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Sermon on Faith and Works for Old Zion Philadelphia 9/3/06

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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

First Sunday at Old Zion Lutheran in Philadelphia

September 3, 2006

Deut.4:1-2, 6-9 Ps.15 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23


Faith and Works

Part I

When we read the letter of James, we understand that he is grappling with St. Paul, who is often difficult to understand, according to Peter. (I seem to be dropping the names of the apostles.) Mostly James is having a debate with Paul about faith and works. We know how Paul says that the righteous live by faith (Romans 1:17) and that it is by grace that we are saved through faith and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of works lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:9). In the future lessons from James, he will say faith without works is dead (2:26). This statement seems to fly in the face of Paul and Luther, but we will see how both sides can be understood.

When James says be doers of the word and not hearers only, lest you deceive yourself, he is actually quoting St. Paul(Romans 2:13). But Paul says be doers of the law, while James says be doers of the Word, because James has not yet made the law and gospel distinction of Paul and Luther.

But a careful reading of James will show that he also takes faith into account. He puts it this way: don’t be doubters – because doubters get nothing from God (1:-7). Now in today’s lesson when he says that every generous act, every perfect gift comes from above, he is speaking about faith. When he says that in the fulfillment of God’s own purpose, God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we became the first fruit of God’s creatures, then he is speaking about our being changed by faith.

James does seem to be law-oriented, rather than oriented to the Gospel. But we do not have to understand him as commanding the new self. We can understand him as saying our new self is a gift, “a perfect gift from above, from the Father of lights,” fulfilling the promise of the Gospel for us.

Thus we can be described as those “who are quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, because our anger does not often reflect God’s righteousness.” It is by God’s doing that we “rid ourselves of sordid and rank growth of wickedness, and humbly welcome the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.” From the point of view of the Gospel, it is not so much a prescription, but a description of our new selves.

So becoming doers of the word is also a gift of God’s grace. In Christ we attain self-knowledge and it is not like we forget who we are: we are old selves transformed into new selves of Christ: quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, with a bridled tongue when it comes to gossip and with an unbridled tongue when we denounce injustice and evil, and an unbridled tongue once again when we glorify God. James wants us to bridle our tongues when it comes to gossip and other harmful speech.

So it is God’s gift of grace by which we can provide for the welfare of widows and orphans and by which we refuse to become corrupted by the immorality of the world.

James focuses on works putting them into the context of faith, while Paul concentrates on faith saying that it is active in love (Gal. 5:6). Faith is filled with good works. By God’s grace it is the source of good works. Luther says that faith is a busy, active, restless thing that can’t help doing good works. If you have an inert faith, that does nothing, Luther continues, then it would be better not to have it. (But once a woman with multiple sclerosis asked me from her wheel chair to tell everyone that she did have value, even though she could no longer be productive!)

Luther, therefore, comes to the concern of James by his dynamic understanding of faith. “Faith is the doer’” he says, “and love is the deed.” “Faith is active in love,” to repeat Paul’s statement. But you have to believe that the Word and this faith brings about your new birth, because it is implanted in your soul, because you were quick to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of this hearing of the Gospel we become new selves, a new family, receive new time, become a new congregation filled with “generous acts of giving and with every perfect gift that comes from above, from the Father of Lights,” to use James’ words.

In short, faith is a new hearing that receives the Word of God and believes it thus giving us a new birth out of the love of God. Our new birth out of the love of God is something God does and not something we do. Thereafter we grow and mature in our Christ-like new selves.

Christ was not at all passive, but very active. Just look at how active Christ was and how marvelous were his many good works! In the Gospel of John, he starts by changing the water into wine and then a whole train of other miracles take place afterward, from healings to debates to cleansing the temple to raising the dead, feeding the masses, etc. When we become more mature in our new selves, we will not be able to stop ourselves from continuing in the marvelous love, sharing, and healing – binding evil and setting free the good in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Good News is that this new way of being is not commanded, but it is a description of you all. All the way from the West Coast we made it to Old Zion’s Church picnic despite the hurricane. We are so thankful for John and Marie Gentile for being such gracious hosts. And again just like the first Christians in the Book of Acts, we marveled at how the people of Old Zion loved one another!

