For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
James 2:14-19; 24
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
24You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
It is good to be back with you all after spending last weekend in North Carolina celebrating my sister-in-law’s wedding. Everything went well, we improved our tans, and by the end of the weekend, our family had been united in a special way with a family who had previously been strangers to us.
Strangers have become family. That’s a good metaphor for the church. This is similar to what the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2, those who have been far off now have been brought near. One of the interesting things about this congregation is that many people still consider their selves to be a part of a different tradition. We have people who say that they are Methodists who worship in a Mennonite congregation, Catholics who attend a Mennonite church. We have Nazarenes, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Muslims and members of the Church of Christ, just to name a few. And do you do know how I feel about that?
I think it is pretty cool. Finally, we got you out of those churches so you could get some good Christian teaching.
Just kidding, I think there is something beautiful about all of the traditions represented here. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything from those traditions, but I do believe that we as a church are stronger because of your active role in our community. I know I have been challenged by your thoughts, and I hope that I have challenged you in good ways as well.
Every so often I like to do a sermon series on Anabaptism, the tradition from which Mennonites come. In years past I have looked at historical Anabaptism, as we looked at the first Anabaptist confession of faith, known as the Schleitheim Confession. I’ve also looked at foundational works, like HS Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, and more recent works like Stewart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist, and Parker Palmer’s Anabaptist Essentials. I strongly recommend these books, especially for those who are interested in Anabaptism and don’t have much experience with the tradition.
But with some of these more recent books on Anabaptism, the question has arisen, “Who gets to decide what is essential to Anabaptism?” This is a significant question for us in the 21st century for at least two reasons: the world doesn’t look like it used to, and neither does the church. Particularly as the center of the church, including the Mennonite church, begins to move to south of the equator, and our local churches are experiencing more Latino/a and African-American influence, the question becomes even more important. Who gets to decide what is essential for modern Anabaptism and the Mennonite church?
My response is that the modern Mennonite church gets to decide what is essential for the modern Mennonite church. But, I also think that it is important for us to decide what is essential while in conversation with those who have come before us. Our current reality must be informed by our shared, collective, lived experiences. There are things from our past that I want to embrace, things like nonviolence, a focus on service, and stewardship. But there are also things that I’m glad to see go, particularly things like how we separate ourselves from the rest of the world. I believe the timeless nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ has less to do with bonnets and buggies and more with grace, love, and caring for one another.
What I want to do over the next few weeks is look at what I believe to be the essentials of 21st-century Anabaptism. This will not be an exhaustive list, as I’m sure we could come up with many more things to add to the list. I also don’t plan to look at things that all Christian traditions share. For instance, I’m not going to talk about prayer or baptism because these are a part of most Christian traditions. I will be talking about these things:
- Christianity as Discipleship, 2. Church/World/State Distinctions, 3. Service, 4. Stewardship/Thrift/Mutual Aid, 5. Nonviolence.
That should take us up though the middle of October, and by that point I will probably have thought of a few more things that I want to cover. But I promise, I’ll get through this by Advent!
I want to spend the remainder of our time this morning talking about Christianity as Discipleship. In the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives a final word to his followers. We call this the “Great Commission.” Verses 19-20 read as follows: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to simply go out and make sure that people believed in him. He sent them out to make disciples. As I have said before, my favorite way to talk about the church’s mission is to say that we are disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples.
A disciple is someone who learns from a teacher. The best example I have of this is a little dated, the example of an apprentice learning from a master tradesperson. How does a blacksmith learn their trade? Well, in days past a young person would have spent their formative years working alongside the master blacksmith. They would watch the master, ask questions of the master, and at the right time, they would be given the opportunity to try their hand at forging their own items out of steel under the watchful eye of the master. And after years of learning, they would probably start their own business, crafting their own hammers, nails, and horseshoes. And after they had shown their selves to be a pretty good blacksmith, that person would likely take on their own apprentice.
Our modern-day world is slightly different. I would bet that many in this congregation interned somewhere, or did student teaching, before becoming fully accredited at your job. Yes, we can learn a lot in the classroom, but some of the most important learning takes place in the actual workplace. We learn from those who are more experienced than we are, and then we pass it on to others. My wife was once an intern, and she frequently has interns who work with her. I bet many of our teachers have student teachers from time to time.
