I’ve mentioned the last few Sundays a study that shows that many young people who grew up in Christian circles have adopted a counterfeit faith that they have not necessarily learned from their parents words as much as from their parents actions. These youth and young adults heard their parents say that Jesus matters to them in everyday life but they only saw their parents rely on him when they faced a health problem or lost a job or the like. Therefore, they believe in a God who is useful only when they have a problem that needs fixing, a faith that encourages them to behave and be nice with the promise that good people go to heaven, and a faith that aims for a life of comfort, ease and success. They may have even heard their parents say that Christians are nice people. Their parents may have even taught them that they need to work hard in school so that they can get into a good college and get a good job and have a nice home and car. But even if such teachings were not on their parents lips, this is what they learned from their parents faith in action. People may even assume this is the faith that you want them to adopt if you invite them to church. It is not a faith that matters when all is well and in the everyday details of life, it is not a faith that can sustain you through suffering and hardship, nor is it a faith that would inspire anyone to profess Christ if their life was on the line. So when this faith meets the real world it is tossed aside – as well it should be. On the other hand, a faith that matters when it meets the real world makes a difference in the real world—the world God has created and is on a mission to redeem. A faith that matters makes a difference not only for ourselves but especially for others. Such a faith is a blessing to people throughout the world. Such was the faith of Abraham:
- A faith that matters makes a difference in the world by bringing God’s blessings to other people.
- By such a faith, Abraham went on a pilgrimage not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8) but having heard the promise that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. God never promised Abraham that it would be a comfortable or easy journey nor did Abraham have any illusions that it would be. He knew what he was giving up. He knew there would be suffering and sacrifice. After all, it was a huge move away from the big metropolitan cities of his day and away from his relatives. But God was with him. As James reminds us, “he was called a friend of God” (James 2:23). Abraham was no visitor on a Holy Land tour. He was on a pilgrimage with God. His faith relationship—his friendship—with God allowed him to imagine a better country—a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16). He would never be the same because of this journey. And for that matter the world would never be the same because Abraham walked with God by faith. As a friend of God, Abraham is the father of everyone with a faith that matters today.
- When you are bringing God’s blessings to other people it is because God has given you such a faith in Jesus Christ. The true and living God is on a mission and just as He sent Jesus Christ into the world even so Jesus Christ is sending you (John 20:21). He is sending you on a pilgrimage to bless other people. A fake faith may encourage people to do things that look good because of the false teaching that good people go to heaven when they die. But it is only when God gives us faith in Jesus Christ that we have a faith that makes a real difference in the real world. Such a faith leads you to set out with God without knowing where you are going, to sacrifice your comfort, and to see beyond your present sufferings to the glory that is to come. It might be that you step out of your comfort zone to tell a coworker who is having a difficult day that you are praying for them. It might be that you plead for God’s blessing upon someone in political office with whom you disagree about everything. Or you may say words of blessing to someone with whom you have a history of conflict. Such a faith leads you to bless even and especially those who would persecute you for your faith in Jesus – those who kill Christians because they are Christians. A faith that matters in this world that God is on a mission to redeem will bless others, including our enemies, in Jesus’ name. Such a faith may lead them to become a blessed friend of God. Indeed, sometimes others will see you blessing your enemies and want to know what on earth would drive you to do that and you will have the opportunity to say that Jesus Christ in heaven sent you to bless other people. (But we don’t just bless other people with words.)
- A faith that matters makes a difference in the world by doing good works.
- As the reading from James shows, a faith that does not produce good works is not a saving faith but a useless belief. Unless your faith leads you to do good works, it is no good to anyone (pun intended). James wants us to know the difference between a fake faith and the real thing. A real faith will make a difference in the real world. It is not simply a matter of thinking the right things. James says, “You believe that God is one [the basic statement of faith of the Jewish person from Deuteronomy 6:4]; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). A saving faith is not only believing some right information. Satan knows orthodox theology – he knows the true teaching concerning God – but he doesn’t trust God. When Jesus encountered demons they knew who he is and they shuddered but they didn’t trust God. But when we are in relationship with God through Jesus Christ – when we are a friend of God and we get close to God – He works through us to bless others. Martin Luther, the man that John Calvin called an apostle in the 16th Century, reportedly said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” James does not use the language of justification in the same way that the apostle Paul does, which is why it appears on the surface that James is contradicting Paul, but for our purposes today I simply want you to see that James knows that a saving faith always shows itself by good works that bless others. A saving faith then is never alone, it always leads to action. A saving faith is a faith that works (this pun is also intended). (How does it work?)
- A saving faith is a faith that works to bless others in need with food or clothes or shelter or transportation or friendship or counseling or many other things. James makes the observation that it is no good to wish someone well who is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food without giving them the things they need. Thus if you have a faith that matters to others then you might give food to a food pantry or to someone you know in need or you might give clothes to a clothes closet or to someone you know in need or you might provide transportation—including transportation to church—to someone in need, or you might serve in a mission or at a church camp or visit the sick or imprisoned or many other things. I have met many people who gave the shirt off their back to help someone else who needed it and are ready to do it again. Most of them would do so because they have a faith that works. This brings me to an important clarification – having a faith that matters to others doesn’t mean that you have to spend all your time working in a city mission. You can do good works in your homes, at your places of work, and when you are out and about. You may not think that these things are such a big deal or that they make a big difference but they matter to other people. Sometimes it is easier for others to see that our faith works than it is for us to see it ourselves. You could never do enough good works to get to go to heaven, but a faith that works is a saving faith. A faith that works is one that is walking with God already in this life. A friend of God, as you grow in your friendship with Him, you will also grow to be more intentional about sharing your faith with others so that they will know why you do what you do. A faith that works is one that the world can see. After all, you are not a tourist here in Buffalo and when I go home to Niagara Falls I’m not going there as a tourist, God is sending each of us on a pilgrimage as we go from this place today to be a blessing to all the families of the earth and the world will never be the same. Thanks be to God. Amen. (The artwork: A Painting of Abraham’s Departure by József Molnár)