Justification in Diversity

“James the Just,” 16th century Russian icon

Preached at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, Sunday, January 30th, 2022, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I, by my works, will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus, the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26, NRSV)

When I was young, I attended a little Bible camp for many years. I loved it. Set out in the woods, it was always the highlight of my summer there: the sports, the crafts, the campfire with singing and snacks afterwards.

But most importantly, as a Bible camp, they did bible stories. At the campfire, they would do dramas of different bible stories, and one person always told a story of a famous Christian like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Nickey Cruz. Those stories left a profound impact on my faith as a young person. It was at this camp, really, where my love of the Bible began.

So, when one of the leaders talked about baptism, inviting anyone to be baptized if they professed to believe in Jesus, I naturally came forward, all to have myself abruptly halted. “I would like to be baptized,” I said. However, the leader simply said, “Spencer, I can’t baptize you.”

I said, “Why not?”

He answered, “Because you don’t go to one of our churches. I can’t baptize you in good conscience unless I know for sure that you will go to a biblical church after.”

Now, for the record, I attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance church at the time, one that prided itself with being bible-believing. His words shocked me.

I remember protesting this with him: “Are we not all Christians here? Don’t we all believe in Jesus here?” His response was a bit sheepish, but his answer was, “Sorry, Spencer, that is not enough.”

That experience, as I think of it, was really the first instance where I witnessed exclusion within the body of Christ for myself. It was the first moment I became aware that just because we are all Christians, who believe in Jesus, that does not mean we all treat each other as Christians.

And as you listen here this morning, think about is yourself: what was the first instance where you felt demeaned by another Christian about your Christian beliefs? Or perhaps, can we be challenged to think about how we might have been the ones who did the excluding?

This week has been if you did not know, the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is a week where Christians pray in repentance for how we have so often divided the Body of Christ based on our faith convictions: Catholic against Protestants, and of course, Protestants against other Protestants, even Baptists against other Baptists in our own churches.

It is kind of funny that we put together this preaching schedule, John and I, just going passage by passage. Interestingly enough, this passage takes place on the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I say “funny,” you might call that providential too.

James challenges us to live our faith, that we are rendered just by what we do. And we will see, the language of this text here is very different from the words of Paul on justification, which he says is by faith. As we will think about this morning, this text challenges us to live our faith but also live out our beliefs in the midst of the diversity of Christianity in a Christ-like way.

1.   Seeing Diversity

First, I want to tackle what seems like a point of diversity and tension in the Bible. James calls us to live our faith. He puts it in pretty strong terms. He says, So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Here a scripture says you are justified by works.

Now, Paul in Galatians says, this: a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

One says justification by faith, the other justification by works.

Martin Luther used this teaching from Paul to found Protestantism (and we are all Protestants because of him, by the way). Five hundred years ago, he protested the Catholic Church and its corrupt practices. Martin Luther saw how the Church was using sacraments to enforce their power, saying if you comply with this, if you pay money to us, we will give you forgiveness, and you or the loved one you pay for will be saved. Luther called this works righteousness, making salvation conditional on what you do. He saw what Paul was saying in his own day as applicable to his: Jewish Christians in Galatia sought to make Gentiles accept laws like circumcision to be members of God’s people, and so, the Catholic church was making certain things the requirement to receive grace. Luther’s protest against this succeeded, recalling the church to what the Bible taught, sola scriptura, by scripture alone, and the rest is history.

However, there was a kind of flaw in Luther’s argument. He argued for sola scriptura, but there was a scripture that did not quite conform to what he said. James says no one is justified by faith.

Martin Luther saw this passage, and he hated it. He called James the “epistle of straw” and did not think it ought to be in the Bible. It is ironic that a Reformer that wanted things to be biblical oddly did not want to listen to this Bible passage. Have you ever done that? Many of us are guilty of picking and choosing.

Why did he do this? I suspect Martin Luther assumed the Bible to be uniform. The Reformation as a whole certainly believed that if you just trusted God and read the Bible, one biblical view of things would always emerge with the Spirit’s help.

Well, as the years following the Reformation showed, that did not happen. One after another, groups like Anabaptists and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals all looked at biblical texts with a passion for living out the Bible and came to different conclusions, splitting off from their previous group.

And what happened when they did this? Their tendency was to think, “Aha! I have the Holy Spirit, and I have it right. God revealed to me the true apostolic pattern that has been lost for centuries, and all those other Christians must not have the Holy Spirit, and they need to listen to this discovery I found, or they must be evil.”

Well, when they did not all agree, they fought and, in some cases, killed each other. Reformers hated Baptists and would take Baptists and drown them in rivers, giving them what they felt was their real baptism, terrible things like that.

