A couple of minutes ago we listened to part of a letter written by James, an epistle that today might be most famous for reputedly really annoying Martin Luther.
Those of you who know a little bit about Lutheran theology, who have hung out with Lutherans even briefly, will likely have heard about Luther’s vigorous objection to what he and other theologians called works righteousness. Works righteousness is the notion that I can buy my way into heaven, in this case not with money, but with good deeds. So, when I serve at the Friday Feast or engage in some other act of generosity or compassion, I am paying into a cosmic bank account – or, if you are into roleplaying games – I am accumulating the experience points that eventually will allow me to level up into salvation.
Luther – following in the example of Jesus – did the important work of reminding us that works righteousness isn’t and never was the Gospel. You cannot buy your way into God’s good books. Not with cash, cheques, credits cards, or bitcoins: remember from history class that the thing that got Luther into so much trouble with the institutional church was his critique of indulgences, with his insistence that you cannot pay off God. And not with good behaviour: God is not Santa Claus, God is not watching to see whether you are naughty or nice and deciding whether to reward or punish you accordingly.
The story goes that, because Luther was so on guard against works righteousness, because searching out works righteousness was a huge part of the lens that he looked through when he read the Bible or a theological commentary, when Luther got to James and this line about faith without works being dead, steam started to come out of his ears. No, no, no! Luther said (or the German 16th-Century equivalent thereof). He pounded the table and said, James is making it sound like faith and everything good and holy that flows out of it is contingent on something that human beings do. But that’s not true. It’s not about human beings. It’s about God!
In the first introduction that Luther wrote to own translation of the New Testament, he declared that James is a “really strawy epistle,” and that “it has nothing of the Gospel about it.”
What I’d like to suggest this morning is that Luther was write about the Gospel, right about Jesus – indeed, you cannot buy your way into heaven – but wrong about James. When James says that faith without works is dead, he means something different and harder and better and more freeing.
Before I go any further, I am going to ‘fess up to some of my own theology. I believe that God’s love is relentless, that God is continually seeking out our hearts, that God never gives up on inviting us to freely choose to reciprocate and to live into the love that God has for us. And I believe that God’s pursuit of our hearts does not end when we die. You will sometimes hear folks argue that if you haven’t confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord before your dying breath, you are out of luck: it’s straight to hell for you.
I have more confidence in God than that, more faith in God than that. I don’t believe that God’s power is that small or that limited, I do not believe that God is constrained by death. My guess, my faith, is that even after death, God keeps on showing us the towering, infinite goodness and love that is the Trinity. And that when we encounter that love, we will eventually choose to say yes to it. I believe that the theologians got it more or less right when they wrote that the Christian is required to believe that there is a hell – but that they are not required to believe that anyone is there.
Now, let me acknowledge that the theology I just shared has two significant problems. First, it’s kind of unfair. And second, it obligates us to ask the question: if we’re all getting into heaven anyway, then what’s the point of going to church, what’s the point of being good?
Let’s look at each for a moment. First, is everybody getting into heaven totally unfair? Yes it is. Jesus is actually quiet clear about the unfairness of God. Remember the parable about the day labourers working in the vineyard? The master (whom, I am going to venture, Jesus intends for us to understand as God) goes out and finds folks and brings them into the vineyard to work. She says to the labourers, harvest my grapes and prune my vines and rake the ground, and I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks. And the labourers say, Okay.
Some of the labourers start at 8am. Some of the master doesn’t find until noon. And some of them she doesn’t find until quitting time. The 5pmers have no sooner walked into the vineyard than she says, The day’s over! Time to go home!
Everybody lines up to get paid. The last are the first in line. They get a hundred and fifty bucks. And when they see this, the labourers who started work at 8am begin rubbing their hands together. There is going to be some serious overtime! But then the labourers who started at noon also get a hundred and fifty bucks. And furrows start to appear on the brows of the 8amers. When it is their turn and the master gives them the promised fee, the flip out at the master. You hosed me! they say. I was here all day, picking your stupid grapes under the stupid sun! And now, this!
