by Ellen Sims
texts:James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-30
Today’s lection from the book of James begins by asking readers if they really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. “Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” we, too, are asked. Our response may depend, in part, on what we think the word “believe” means. We’ll get to that in a moment.
First let’s bring in our Gospel story, which pushes that challenging question further. Implicit in the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is the possibility that Jesus himself changed his “beliefs” as he continued to learn and grow. The story in Mark suggests that Jesus had to adjust his moral compass after meeting someone from a different culture and walk of life. He first denied her the healing she sought for her sick child—and compared her to a dog—until she wittily responded, “Sir, even the dogs under the table [get to] eat the children’s crumbs.” A bothersome Gentile woman stretched the range of Jesus’s compassion, enlarged his perspective, and affected his beliefs.
I hope there were some folks yesterday at the Drag Queen Story Hour who encountered the equivalent of a witty and winning Syrophoenician woman—and not only gained respect for her but increased in faith as a result. I came away from the Story Hour with a greater faith in humankind, particularly humankind in Mobile, Alabama, because of the palpable love and joy we were generating outside the Ben May Library—and the prevailing message of affirmation for folks who’ve been traditionally seen as outsiders, “dogs” to use Jesus’s disparaging term. When a woman on the margins insists that we listen to her — whether she is demanding care for her sick daughter in the region of Tyre or demanding we hear the story of The Rainbow Fish in Mobile — we have a chance to deepen our faith. When we truly listen to that different voice, we may need to respond by expanding what we believe.
I’m standing in this pulpit today with a deeper faith than I had last Sunday . . . because yesterday I listened to voices that are not often heard in the larger society. Surely it’s a good thing to be on a trajectory of growth in terms of our believing and beloving. Surely it is right to expect our beliefs to evolve. But that is not at all what many Christians believe about believing. Many Christians believe it’s unfaithful to ask hard questions, to challenge the answers they received as a child of the Church. Many have been taught that if the old time religion was good enough for Grandma, “it’s good enough for me.” If this theme of both appreciating and questioning tradition sounds like the theme of last week’s sermon, I’d say that’s because it was a recurring theme with Jesus. Belief can and should evolve.
And belief is more than intellectual assent. When I was growing up, my church emphasized that Christians were saved by their belief in Jesus. My church, exaggerating reformed theology, made a clear distinction between Catholicism’s reliance on good works to get them into heaven versus the Protestant emphasis on faith and faith alone to “save” them. As a teen I felt sorry for my deluded Catholic friends who were very good people doing good deeds in the world—but who didn’t understand the real ticket to eternal life with God was not about DOING anything; it was about BELIEVING something, which I understood at that time to mean THINKING in a certain way about Jesus, and sin, and salvation. My Christian faith back then meant, at its most basic, intellectually assenting to the IDEA that Jesus was God’s son who came to earth to die for my sins. Believing this about Jesus (which is different from believing in or trusting Jesus) meant I had to ask Jesus to forgive me for my hell-deserving sins so I could spend eternity with him in heaven after I died. And he’d throw in, for good measure, a promise to help me out while I was living here on earth if I prayed to him. It was a simple, clear cut transaction. And I loved Jesus—because of the perfect life he lived, according to the Bible—but I also loved him in the way one would love and venerate and always feel beholding to a hero who took a bullet for you. Believing in Jesus back then was easy and obvious.
By my teen years doubts bubbled up. I wondered, “Was my agreement to believe certain things about Jesus in exchange for a heavenly home one day a fair transaction? That is, was it a fair arrangement for everyone? Because people who’d never heard of Jesus would never have the option of making that deal with him. Was it fair to my kind and loving Jewish friends that they were bound for hell because they didn’t elevate Jesus sufficiently? Was God making a sensible deal with me if I merely had to think a certain way about Jesus in return for a home in heaven?
