down, till seven time seven?" And he said, "Nay, but seventy times seven." And they chunk her down four hundred and ninety times. "And, she burst asunder in their midst. And they picked up twelve baskets of the leftovers. And, in the resurrection whose wife shall she be?"
     With this, the Committee chairman interrupted the young minister and said to the remainder of the committee, "Fellows, I think we ought to ask the church to call him as our minister.   I know he’s awfully young, but he sure does know his Bible."

           Perhaps most of us know the most important part of the Bible’s message:   God loves us.  Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.   Jesus rose from the dead.   Of course, this is the main Christian message of the Bible and it’s wonderful, but even our knowledge of these most important ‘truths’ in the Bible is partial.   As Paul once told the Corinthians, we only know ‘in part’ until the perfect comes (1 Cor. 13:9).  The perfect knowledge still has not yet come (1 Cor. 13:10).  Though some think it already has.   Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that this Holy Bible, which is divinely ‘inspired’ (God breathed), Paul says, ‘and is useful…for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3:16), is inspired by God, but it’s still a book written by fallible and imperfect human beings were still ‘growing’ in knowledge and understanding.   Sometimes we forget or ignore this ‘human’ side of the Bible, and people can lose faith because they can’t distinguish between the human part of the Bible and the divine part.
     In a recent book about the Bible’s as God inspired truth, Pastor Gregory Boyd, writes how as a young Christian he went to the University and became confused to learn about this ‘human side’ of the Bible.   This became especially sharp and difficult when he learned how a literal reading of the Bible contradicts what humans know from Science.  Learning this, he lost his faith, at least for a while.  
    Later, however, after meeting a new Christian friend on campus, Boyd started to grow deeper in his understanding of the Bible.   He came back to the Bible, not as a fully ‘finished’ book, but as more of an ongoing conversation.   He came to understand that knowing God, knowing Jesus, and knowing the Bible too, can only happen through accepting the humiliation, weakness, and preaching of the cross. (INSPIRED IMPERFECTION: How the Bible’s Problems Enhance Its Divine Authority Copyright © 2020 Gregory A. Boyd. Published by Fortress Press).
Only by fully accepting the human side of the Bible, that is, by acknowledging and accepting the ‘imperfections’ of the Bible, did he fully gain the most important knowledge of all.   This is that God inspired the Bible, not for us to worship perfect words, but God inspired all Scripture to point us to Jesus, who is the perfect Word of God being expressed in human form.  As Jesus said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; …it is they that bear witness to me.”  (Jn. 5:39 RSV).   
      Now, of course, it takes some maturity, some growing up, and some humility and some human effort too.   That’s what Greg Boyd had to do both in his mind and in his heart.  He had to grow up in his understanding of the Bible or lose his faith in Jesus as the Christ.   He didn’t need to throw the Bible away, because it is humanly written just like he needed to understand what it means that a humanly written book is also divinely inspired.  This isn’t ‘double-talk’ nor is it a trick.   It’s the way all truth comes to human beings.   First, we have a ‘child-like’ knowledge, but then, if we keep working, growing, and maturing, we will grow up and become mature in this knowledge.   But this ‘growth’ and ‘maturity’ doesn’t happen by accident.   It’s a gift from God, but it can still require a lot of ‘hard work’.
     In this way, it’s very important, especially when we read something like we are reading today in the letter of James, not to read the Bible as a ‘closed book’.   A ‘closed book’ or ‘letter’ can quickly become a ‘dead letter’.  You know what happens to ‘dead letters’ in the ‘dead letter office’, don’t you?  They never reach their destination.  Even though they might have been very nicely and perfectly written and finished, since addressee can’t be found, they are considered ‘dead’.    
     The Bible isn’t a ‘dead letter’, it’s a living truth.    But this living and divine truth still has to fit and accommodate our human, limited, but growing understanding.   And since the Bible’s truth must enter our ongoing story it is more like an ongoing dialogue than a ‘closed book’.   The moral, spiritual, and eternal truths revealed in the Bible are not ‘closed’, but they must come to us as open-ended, given to us in ‘partially’, so we ourselves, each on our own spiritual journeys, might be able to join the conversation and accept God’s invitation to find living and saving truth.
    When it comes to growing up, we all must realize, as adults must do, that the Bible, just like life, is more complicated than we once thought.   But also, when we grow in this very mature way of reading the Bible, we’ll also find that by accepting this challenge God’s eternal truth can be discovered by humans just like us.

