Wednesday, September 12, 2012

faith in WHAT


“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For what good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you?”

A couple weeks ago I was with a friend and in a moment of vulnerability he told me he didn’t understand how it is that I, or for that matter anyone, could have faith. Having faith in today’s world, he thought, was altogether absurd.

Clearly it was an upbeat conversation.

But I do want you to sit with this question a bit – is the whole concept of having faith absurd? Is that really how things work – some people have faith, and others don’t?

Because – I would say that answering this question well is central to lifelong Christian formation. Because – when it comes to faith, everyone has it. You see this idea – that some people have faith, and that others don’t, is really popular. But it’s simply not true. Everyone has faith.

For example, I believe that we’re here because of a personal, loving Creator and that the meaning of existence culminates in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. And of course, a lot of people believe that we’re here by random chance – that there is no grand design. But here’s the catch – both are faith perspectives, both are built on systems of belief. Because everyone has faith. And there are no exceptions to this rule.

Now, stay with me for a bit, because it’s really important to understanding what it means to be committed to our own formation. Not only does everyone have faith, but how we act is tied to our faith. In other words, we all make decisions every day about what’s important and about how to treat people. And these decisions, or how we behave, always come from our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world. And so when it comes to how we live, we’re not talking about faith or no faith, belief or no belief. We’re talking about faith in what? Belief in what? And so the question isn’t whether or not we have faith? The question is always, what are we consistently choosing to put our faith in, and how are we taking responsibility for doing that?

And that’s the question that James demands that we wrestle with in today’s epistle. “My brothers and sisters,” he asks – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” You see, James lived in a world where social class was really important – where it was expected that people with wealth, power, and influence would be treated with a certain dignity. And lower class people, it was widely believed, just didn’t deserve the same respect. Plain and simple, that’s just what James’ world believed. And apparently, James’ community – people who claimed to believe in Jesus – drank the kool-aid. And so in James’ community, the rich were treated like kings and the poor were treated like paupers. And so James just has to ask – this community that claims to believe in Jesus – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe?” Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

Now the reason I say all this is because it’s nearly impossible to grow spiritually if we fail to understand what faith actually is. And we do that when we reduce faith to a series of statements that can either be “accepted” or “rejected.” But that isn’t how faith works, which is why he asks do you really believe? Because faith, whether we’re religious or not, is what’s operating inside our hearts shaping how we live our lives. And that’s ultimately what James wants us to wrestle with: what’s shaping our life? Faith in Jesus Christ? Or faith in something else?

Now to be clear, James’ community wasn’t bad or overly-hypocritical or even that different from most churches. But like all of us – myself included – James’ community hadn’t allowed the Gospel to penetrate their hearts. For example, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: “for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, can you hear the audacity of Paul’s claim? His claim is that the King of Creation emptied himself and was treated like a pauper so that we – paupers by nature – might reign for eternity with God as Kings. And isn’t that the Gospel? That God became poor so we might become rich? Because if that’s really true, it’s not enough to accept the Gospel. Or to say we have faith in the facts. Because accepting the Gospel will never change our lives. But really believing it, allowing the truth that in Christ we are Kings and richer than we could ever imagine – allowing that truth to penetrate our hearts – that has the power to change our life. To change our church. That has the power to change our world.

And so with that being said, here’s what I’d like to offer you this week – two things.

First, pay attention to how you live and ask yourself – what does my life tell me about what I believe? For example, say you discover there’s a grudge you refuse to let go of, ask yourself – do I really believe that forgiving others is the best way to live, or do I believe Jesus was naive? Do I really believe I need forgiveness? Or that God also hates the person that I hate? Is that what I believe? Or maybe you find there’s “no time” to devote to your relationship with God, ask yourself – do I really believe that spending time with God – scripture, solitude, silence, service – will change my life? You may say you believe that, but if you’re not doing it, do you really believe God longs to spend time with you?

Again, I am not saying we’re bad or that we’re hypocrites. No, I’m saying that we’re Kings, royalty, adopted children of God, co-heirs with Christ, and that the bulk of our problems come from the fact that this amazing reality hasn’t fully penetrated our hearts.

You see the truth is some of the beliefs that currently shape our lives are absurd. To believe that we should usually get our way, or that we have to look out for number one or that there’s nothing beyond what we can see or touch or feel or my favorite, that we’re always the victim – not one of these beliefs is consistent with really believing in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. And so this week pay attention to how you act to see what you really believe.

Second, take responsibility for becoming a person more like Jesus. You see our transformation may be God’s work, but God does ask us to show up. God will send the wind. But if we’re not in the habit of putting up the sails the boat’s just not going to move. And as Episcopalians there are certain ways we put ourselves in the presence of God to be transformed – through our liturgy, the sacraments, the devotional reading of scripture, meeting Jesus Christ in the poor and needy, silence, solitude, and above all else community. And that’s why this church is so important. You see our faith in Christ may be personal but it’s definitely not private. And so taking responsibility for our lives before God is a communal effort. It means getting involved, taking ownership and rearranging our priorities. But I know you’ve got a rector that’s excited about leading you in that effort.

Because at the end of the day formation is about growing into a salvation that’s we’ve already received. Because already we’re kings, royalty, adopted sons and daughters of God, but really believing that – well, that’s a lifelong journey. And so don’t think that formation is about doing good deeds to make God proud of us. It’s about tapping into the abundance of life that Jesus offers, becoming more like Him from the inside out, and living our lives with increasing purpose, freedom, joy, confidence, fruitfulness and meaning as we become more like Him. After all, Christianity isn’t about accepting Jesus Christ. Christianity is about embracing Jesus Christ.

You see, everyone here has faith. The question is not do we have faith or not. The question is always, what will we put our faith in?