Because I’d grown up reading the Bible with a particular lens, I had unconsciously dismissed sections of scripture that implicitly critiqued the “plan of salvation” passages scattered in Romans. But sometimes I’d let in a heretical thought. Like “if God really does have a few simple steps to salvation you could sum up in four sentences and a prayer, why wouldn’t God just have listed those steps on the first page of the Bible instead of sprinkling them around in that big ol’ book. God should have dictated to human writers a simple bi-fold tract like those our youth group handed out to people on the beach or at the mall.
Little did I know then that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, disliked the book of James and called it an “epistle of straw” because it seemed to contradict his theological emphasis on God’s grace. (By the way, Luther also wanted to remove the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation from the Bible.) James emphasizes human good works as the means of “salvation.” James distills the path of salvation to loving and caring for your neighbor, especially your poor neighbor. But grace and “good works” are not really in contradiction. It is by God’s grace that we can follow in the saving Way of Jesus.
Consider also that, by God’s grace, the means of salvation leads to both an individual and a collective outcome. Many Christians privatize their faith. They say, “Jesus is my personal lord and savior.” Certainly one’s relationship to the divine can be seen as intimate, unique perhaps. But this “personal lord and savior” bit ignores the social dimension of salvation that means faith is more than an individual’s “get out of hell free” card. Salvation is happening (or not) within the transformed hearts of individuals AND on social/collective/even evolutionary scale. Salvation, for instance, is needed for our planet. God’s saving work happens here and now and for individual souls as well as for the broad swath of humanity and all creation. I’d like to talk about societal or global salvation by drawing upon another event I attended yesterday.
Immediately after the Drag Queen Story Time, I spoke at the Rise for Climate Jobs and Justice rally a few blocks away. In preparation for my speech, I’d been reading about the impending crisis that our inaction on climate change is creating. And while many Christians are climate change deniers, other Christians assert that Jesus followers have the capacity to help save this planet in the coming crisis. In fact, at the UCC’s General Synod last summer, our denomination passed a resolution recognizing climate change as the greatest moral challenge in human history and aiming to do all we can to resist expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand instead renewable energy accessible to all communities. The salvation of God’s good earth is surely part of God’s saving work that we can assist.
Look back at the first verse of today’s Epistle reading: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?“ If we are favoring the rich over the poor, favoring our immediate personal gratification over a healthy planet for our grandchildren . . . then this verse suggests we are not believers in Jesus. Maybe we haven’t really signed on to follow through on his compassionate and saving work in this world. We’re not trusting that his priorities matter, nor are we faithful in his ways.
If we aren’t caring for the poor, the marginalized, the drag queens, the overheating planet . . . then we can’t genuinely name Jesus as Lord. If we don’t follow his self-giving ways, then we don’t really trust and believe in the power he revealed in love alone. Let that meaning of “belief” sink in.
Believing in Jesus, according to James, does not require an intellectual breakthrough; rather, faith in Jesus is a moral/spiritual breakthrough that leads to trusting in his way of loving especially the despised and neglected. How do you know if you are certifiably a Jesus follower, a believer in Jesus Christ? You assess how you treat (to use Matthew’s phrase) “the least of these.” If you show favoritism to the rich and disregard the poor, if you privilege big corporations and ignore their impact on the health of children and sea creatures and birds . . . then you don’t believe in Jesus. Clearly “belief” here means something other than intellectual assent. How could your acknowledgement of Jesus’s existence or even his divinity be salvific? The word “believe” here means you are trusting him, living your life by depending on HIS way to set this world to rights and bring us all into the presence of God. Do you see how, according to James, “belief in Jesus” is more about what you do than what you think?
So here’s a very personal question, the question the writer of James posed: Do you really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? I’m not asking if you believe certain things ABOUT Jesus. I’m asking you and asking myself about the trust we place in Jesus of Nazareth to show us God’s saving way. One way to start answering that question, according to James, is to evaluate how one treats the poor and those on the margins and those creatures and things under threat—-like our planet.
God to whom Jesus points, give us the courage to ask hard questions and not be afraid to believe/trust at a deeper level. Keep us growing in faith, in love. Amen