Faith By Itself, If It Has No Works, Is Dead!

We hear a lot today in the news media about the widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Both political parties are engaged in a fierce race for the White House and to secure both Houses of Congress with rival solutions to our economic difficulties. There is a lot of talk about strengthening the middle class (which most of us feel we are part of), but very little mention – in either Party – about the truly poor, those below the official, “poverty level”  in our nation and around the world.
According to our Lessons from Holy Scripture this morning, concern about the poor is hardly a new problem. The wise author of Proverbs writes, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils those who despoil them…Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed because they share their bread with the poor. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22)
In the Epistle today, St.  James provides a scenario to bring this concern for the poor closer to home for members of the early Church. He describes Sunday morning in a congregation when an obviously wealthy person comes into church and is shown all kinds of favoritism by the ushers and the clergy. And he contrasts this with the way a homeless person might be treated (“Stand there” or “Sit at my feet.”). And James concludes, “Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” (James 2) Sounds sort of like a speech at the Democratic National Convention!
But the last line makes it clear that James was referring, first and foremost, to the Roman empire which was, even as he wrote,  persecuting those early Christians, hauling them into court for refusing to worship the Emperor, and — by Christian standards — blaspheming the Name of the one, true, God by their pagan practices.
And the Gospel today even shows our Lord himself wrestling with the prejudices of his people against the Gentiles, against “the other,” against those who are “different,” as he hesitates at first to heal the Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, but relents at the last minute as he sees her faith, perhaps remembering our Lesson from Proverbs this morning, “the rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all!”
And that, in the final analysis, is why Christians, and people everywhere of good will,  are to care about the poor and seek to make their lives better — because we are all “children of God.” We are all linked together by our common humanity. We are all in this together!
I think it’s this concept of working for “the common good” which inspired “the Five Marks of Mission” adopted by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops and the General Convention of our own Episcopal Church. These “marks of mission” are intended to be a kind of short-hand way of remembering our “job” as Christians, the task God has given us to do.
The first “mark” is to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That’s pretty basic, and it simply means that we are called to remind the world that God is King…and that we are not! God is Sovereign…and we are not!
Mark number two is to baptize, teach and nurture new believers. That’s what the Church is for. Once people come to believe in God, they need a place to learn more about God, to hone spiritual practices designed to keep them in touch with God, and to be strengthened in their faith by associating with other believers. That’s why we come to church every Sunday — to be taught…and to be fed!
Number Three:  we are to “respond to human need by loving service.” That gets us back to our Lessons today — “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” It’s why we put our money in the collection plate every Sunday (because hopefully some of it goes to support local charities, and some of it goes on through the Diocese to the wider Church’s efforts to respond to human need). And it’s why we’re encouraged as Christians to get involved in our local communities and to make a difference.
The Fourth Mark of Mission reminds us that we are called to do more than simply charity. We are also to work to “transform the unjust structures of society.” An analogy might be that, while it’s a noble thing to pull people out of a rushing stream before they drown, at some point it may be necessary to go upstream and find out who’s throwing them in! There is such a thing as “systemic injustice” and we are called to challenge those structures as well.
Finally, we are to work to sustain the integrity of creation and to protect the environment and the planet we live on — what the Prayer Book calls, “this fragile earth, our island home.” Our efforts to secure justice and peace on the earth won’t matter very much if the earth itself becomes uninhabitable at some point.
So our Anglican “five marks of mission” are a helpful “check list” to see if we are responding  to the challenge of our Lessons today — to share our bread with the poor as the author of Proverbs suggests…to love our neighbors as ourselves as the Epistle of James cites and as Jesus demonstrates in the Gospel stories of his healing ministry. These marks of our mission seek to respond to the stark question asked by St. James:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead!” (James 2:14-17)

One Response to “Faith By Itself, If It Has No Works, Is Dead!”

  1. SR: Faith, Works, and a Syrophoenician « Comprehension for the Sake of Truth Says:

    […] The Rt Rev Epting Bishop Epting does a fabulous job addressing politics and pulls in the Five Marks of Mission. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: