What Are You Going to Do About it?
Ephesians 2:4-10, James 2:14-24, September 15, 2014
Preached by Ruling Elder Michael Patton
When I first contemplated this sermon, it was after hearing the story of the prodigal son...yet again. And as I was listening to some people's reactions to *that* sermon, it made me realize that those who identified with "the good son"—while perhaps not seeing him as sinless—definitely thought his sins eren't as bad as his brother's, and they could understand his righteous anger. Could they really be missing his sins of pride, of envy? As I recall, those are two of the seven "mortal" sins. These are the same sins that are so apparent to us in the Pharisees and Sadducees. Heck, "envy" is even in the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.
Aha! The topic of my sermon! I will rail against the hypocrisy of the "good" son—and as subtext, against those holier-than-thou types—highlighting those sins of his that many of us can see in others but not in ourselves; the same sins that keep people away from our church; the same sins that cause potential allies to avoid "Christians." How original! I'm sure no one has ever thought of this before!
Luckily for me—and by extension you—God gave me more than a year to think about this sermon. You will notice that neither of the readings today was The Prodigal Son. No, the more I thought about it the more I heard a different call of challenge. This challenge was more positive, a challenge to put faith into works.
Acting out our faith has always been one of the things I love about Christianity, though it is not exclusive to Christianity. In fact, helping the poor is one of the five pillars of Islam. Acting out our faith doesn't require riches or theological acumen; only the ability to express love to everyone, everywhere. We are called to be God's messengers in the temporal world, the world of sin. We are not called to judge, we are called to love. One of my favorite hymns is
"They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" because it focuses on the actions we take in the world, those taken out of love. It says nothing about What Would Jesus Do? bracelets or fish bumper stickers, those trappings some Christians use to show the world how faithful they are, but instead can alienate in the same way that fraternity pins say "You are not one of us." But I am digressing from my original sermon idea.
I thought this sermon would be about "works": The actions we take in the world in the name of God. But one can't talk about works without wading into the theological debate about whether one is *saved* by works or by faith. Salvation, or justification, through works is considered a Roman Catholic tenet. This idea is represented in the concept of penance. Our second reading today is the verse most often cited to emphasize this point. Paul in his letter to James clearly says that "faith without works is dead." It is not enough to say that Jesus is your Lord and Savior; you must live your life accordingly. Other verses in the Bible underscore this idea as well. The most compelling comes from Matthew, Chapter 25, in Jesus' story of the Day of Judgment. Jesus admits into the Kingdom of Heaven those who had fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, housed the stranger, comforted the sick, and visited the prisoner. He does not ask if they had accepted him as the Messiah or to which church they went. He focused on how they showed love in the world.
But we are children of the Reformation, and Martin Luther specifically stated that the "system of works" was not necessary. We have already been saved. Today's first reading explicitly states that we have been saved by faith and Martin Luther focused on that point heavily in his meditations which led him to posting his theses on the door of the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.
But context is everything in these discussions. Martin Luther was challenging the system of indulgences that had corrupted some in the church. The Roman Catholic church at the time was operating a kind of theological shake-down. If you think the Italian mafia was bad in the 1920s—"You have such a nice business here, I'd hate for something to happen to it."—this Italian church of the 1520s was demanding bribes for eternal life; the eternal life that had already been granted though Christ's crucifixion. Luther held the church to a higher standard and demanded they live up to it.
And we who profess to be disciples of Christ should be held to a higher standard. God has asked it of us since the beginning of time. I suspect that the reason the Old Testament exists in our Bible is not just because Christianity was considered at its birth to be just another faction of Judaism or even that we trace our origins through the Jewish faith, and definitely not because we are God's new "chosen people." No, it is there because God's desires for mankind are universal: Only worship me, don't kill, don't act out of jealousy, set a specific time aside to worship. Jesus did not tell the early Christians to ignore the old laws but extend them into all of their actions, not just make them religious rites.
Which brings us back to where this sermon got its start: The story of the Prodigal Son.
We have been given the most amazing gift ever! We know that there will be eternal peace waiting for us at the end of our temporal lives. And it is truly a gift. We didn't—and can't—earn it. It was given freely out of love; the same love a parent has for his or her children.
CNN Money ran a story in August saying that the average cost of raising a single child to adulthood in 2013 was over $240,000. This figure did not even include college. And you thought it was tough to pay back student loans. So how many promissory notes for nearly a quarter million dollars were presented for payment to eighteen-year-olds on their birthdays? I'm guessing very few. As we talked about in the children's time: God loves us because he loves us. He doesn't demand anything from us in return and there is nothing we can do that is so bad that he will stop loving us and caring for us.
I always get a kick out of professional athletes who buy their parents a new house or car as the first thing they do with their new-found riches. They do not do so out of a sense of obligation, but instead they are expressing gratitude. So it doesn't matter whether we see ourselves as the Good son or the Prodigal: We both have the same Father who loves us unconditionally and has given us the gift of eternal peace. Does that not awe you? It awes me. So that just leaves us with the question: What are you going to do about it?