Sunday, September 6, 2015

faith and works

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Epistle reading today is from the letter of St James. There's an interesting story behind that letter, and particularly the passage we heard read. I'm sure that most of you know that at the time of the Reformation in Europe that there was a good number of books of the Bible that the Protestant reformers felt that the early Church Councils had been wrong to include as part of the Canon of Scripture. So they took them out! They were still included as a kind of appendix in all bibles that were published in Britain and Ireland – in fact they had to be by law. It was only about 150 years ago that, to save on costs, that printers were allowed to leave them out. That is why today there are more books in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles than there are in what might be called Protestant Bibles. But our own Articles of Religion still consider them to be recommended reading; and so the Bibles you will find on lecterns in churches always include these books; and they are also occasionally included in our lectionary readings as well.

Of course, all of the books that were taken out were from the Old Testament. But that doesn't mean that was where the reformers wanted to stop! There was a few in the New Testament that weren't very popular with them as well. One for example was the Revelation to St John; quite a few found that one problematic – possibly because they found it difficult to understand. Martin Luther particularly did not like the letter of St James. You might be able to guess why. Luther was very keen on the idea of 'sola fide' – by faith alone. And St James says quite clearly: 'What good is it, my brethern, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?' and 'So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.'

Now the reason this passage worried Luther, if I understand things correctly, was because he was worried it might give people the idea that they could earn their place in heaven by way of their good works. One of the reasons that this was an issue for him, you may recall, was because of the scandalous sale of indulgences that had been taking place in the lead up to the Reformation where people were being the quite erroneous impression that for a sum of money they could effectively buy their place, or the place of a loved one's place for them, in heaven. Luther wanted to stamp that idea out – and if had to edit the Bible to suit, then so be it!

Well, not really – he realised that there were limits. But he found it annoying just the same. And in a way I understand; it isn't good for people to think they can earn their way into heaven. We may think here of our Lord's words when he told us the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The the first was full of pride for all the good things he had done; but it is the latter whom God praises, for he is the one who understands that he is in need of God's mercy.

But there is a danger, too, in thinking all you have to do is claim to have faith in Jesus to be saved. I think here of a documentary I was watched about a group who called themselves Christian bikers. The reporter was interviewing one who was regaling him with how he intended that very night to get drunk, use illegal drugs, and engage in further, and even more serious, immoral activity until the dawn should break. And how, asked the reporter, do you square this behaviour with your Christian faith? Tomorrow, smiled the biker, I shall be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. No sorrow for his sins; no intention of turning or even trying to turn from those sins in the future; just a presumption that as long as he claimed to be a man of faith he could behave as he wished.

Not so. For, as Psalm 62 tells us, the Lord will repay us according to our deeds; as St James tells us, it is no good to say we have faith but have no works; and, as our Lord Jesus reminds us in the parable of the sheep and the goats, those whose faith have not been reflected in their deeds will be found wanting on the day of judgement.

Christ calls us them to a balance between faith and works. Yes, we must have faith and know that we rely on God's mercy. And we must pray daily for that mercy for ourselves and others. But that faith must be seen by all the world in how we live our lives; and when we fail, as we know we all will, sometimes in sins of commission, sometimes in sins of omission, whether those sins be in thought, or word or deed, then we cry out to heaven 'Lord, have mercy on me a sinner' – full of sorrow for our sins, asking God's grace to be stronger in the future to obey his law, and full of confidence and hope that he will grant that mercy to all who love him and show that love in the way they live their lives. Amen

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