      So, if the Bible invites us into God’s ‘ongoing’ conversation of truth, what indeed is James inviting us to think about, when here, James is saying the ‘opposite’ of what we normally think?  Is there way that we can, as the Bible says, ‘rightly divide’ (or explain, 2 Tim. 2:15) what James when he seems to question whether ‘faith can save’ us alone, without good works (2:14)?
What we need to understand, which I think helps us start to ‘grow’ up in our own faith and reading of the Bible, is why James was writing in the first place.    The ‘context’ of James words are very important, just as the context of all the Bible’s words are important.   It’s like the story of the man whose devotional reading consisted of cracking his Bible at random and reading the first verse his finger touched.   He didn’t care about context, he was just wanting God to speak to him.   So, one morning this was his verse for the day: "And Judas went out and hanged himself."
That can't be it, he thought. So he tried again. "Go thou and do likewise" was his second hit when he randomly opened to another page.
Confused, he thought, the third time is the charm! It wasn't.  He opened the Bible and it read: "What thou doest, do quickly!"
Context means everything.   You simply can’t read any of the Bible or take it seriously without understanding some of it.   In one part of the Bible Jesus says “Judge not!”   In another place Jesus says ‘the way you judge, you’ll be judged’ assuming we will judge each other.   In another place Jesus says, “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword”, but then in another place, he also says, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.”   Either this about contradictions, or it’s about context.   
We all know how many things we say or do could be taken out of context and used against us.   For example, if I’m at home and my wife says to me, ‘Are you out of your ever-loving mind?’  Now, she’s just expressing her disappointment in something I said or did.  But if we are at the doctor’s office, and she tells the doctor, “I think he out of his every-loving mind!”  I’m in even bigger trouble.  Context means a lot, right?
      Another example, says for example, if you’re fishing in a boat and someone says, “Will you get off the net?” you look around your feet to see if you are standing on the landing net.   But if you’re sitting at a computer and Mom or Dad says to you, “Will you get off the net?” you’re looking for the “Close Browser” button. Same word, but different surroundings make the word mean something completely different.
The point is, that everything depends upon the current context.   Here, we can’t rightly read James until we fully understand the ‘context’ which is why James writes and where James is coming from when he says what he does.    We can gain context in verse 15:  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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?  17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
What we understand from this context, is that James wasn’t writing concise doctrine, talking theory, nor trying to make a statement of whether or not faith in Jesus saves.   James is simply making a very practical point about what true having faith means in the real world.  Just saying all the right words or having the right beliefs is not what ‘saving faith’ is about.   “Even demons believe…”  He says.
If you want to get detailed about it, Ephesians also adds that ‘salvation by grace through faith’ is followed by with ‘good works’.   Even after Paul writes of being ‘justified by faith’, he goes on about living as a ‘living sacrifice’.   Paul too, like James here, both understand that saving faith will move from our heads to our hearts.    As James challenges, ‘You show me faith without works’I’ll show you my faith by good works.   You can tell when a person’s dead.  They aren’t moving.  They do nothing.   You can also tell when a faith is alive.  They are on the move.  They are doing something.  They (we) react positively to someone who’s in need.
 James isn’t negating ‘justification by faith alone’, he’s being practical, not theoretical.   He isn’t stating ‘how’ God saves.  He’s stating how God’s living, loving, and continuing gift of grace and salvation is lived out in us.  When we really ‘have it’, we’’ll want to “Pass It On” in both word and deed.  
I want to begin the sermon today by reading the first part of an article that appeared in Reader's Digest years ago.  The title of the article was "Mama Hale and Her Little Angels". The bold introduction read:   "The baby will not stop screaming. On the third floor of a brownstone in New York City's Harlem, a woman holds the two-week-old infant in her arms. The little body trembles and twitches with pain, but Clara Hale has no medicine to offer against that agony, unless you count love. In an old bentwood rocker, she soothes the hurting child. "I love you and God loves you," she promises. "Your mother loves you too, but she's sick right no, like you are." She coaxes the baby to nurse at a bottle. She bathes the child, croons softly, tries a little patty-cake game.

"After a while, maybe you get a smile," she tells a visitor. "So you know the baby's trying too. You keep loving it -- and you wait."
Clara Hale was 79 years old, a tiny, birdlike woman with nut-brown skin and a curling halo of white hair. "The baby craves something he doesn't understand," she explains. The "something" is heroin, and it may take a month before the baby is cleansed of the addiction that began in his mother's womb.
A physician, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a social worker have examined the infant and written a prescription the same one Mrs. Hale found by instinct 15 years ago, when she started cradling such drug-poisoned babies: lots of patience and calm, mixed with megadoses of love. Her cure works, but that is just the beginning of being one of "Mama Hale's children." (As Told by Maxie Dunnam from Claire Safran, The Reader's Digest, September 1984, pp. 49-50)
Clara Hale spent her lifetime caring for other women's children.  In a fifth-floor walkup building, she raised 40 foster children as well as three of her own.  It was a place that came to be known as Hale House, a unique haven of help for the helpless in the heart of the drug darkness of New York's Harlem.  By the time she was 79 years old, she cared for 487 babies of addicts.
Now, we may not be in that kind of situation, but we are always in a ‘situation’ where faith, hope, and love in action is being called for.   Mama Hale understood what James was writing about.  She put her faith into practice as a good work.      It’s a reminder that somehow, true faith will ‘work’, as the song says, ‘until Jesus comes.’   Or, to paraphrase what a brilliant theologian once said, "Whoever preaches (or lives) only one-half the Gospel still isn’t preaching or living the true gospel ( Based on Dr. Hans Kung, in Viewpoint, General Council on Ministries, January, 1987, page 4).
This points out why I don’t think we should say that James was writing to contradict Paul, but only to complete any misunderstanding of the gospel.   I’m sure there were differences in how they viewed things.  There always is.   No two people, nor two Christians see everything alike.  But what I like is that both Paul and James remain in the conversation together.   We need them both, for we can still lean too far in either direction:  We can forget what we can’t do to be saved, just like we can forget what we should do if we are saved.      
James was correcting some of the ‘empty’ ‘wordy’ and ‘head’ faith himself had witnessed within the churches.     James was aiming for the heart and for love.  For only by being who we say we are and doing what we say we’ll do, will we overcome such childish, infantile, immature faith.  Amen.