And the master says: But I gave you exactly what I promised you.
The 8amers are doing something totally human and totally understandable here. They are saying: I can’t enjoy the thing promised to me unless those who are less deserving than me get less. It’s not fair.
I can’t enjoy heaven unless those who lived in a way I don’t like are kept out. It’s not fair.
And what does the master say to our It’s not fair?
She says: You’re right. Here’s your hundred and fifty bucks.
It is exasperating when God behaves like this. This is either the worst news or the best news that there is. I’m not sure which.
Here’s the second problem: If the 5pmers are getting a hundred and fifty bucks, if the adulterer and the murderer and the most selfish rich person in the world are getting into heaven – if works righteousness doesn’t work – then what’s the point of all of my efforts? Why am I in church right now? I could be reading the New York Times or sleeping or eating eggs benedict. Why should I be generous or kind or loving when, like the Prodigal Son, God is going to welcome me home no matter what?
Let’s stop for a second and do a thought experiment. Imagine the most loving person whom you have ever known. That might be the person sitting beside you right now, it might be someone far away, it might be someone whom you knew long ago, someone who is now in heaven. You receive a card telling you that this person’s birthday is coming up and that you are invited to their party. You have an opportunity to attend and to give them a present.
Now imagine that I run into you while you are looking for that person’s present. You tell me what you are doing. And so I ask you a question:
If this person is as loving as you say, then they are going to love you no matter what. So why are you bothering to get them a present, why are you wasting your time going to their party when they are going to love you even if you don’t?
Friends, I think we all know that question is absurd. I don’t give the one I love a present or spend time with them in the hopes of buying something from them. This is not a transaction. I give them a gift because the gift is a symbol, it is an outward and visible sign of the love between us, because giving them a gift brings me joy, because it somehow transforms me.
When we freely choose to say yes to discipleship, we don’t show up in church because God needs us to show up in church, we don’t give glory to God because God needs our glory, we don’t serve the Lord because the Lord needs our service. We do these things – and we are at or beyond the limits of language here – because it’s what deep freedom looks like. Remember the vision in Revelation. Heaven looks like everyone gathered around the throne of the lamb, freely and joyously offering their praise.
My guess is that Luther tripped so hard over James because he accidentally read James’ intention backwards. When James says Faith without works is dead, he doesn’t mean, Do the works and then you’ll have faith. He means, When you have faith, you will automatically choose to do works, joyfully and freely. To put that another way, James is not saying:
You do good things: therefore you know that God loves you.
James is saying:
You know that God loves you: therefore you do good things.
He means that a living faith cannot help but invite us into loving service.
We are reading James on the very day that we are welcoming new members into the church. Avril Johnson would say that is not a coincidence. Here is James’ admonition against being excited and super welcoming when one of those members looks rich. And kind of indifferent when they don’t. James’ letter is almost 2000 years old but it could have been written last week.
This is real.
I am part of the team that administrates the budget at Grace, part of the team that is responsible for keeping then lights on and the rain out. And it is a terrible temptation to look at a new member and say:
That person looks like a solid pledger – I better make sure we do a good job of welcoming them. Unlike that other person.
James says: Don’t you do that. James says: Share the love of God with the same abandon that it has been shared with you. Share the unfair love of God, the love that is not and never was a transaction, with everyone, even if they can’t pay you back, maybe especially if they can’t pay you back.
I am not saying that pledging doesn’t matter. It does. What I am saying is that we pledge not in the hopes of making God love us but because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We go to church not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We serve the Lord – however imperfectly – not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy.
Maybe we could flip James’ statement around. Maybe Martin Luther would like it that way better. Instead of saying Faith without works is dead, maybe we could say:
When you have a living faith, you will do works that are full of joy, full of freedom, full of love, hull of justice, full of the Kingdom of God.