Just before coming to Philadelphia, we attended church council dinner at a member’s house from Holy Trinity Lutheran in Fort Bragg, California. The very same description applied. My, how they loved one another! They also gave us an inside look at the heart of a small town now mostly involved with tourism. What seemed to sell the newspapers was the police blotter, by which everyone could be up on who had gotten into trouble and for what reason.

Faith is thus the power of God at work in us and through us. Faith gives us our Christ-like natures and that is what God has done! In truth, says the psalmist, all our works are thy doing, O Lord!

Part II

Such gracious works are different from those of a do-gooder. What does it help if we run around doing good, but our hearts are ugly inside of us? We have to be wary because sometimes, good works can hide an evil heart. A pastor might make many visits to the elderly and shut-ins and the congregation might say, “See how much he loves them” only to discover that he is after their wills, their money, and property. In a recent case a priest established an orphanage for boys in New York gaining a wonderful reputation for rescuing so many of the throw away youth of the city. It later turned out that he was a pedophile and this was his way to gain access to the boys. He had not had a change of heart by grace through faith. He was covering up an ugly sinful old self with good works.

A shower might make a person feel good, but it is merely physical washing, it does not change an ugly sinful heart. Washing your hands over and over again will not make you do what is right if what you have is a dirty heart. The Word of God has to scrub our hearts clean. Our baptisms do not merely require water, but the Word of God with the water, “so that our old sinful self is drowned by daily repentance and day after day a new self arises to live in God’s righteousness and purity forever,” to use the words from Luther’s Small Catechism.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus was showing that the Kosher laws did not make the Jews clean – except physically, outwardly. They had to have a change of heart inwardly, spiritually, so that they would become loving and genuine, full of grace and truth.

We can take a shower every day and still have ugly and dirty hearts or like some of the punk folk, we can take a shower once a month, whether we need it or not, and still have a pure heart full of grace and truth. I opened myself to some of the youth in that culture and I found that out.

Once we understand the distinction between ethics and hygiene that Jesus is making, then we can also take responsibility for washing our hands outwardly when having dirty hands would be harmful to others. Restaurant workers have to wash their hands or they will make their customers sick. That is now a moral issue and not merely an outward thing. Doctors back a century ago did not wash their hands, and sometimes, have to be monitored by the head nurse to do so even today. They worked on cadavers and then delivered babies! Many women died because the doctors infected them with deadly bacteria.

Once we know that, then we understand that in some cases washing hands is a matter of life and death. It is an ethical issue and not merely a matter of confusing morality with hygiene. Moreover, now we know that second-hand smoke is very harmful to others. In the past smoking was not an ethical problem, but it has become one.

When we look to ourselves we can despair when we discover that we have to give up smoking or driving huge gas-guzzling SUV’s or being shopaholics or whatever it is about us that we have to change.

How are we “blessed in the doing” of God’s will, to use the words of James? It certainly cannot be accomplished by our own effort. When our hearts, however, are changed by grace through faith in Christ, we find that we can’t help making these changes. Left on our own, we are completely inadequate, especially when we contemplate our addictions, but when God starts to work on us through faith, we cannot help becoming more than victorious. On my own I can offer only my limited and weak human effort, but by grace through faith in Christ, the mighty acts of God take place. They happen amongst us again. What God is doing is changing our hearts – in the twinkling of an eye and we become Christs to one another, joyfully planting our cross squarely between our shoulder blades, rejoicing in our suffering, because gracious acts and perfect gifts will not only be in heaven but they will be happening here among us again. Amen.

Pastor Peter Krey, PhD. Preached on September 3rd 2006 at Old Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Written by peterkrey

September 21, 2006 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Selected Sermons

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