Sunday, September 5, 2021

Sermon: "'Being' Chosen", James 2:14-19, 26/Mark 7:31-37 (September 5, 2021)


You may be surprised to see “James” listed as one of our readings for today. In last week’s sermon, I noted that we have a tendency to avoid this part of scripture, and I offered two reasons for this: one, because we subconsciously prioritize Paul and the Gospels over other scripture, and two, because James encourages his readers to embrace Torah, which can be uncomfortable for us if we incorrectly understand Torah as a series of outdated laws. But in reading this week’s lectionary, I realized that I’d missed a THIRD reason that pastors often resist preaching on James. Now, this reason probably bothers the average congregant less than it does the clergy, but it strikes terror into our hearts. Well, maybe not terror, exactly, but certainly enough discomfort to trigger avoidance when it shows up in the lectionary.

So what is this Jamesian characteristic that deters even the most seasoned of ministers from preaching out of this book? (Okay, I admit, I’m being a bit overly dramatic, but it really is a challenging topic to tackle.) James presents a conundrum to the preacher because he seems to espouse a “works righteousness” view of salvation. Whereas centuries of Christian theological discernment have firmly established the idea of “sola fide”, or “faith alone”, as humanity’s contribution to our own justification, James seems to think that he knows better. It’s kind of surprising that this book made it into the biblical canon at all, given its dramatic divergence from what ultimately became settled doctrine. He has no use for faith apart from works, saying, “CLAIMING to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?” He’s walking a dangerous tightrope of heresy here.

The worst part for us is that it’s hard to argue with his logic. I don’t know about you, but I hear echoes of the “Good Samaritan” parable when James tells us to “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?” James would definitely have a beef with the “thoughts and prayers” crowd, and he makes a compelling argument.

I think we can all get behind the idea that if we want to follow Jesus, we should try to act like Jesus. That’s a perfectly orthodox position. But James takes this principle too far when he elevates works above being just “good idea”, above being simply a natural consequence of having faith, to being an essential aspect of what it means to be a Christian. He claims that faith without actions isn’t only shallow; it’s dead. DEAD! He insists that our actions are the spirit that gives life to our faith, that faith cannot exist apart from good works to animate it. That doesn’t sound much like “sola fide” to me.

Well, just as is the case with James’ understanding of Torah, I think we need to take a nuanced approach to his teachings about works. I don’t think he’s saying that good actions are a one-way ticket to righteousness or that our relationship with God hinges on our works. God’s grace is the thing responsible for our identity as a redeemed and beloved people, which we accept through our faith. Our works have nothing to do with our status in God’s eyes. But I think that James is also reminding us that we can’t fully and wholly claim this identity if we aren’t acting in ways that correspond to a faithful life. We may be chosen, set apart by God for this unique identity, but if we aren’t also choosing to act in alignment with the inherent definition of that identity, then we may BE chosen, but we aren’t “BEING” chosen.

Think of it this way: let’s imagine that you want to be a doctor. What would you say is the thing that changes you from “not a doctor” to “a doctor”? Graduating from medical school, right? That marks the official moment of the identity shift. As soon as you have your diploma in hand, you can start calling yourself “doctor” with complete validity. No matter what you do from that moment on (barring medical malpractice), you ARE “Doctor YourLastName”. You have the knowledge and status that entitles you to that identity..

But there’s a difference between WHAT you ARE and WHO you are BEING. You could choose sit at home with your fancy title and student loans and decide to spend the rest of your life making hand-knitted socks to sell on Etsy. Would you still BE a doctor? Yep. But would you be BEING a doctor? No. You’re not doing what a doctor does. Your identity and status as a doctor are immutable and indisputable and generally doesn’t depend on your actions going forward, but the title isn’t being authentically lived absent the actions that define it. A doctor is at their most “doctor-y” when they’re helping to heal people. When a doctor isn’t doing what doctors do, it creates a sort of vacuum in the title consisting of a purpose that isn’t being fulfilled, an anticipation that isn’t being satisfied, an intention that isn’t being realized. You may still be a doctor, but you aren’t BEING a doctor.[1]

We are a chosen people, in that nothing we can do can influence God’s love and intention for us. God had already claimed us long before could claim God back, before we were even knit together in our mother’s womb. Jesus did the hard part of “earning” reconciliation with God for us, granting us the prestigious title of “God’s beloved”. Every time we baptize an infant who has no concept of the divine, let alone the ability to claim a faith in it, we remember that we have no one but God to thank for this sacred identity. But just because we always and forever ARE a chosen people doesn’t always mean that we’re BEING a chosen people at any given point. We may be claiming that title, but we aren’t necessarily living it.

To be honest, that’s a nuance that I think Jesus struggled his whole life to help us understand. Biblical scholars refer to what’s known as the “Messianic Secret” to describe the phenomenon (found most often in Mark’s Gospel) of Jesus performing a miraculous healing or resurrection, only to command those present not to tell anyone about it. There’s a LOT of speculation about why this pattern occurs again and again throughout Jesus’ ministry, but I have my own theory. I wonder if it might have something to do with Jesus’ efforts to help us understand what it REALLY means to “be” “chosen”.

Here’s what happens in each instance of “the Messianic Secret”: when Jesus orders those witnessing the miracle not to tell anyone, inevitably, almost without exception, they ignore him completely. They eagerly share the news, essentially acting like the PR directors that Jesus never asked for. This seems like a good thing, though, right? They’re spreading the Good News of the Messiah’s coming reign. They’re giving hope to the hopeless. Why wouldn’t Jesus want that?

But this is exactly what James is talking about when he calls us out for telling those in need, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!” We give lip service to the things that we know should be done without it ever occurring to us that we’re supposed to be a part of the solution. Imagine these witnesses to Jesus’ miracles going around to all of the beggars in town saying, “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine! I’ve seen this Jesus guy who can perform miracles!” It’s true, but why should they believe it? Does it help them at all? Is this really all that God intends for us when we put on our shiny new identity--to talk about it? Are we really being Christ followers if we’re not actually following his example?

I think maybe THIS is why Jesus instructs his witnesses not to tell anyone. I think he knows our tendency to accept the new identity without the defining actions that go along with it. If Jesus can take care of it, why do we need to? It’s the same as if we graduated medical school, earned the title of “doctor”…and then spent our whole career making referrals instead of treating anyone ourselves. When we tell other people about Jesus without doing “jesusy” things ourselves, all we’re doing is outsourcing our job back to the one who gave it to us in the first place. The point of the Good News isn’t for us to claim our new identity and then hang it on the wall like a diploma. It’s to transform who we are so completely that we then go out and imitate him because that’s just what it means to BE a Christ follower.

Those of us who have been “chosen” by God, who’ve already claimed this new identity, aren’t just set aside for a special title, but for a special purpose. We can’t live our new identity by standing still. Evangelism is important, but anyone can say the right words. Even the demons know who God is, James tells us, but that doesn’t make them God’s children. Only true Christ followers follow Christ with their words AND their actions. It’s who they are. They can’t help it.

With all the pain and suffering in the world, it can be difficult to know where to begin. We may WANT to “be” God’s chosen with more than our words, but we’re paralyzed by all the need surrounding us. It can be tempting to just ask God to take care of it. After all, our faith says that that’s enough to bring about God’s kindom. But in giving us our new identity, God asks more of us. You may have heard a quote before, attributed to the Jewish Talmud, that says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” This obligation doesn’t come from an authoritarian God, but from the very identity that we’ve accepted from God for ourselves. This is who we’ve signed up to be.

If we truly are God’s people, then we cannot sit still—it’s not our nature. We can’t sit passively by and wait for the kindom to come, no matter how much we may talk about it. We must act in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ stead, if we want to fully be who we are, who God has made us to be. The steps may be small at first, but their size doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you take them. If I might presume to summarize James’ message, let’s not just BE chosen; let’s make sure that we’re BEING who our faith compels us to be. Let’s be the most Jesus-y Jesus followers we can. Let’s claim every aspect of our identity—because it’s so much more than just the title. Amen.


[1] Hopefully, it goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with this. If someone finishes a medical degree, but realizes that a different career would be more fulfilling, they’re making a wonderful and admirable choice to follow their heart. My point is not about the nature of the PERSON, but of the TITLE.

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