*This was my last sermon at Albany Mennonite Church presented on October 26, 2014
Sola fide! That was the cry of Martin Luther and the Reformation. We are justified before God by faith alone, sola fide, without works. This doctrine had a profound effect upon how Luther read the apostle Paul, the book of James, and the rest of the Bible. His belief in sola fide led him to call the book of James “an epistle of straw.” He felt this scarecrow of a book contradicted Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith alone. Although Luther once commented that he would like to “throw Jimmy in the stove,” he didn’t remove the book of James from his Bible. He did detach it from its usual order and place it as an appendix at the end of his German Bible translation.
The Anabaptists had a different understanding of the Bible from Luther and the Reformers. They appreciated the book of James. Their cry was not sola fide! It was nachfolge Christi, that is, following Christ or discipleship. Although they believed in justification by faith through God’s grace, they called for a faith inextricably tied to good works, as did Jesus and James. And they used James as an argument against what they viewed as a justification for “cheap grace” by the Reformers, that is, grace devoid of a life that gives evidence of one’s faith.
The Reformers and the Anabaptists interpreted the Bible differently, particularly concerning their understandings of “works” or practicing the faith. How one understands and practices discipleship can have a profound effect on how one interprets the Bible.
Each of the texts we read this morning promotes the priority of practice. If Martin Luther had a hard time with the teaching of James, he should also have had a hard time with the teaching of Jesus. And I suspect that most evangelicals will swallow hard at Jesus’ words. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has some strong words for those who simply confess him as “Lord.” Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one does the will of my Father in heaven. It appears that Jesus doesn’t put too much stock in confessions of faith devoid of works or doing God’s will.
In the book of James it says that the devil believes the Word so much that he trembles. That’s “shakeable” faith! Jesus places a priority upon the “unshakeable” faith of hearing and doing God’s Word, not just believing and confessing it. But, this has nothing to do with salvation, says Mr. Luther and the evangelicals. Well, then, what about the part of the text that mentions “entering the kingdom of heaven”? According to Jesus entering the kingdom of heaven requires more than confession. Entering the kingdom of heaven requires following God’s will. Confession also calls for “procession,” that is, following God’s will. Faith includes faithfulness. This doesn’t mean that we merit our own salvation, but that real faith is proven by faithfulness.
If we look at the next paragraph, Jesus goes on to liken the person who hears his words and does not act upon them as being like someone who builds their house upon the sand, which crumbles when the rains fall and the winds blow. Hearing the Word of God and doing nothing with it is not a stable foundation for a spiritual house. Simply confessing and believing isn’t a strong enough foundation. Hearing the Word alone is a house built on sand.
Is this some isolated teaching of Jesus about faith being inextricably tied to practice? Can’t we just stick this text in the back of our Protestant Bibles and forget it’s even in there? No. It’s at the heart of Jewish faith and the tradition of Jesus.
If you want to know how important this teaching was for Jesus, just remember what he said to his own flesh and blood, his mother and brothers. He was surrounded by a crowd of people and his family wanted to see him, so they asked for him. Now, anyone who promotes supposed “traditional Christian family values” ought to plug their ears at this point. Okay, are you ready? Jesus had different values from most of those who spout “traditional family values.” Traditional family values were not a priority for Jesus. If it was, why didn’t he have his own family? Jesus was something of an oddball for his day; a single, unmarried man with no children to carry on his name. And what he said about his family should gag those who pound the bully pulpit about traditional family values. By the way, the Bible is crammed full of non-traditional families.
Jesus said to those relaying his family’s request to see him, “My mother and my brothers are those who…have a working father, head of the household, a mother who stays at home, raises the children, cooks the meals, and is submissive to her husband, and they have a quiver full of disciplined children from the Lord.” No, Jesus didn’t say that! This wasn’t even the case for most families during the idealized 1950s. Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and…do it.” I think I just heard James Dobson fall flat on the floor!
There it is again. Practicing the faith. Discipleship. Following Jesus. That’s what makes up Jesus’ family. Not those who have traditional, nuclear, heterosexual marriages and families. And not just those who simply hear the word, or who just confess it and believe it. But, those who are in Jesus family hear the Word of God… and do it!
Well, let’s turn to that rather strawy epistle of James. James states the relationship between faith and action in rather blunt terms. No beating around the bush. James says, “Faith without works is dead.” For him works of care and compassion are like the animating spirit in the human body. Without it the body is dead. Without these kinds of works, faith is as dead as a door nail. James asks, “If you have faith but do not have works, can faith save you?” Now, Martin Luther would be yelling, “YES!!” For James faith and works are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. But, doesn’t Jesus say the same thing, just with different images. Hearing the Word alone is like a house built on sand. The person who confesses Jesus as “Lord,” does not enter the kingdom of God, but the one who does the will of God. And Jesus’ true family is those who hear the Word of God and do it.
Performing the faith is essential to what faith means. We should think of faith as more than believing in the heart and confessing with the mouth. Think of faith in terms of faithfulness. Faithfulness is action, evidence of life, movement, discipleship. No one is talking here about saving ourselves by all the things we do for God. We are saved by God’s grace. That was the case even for Jews in the OT. They didn’t consider salvation a matter of their observance of the law. They were saved by God’s grace. Obedience to the law was part of their covenant with God. What we are talking about here is real faith evidenced by real faithfulness in real lives in the here and now. Faith that works. New birth evidenced by living as if we were born again. Salvation evidenced by living a saved life. Hearing the Word of God and doing it. Discipleship evidenced by following Jesus.
I grew up in a faith tradition that emphasized believing over performing the faith. Faith was about accepting Jesus into your heart, confessing him publicly, with the assurance that you would go to heaven. Our duty as Christians was to share the good news, in a type of 4 easy step formula, which led to their “being saved.” In my congregation there was little talk of discipleship or the ongoing life of following Jesus. So, when I heard this following story, I immediately recognized a different perspective that shaped the Anabaptist tradition. As someone from an evangelical background, who was new to the Anabaptist tradition, hearing this story was a kind of “aha!” moment for me.
As the story goes, a young evangelical meets an Amish man in Lancaster County, PA. The young evangelical asks the Amish man, “Sir, are you saved?” The Amish man takes off his straw hat, scratches his head, and then pulls aside his suspenders grabbing a pencil and paper in his pocket. The young evangelical looks at the Amish man rather oddly as he scratches out something on his piece of paper. He’s probably thinking to himself, “Why can’t this man just give me a simple answer?” “Well, sir, are you saved?” the young evangelical asks again rather impatiently. The Amish man hands the young evangelical the piece of paper and says rather humbly, “Go ask these people.” Aha!
For the young evangelical “being saved” was more about whether or not he had said the “sinners prayer” or “followed the Roman road” or “confessed Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior” and was “assured that he was on his way to heaven after his death.” For the Amish man “being saved” was about whether or not there was evidence of being saved in the life that he lived day by day. And that required witnesses. His was a faith that needed to be seen in his life. Faith confirmed by faithfulness. Hearing the Word and doing it. Following in the way of Jesus.
Okay, but what does this have to do with interpreting the Bible? Discipleship is not only the proper response to hearing the Word, it is a prerequisite for an appropriate interpretation of scripture. Anabaptist scholars refer to this as a “hermeneutic of obedience.” By that they mean, interpretation of scripture requires obedience. Not only is obedience a key element for living the Christian life, but a precondition for rightly interpreting scripture. The Anabaptists were not proposing any complex, scholarly methodology for biblical interpretation. For the early Anabaptists interpretation was not about methodology, but about obedience. They proposed the simple truth that anyone willing to obey what Christ has said could understand the Bible.
Anabaptists believed that the Bible was not that hard to understand. The hard part was putting it into practice. Even the phrase “following Jesus” may sound simple, until we realize that the way of Jesus leads to the cross! For Anabaptists the willingness to suffer was an element of rightly interpreting the message of Christ. Anabaptist Pilgrim Marpeck stressed that interpreters should not explain the meaning of scripture without taking responsibility to apply it. Interpretation was not merely the practice of finding the truth in the Bible, but practicing it. Knowing the Bible backwards and forwards and having the right doctrine was clearly not as important to the Anabaptists as radically living by scripture in one’s life.
This principle of a “hermeneutics of obedience” is reflected in the popular saying of Anabaptist Hans Denck: No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life. Knowing Christ is not simply a matter of believing or confessing Christ. Knowing Christ is bound up with following him in one’s life. So, in like manner, for the Anabaptists no one could truly know scripture, unless they followed Christ as revealed in scripture. Hearing the Word and doing it was an essential Anabaptist view of the Bible and what it meant to know Christ or be a Christian.
So, I hope you have heard the Word of God through something I have shared about scripture and interpretation over these past 8 weeks. But more importantly than hearing the Word of God, I hope your heart is set on following in the way of Jesus as revealed in scripture. If you remember nothing else, remember this: Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and do it. If reading, memorizing, studying, and interpreting scripture remains in the head or even just the heart, it has not accomplished its ultimate goal. The purpose and function of the Bible as scripture is to become fully embodied in our lives. Its role is to shape us as a people into the likeness of Christ. Its role is to lead us further along the way of following Jesus.
God’s invitation to all who have ears to hear is to come and follow Jesus. Confession and profession are followed by procession. God invites you who may have not yet committed yourselves to follow in the way of Jesus to join in the procession. Not just hearing the Word, but doing it in your daily life. Build your spiritual house with a solid foundation that can face the storms of life. God’s invitation is to you who have been sidetracked and gotten off on some side road of focusing upon yourselves, your family, your friends, or your career to renew your faith and faithfulness by re-joining the procession of following Jesus. God’s invitation to you who have sought to faithfully live for Christ is to be encouraged and strengthened to continue on the long journey of following Jesus.
I would invite each person here today to respond to God’s invitation with your bodies. Following Jesus is a metaphor of a journey through life and it suggests something we do with our bodies. Following is not static. It involves movement. So, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are invited to affirm your desire to follow Jesus by standing, singing out with joy, clapping your hands, dancing, embracing one another, shaking a hand, raising your arms, or following me in a procession around this sanctuary. You decide how to respond to the invitation with your bodies. Whatever your response, remember, we are celebrating our commitments to hear the Word of God and do it, to follow in the costly, but joyful way of Jesus! Amen? Amen!
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.