This is discipleship, and historically Anabaptists have seen Christianity as discipleship, to be a Christian means learning to live like Jesus. We are all disciples of Jesus, learning from the master. We learn how to live as he lived, to love as he loved. We try to form our lives around not only what Jesus said, but what Jesus did. Like the apprentice blacksmith, we watch the master to see his technique and to observe how he responds in certain situations. And since we don’t have access to Jesus here among us in the flesh and blood, we look to those with more experience than we have. Knowing that these people are just human, we seek to learn from their victories and their failures. We may not always like it, but to be a disciple of Jesus is simply something that we cannot do alone. We need each other.
Now this is where things get a little tricky. When we focus on Christianity as discipleship, we can easily get accused of focusing too much on works. We talk a lot around here about the Relief Sale, and post-hurricane Florence we will be talking about rebuilding houses. We Mennonites like to work! We work like our salvation depends upon it! Yet almost 501 years ago, Martin Luther wrote that salvation is by faith alone, sola fide, in the Latin. That is clear in passages like Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Oh, I guess that relief work and disaster work isn’t really important for a Christian. Don’t feel like you need to go help at the Mission this week.
But then you come to our passage from James 2, which tells us things like, Faith without works is dead, and “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
And of course, there is that phrase we learned from Luther, Sola Fide, faith alone. I’m told that there are only two places in the Bible where those two words are found side-by-side, and both occurrences are found in the book of James. And both times, the “faith alone” is preceded by two other words, ouk ek, “not by.” Verse 24, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
So what is a 21st-century Mennonite supposed to do with that? Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works? Well, when we look at Christianity as discipleship, that question doesn’t even make sense. If you ask a disciple of Christ if they are saved by grace through faith or does it also include works, they will simply say, “Yes.”
The disciple will say yes because they know that there are different ways of understanding salvation. Even our Bibles are not clear on how this word is used.
It is impossible to determine just what the writers of the Bible mean when they speak of salvation. If you read the writings of Paul, he seems to use the word salvation to describe the forgiveness of sins and bringing people into the community of those who will be raised with Christ at the end of times. But if you read the book of Exodus, salvation is often used as a reference to God delivering the people from captivity. So I find it helpful to differentiate between different aspects of salvation.
The first aspect I will simply call “grace.” Grace, in this manner, is simply forgiveness. This is God pardoning us for our mistakes, removing them from us as far as the east is from the west. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, and I am thankful that God does not hold those against me.
It is grace that Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
I read a quote two weeks ago from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who called what he saw in most churches “cheap grace.” I have a love/hate relationship with that quote. I love what Bonhoeffer calls us to: a life of discipleship, serving one another, and loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength. But I also push back because grace isn’t cheap, it is free. God freely offers his grace to anyone who will receive it.
So if salvation is just about forgiveness, then I feel confident is saying that works don’t matter. But I believe that salvation is more than being forgiven, more than just grace. Salvation is about turning to a new life, a life of discipleship, a life of learning from Jesus and seeking to live as he lived.
I’m going to tell a personal story, and because of the sensitive nature of this story I will not publish it online. For those reading this, it involves someone who made a confession of faith early in life and would call himself a Christian, but continued to live an abusive lifestyle that hurt himself and others. It wasn’t until later in life that he experienced a more thorough salvation, changing his life.
So here’s what I want to ask you, was my friend saved when he made his first profession of faith or when he turned his life around? Was he saved by his faith, or was he saved by his works? My answer is yes.
When we think of Christianity as discipleship, we concentrate not only on right belief, but right action and right living. And no, we won’t all need to make the changes that my friend made in the example I used above. But I know I’ve had to make changes and I continue to make changes. I’m trying to align my life with the life and teachings of Jesus.
Jesus taught to love not only our friends, but also those who have hurt us, our enemies. I’m still trying! Some of Jesus’s last words on the cross were words of forgiveness for those who where killing him. I’m trying to forgive conforming my life to the life of Jesus. It isn’t easy, it is journey. It is the journey of discipleship. It is the journey of a student learning from the master.
When I think of salvation as it is laid out in the Bible, I like to think of as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen. I have been saved, past tense. I’ve been forgiven. I am being saved, giving up the things that are harmful to me, harmful to others, and harmful to the world around us. And I will be saved, raised to eternal life with Jesus.
21st-century Anabaptism calls us to look at Christianity as discipleship. It isn’t just about making a one-time decision to accept the gift of grace available to us in Jesus Christ, though it does include that. Christianity as discipleship is a call to conform to the image of the one who perfectly embodied God’s will for our lives.
I hope you will join me on this journey.