Sermon for 6 September
As we listen for the word of God,
let us pray:
God of the outcast,
through Christ, you offer healing to all;
lead us to share your love with others,
that our faith may be seen
in the life we live,
for the sake of Jesus our Saviour. Amen.
(I got this idea from Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic, pp. 3-9.)
Imagine a world, perhaps sometime in the future, a world in which it is illegal to be a Christian. Imagine we’re living in a slightly-future time in which the penalty for being a Christian is death.
In this world, if you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you? Would you be found guilty as charged? Or would you be let off and go free?
Imagine such a world…
[the prosecutor, walking to front from seat and speaking]
Silence in the court! Silence in the court!
Excuse me, we’re in the middle of…
Silence in the court! Or I’ll have you sent down for contempt!
[fumbles with papers]
Paul Walton, you are charged with that most grievous crime of being a Christian. If you are found guilty, the punishment is death. Do you understand?
Erm, well, I…
Do you understand?
The court has in its possession a number of photographs and sworn statements. You have been under surveillance for some time! These photographs show you wearing clerical robes, attending church, going to small groups and reading Christian books at the local coffee shop. What have you to say to this?
Well, yes, I am a Christian. It’s a fair cop I suppose.
This court is inclined to be fair. It wants to look at all the evidence.
Haven’t you got enough evidence? I mean, going to church and all that?
Going to church is not legally admissible evidence of being a Christian. Going to church may be just a habit. It may just be that’s where you meet your friends. It may just mean you’re religious. Perhaps you have nothing better to do on a Sunday. The same with going to small groups. None of it proves you’re a Christian.
But I’m a minister! I preach the gospel in church!
Being a minister is what you get paid to do. Maybe you like the sound of your own voice. Nothing more. No, that doesn’t prove you’re a Christian, far from it.
I read the bible! I…
You read the bible? Oh, that’s much more interesting. You read the bible… Hmm, yes, that’s a very dangerous thing to do. Go on, tell me more…
Well, just now, I was reading from the Book of James.
Ah, James, yes, the brother of Jesus. We’d find him guilty, no question about that. Tell me what you were reading.
I was just reading James chapter 2. It begins,
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
It’s a wonderful picture, a vision of what the church should be. A place where it doesn’t matter what a person is like, they will find a welcome there.
Indeed. But what about you?
What about me?
What do you do? Do you make distinctions? When someone comes into church looking rich, attractive and self-assured, don’t you behave differently from when someone enters who is scruffily-dressed and needs a shower?
Of course I don’t!
Yes you do. Remember, the authorities have had you under surveillance for some time now. We’ve got it on film. We have it from sworn statements from our informers in the congregation. You are much friendlier to people who look good. Don’t worry, most people are. But not most Christians. Go on, tell me more about the Book of James.
Well, a bit later it says,
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
And since you treat the people who have made it differently to the losers, what does that passage say about you?
Well, hang on, I don’t always treat losers differently, sometimes I go out of my way to help them.
But left to yourself, what do you usually do? Don’t you only help these so-called ‘losers’ when that nagging old conscience gets through to you? What does the passage say about you?
It says that since I have fallen short in one area, I’ve fallen short in all. It means that I don’t love my neighbour as myself. It means I am guilty.
Good. What else does James say?
I don’t want to talk about James anymore. I’ve sort of gone off James.
Come on, just a bit more! Doesn’t James go on with a little bit about faith? Something like ‘faith without works is dead’? Yes, yes, reading the bible is very, very dangerous. But it’s not enough to get you found guilty of being a Christian.
What would be enough? How could I be found guilty?
Not just by reading the bible, but by doing what the bible says. Doing what James says, for a start: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, sharing what you have. Loving your neighbour. People who do what the bible says are dangerous. We have to get rid of people like that. You don’t do those things. We aren’t worried about people like you.
So what are you saying?
Simply this: you have been found Not Guilty of being a Christian. You are free to go.
Not guilty? But that’s terrible! What will the congregation say?
[the prosecutor withdraws]
I began by asking you to imagine a world in which it is illegal to be a Christian, a world where the penalty for being a Christian is death.
Would there be enough evidence to convict you? Would you be found guilty as charged? Or would you be let off and go free?
We don’t live in such a world. But I cringe when I read the words of James:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
Can we hear the question that the bible is asking us? If we play favourites, can we truly say we believe in Jesus Christ? Will our faith save us if we refuse to feed the hungry?
The Lectionary is taking us through Mark’s Gospel this year. There’s one thing about the disciples in Mark: they just don’t get it. They don’t understand Jesus, they try to correct him, they don’t have faith—but Jesus persists with them. Mark gives us a picture of disciples as thick as two short planks!—but Jesus keeps them on. They are disciples in formation—they’re still getting there.
I love that picture, because I see why Jesus keeps me on. It’s not because I get it right all the time. It’s because Jesus is faithful to his friends. It’s not because I’d be found guilty of being a Christian in a court of law.
It’s because—and I’m fairly confident of this—it’s because I would be found guilty of being someone who is becoming a Christian. I’d be found guilty of being a Christian in formation. A trainee Christian, if you like. ‘Not quite there yet, but the kid’s got potential, you know?’
Do you and I really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Our lives need to reflect our faith. James says that we should stop playing favourites, that we should supply the bodily needs of others, that—in short—we should love our neighbour.
Because—James says—if we don’t, we may well ask ourselves this simple question: do we really believe in Jesus Christ?
Join me today in becoming a Christian in formation. Christians in formation are aiming in the right direction. Christians in formation have a tender conscience, and try to hear the correcting voice of the Spirit. Christians in formation don’t make excuses for getting it wrong, but they know that they will get it wrong—quite often. But most of all, Christians in formation find that they have a loving Lord, a forgiving Lord, a Lord who sets the bar high, but says Let’s try that again! each and every time they get it wrong. Amen.