The result of these religious wars and violence is that Western society saw Christians fighting over doctrine and said, “I don’t think we can build just laws on what they believe.” In other words, if we lament the loss of Christianity in the public sphere, if we lament that we live in a secular society in Canada, I don’t think we need to wonder why. It was our fault.

It all comes down to this tendency that Christians have not known how to manage, this notion that two sincere believers can come to the same text and conclude very different things. We don’t know what to do with that, other than by treating differences as dangerous:

You are either too liberal, too conservative, too traditional, too informal, too emotional, too rational, too this or too that. We are quick to label and dismiss, or worse, exclude.

In my experience, the two primary things Christians have fought about in recent years are styles of worship and ethics of sexuality. And if you cannot come to grips with the fact that there are good believers on either side of a debate, trying to navigate it because they love Jesus, we are only furthering this 500-year-old problem.

We have not been good at dealing with diversity. When we see it, we divide. To date, there is somewhere in the ballpark of 50 000 denominations of Christianity, who have all, more or less followed this tendency.

But what if diversity is not all bad? What if diversity is not always a cause for division? What if there is something about our faith that is naturally diverse? What if there is diversity in the Bible?

I think these texts have something to say about this. Some scholars have suggested that these two passages in Paul and James could reflect two views in what was really the first theological debate of Christianity. What is the role of works? What is the role of faith and the law? James and Paul answer it differently.

It is interesting that James quotes the exact same texts from the Old Testament as Paul does in Galatians, referring to Abraham and Isaac, and they interpret it two different ways. Are we witnessing here the records of two Apostles differing about their faith in Christ?

Of it is, that raises some interesting notions for our faith. We like to think that early Christianity was perfect, that they agreed on everything, that they miraculously never fought, never disagreed, never had to discuss and debate. They all just supernaturally knew what to believe about everything. Well, if we read the book of Acts or other books in the New Testament like these, we just know that is just not the case (and frankly, I for one find it oddly comforting to know just how weirdly messed up the church at Corinth was).

And if you look at a book like John or Mark, in particular, you will see that in the early church, there were different ways to tell the story of Jesus.

The Bible, the inspired Scriptures, contains diversity: different ways of thinking about Jesus and following him that the early church did not ultimately see as bad. Maybe God is trying to give us a hint with that.

And when it comes to a disagreement like the role of Jewish laws for the church that now includes Jews and Gentiles, Paul and James had to come together with the rest of the church, as it shows in Acts 15 and work it out. They had to come to terms with their differences. Now, we don’t know if the book of James was written before the events in Acts 15 or after, but the fact remains: in the Bible are two Apostles speaking quite differently about their faith in two different letters of the early church, which the church today draws inspiration from. Again, I think God might be giving us a hint here. Diversity is to be expected, and what we do with that is really the mark of what it means to follow Christ.

Now, the question is, how far do they actually disagree? For instance, there were groups in the church that did not believe Jesus came in the flesh and did things that harmed fellow Christians, and John says in his first epistle that this is too far. Clearly, there are limits to diversity, and we need to think about those.

When we look at the history of the church, we see the creeds of the faith offering decisions that I think provide helpful standards, classic summaries of what Christians hold as central. That does not solve it all, however. For instance, the Apostle’s Creed says nothing about how the church is to confront modern racism or climate change, but they are all part of the task we have as the church of discerning wisely together.

And, on many matters, there is a kind of range of views being worked out that is well accepted amongst Christians. And on this matter, as it goes with many theological debates with Christians, what sounds like a deep divide between how we talk about our faith, is, in reality, not that big of a difference.

I remember one time in seminary, listening to two students talk about eschatology (the end times) over soup in the cafeteria. One student said that when they looked at the biblical evidence, they just did not see a premillennial rapture. They saw something more like an amillenial kingdom. The other was mortified, and I remember them saying: “If you don’t’ believe in premillennial dispensationalism, I don’t know how you can be in the truth!” (Now, if you don’t know what those terms are, consider yourself spared)The important thing that struck me was just how ridiculous this was: I am pretty sure both still believed that their hope was Jesus.

I think something similar is happening in Paul and James, just in different contexts: Paul is going after Judaizers that believed you need to obey the whole law, including getting circumcised, in order to be one of God’s people. However, Paul very much believes that we need to obey the law of love, love our neighbours as ourselves, and live in a way that manifests the fruit of the Spirit.

And James, here it seems, is not interested in ritual laws like the people in Galatia are worrying about. His concern here is with the poor. If we believe that God loves the poor, if God loves anyone really, we will do something to help. And if you believe something, he says, we ought to live it, namely, just like Paul, by following the “royal law:” the law of love, love your neighbour as yourself.  

So, James goes after a faith that does not do anything to help, whereas Paul goes after a view of the actions that make people believe they are better than others.

Yet both, however, are committed at the end of the day to humbly trusting Jesus and following him.

Both are committed that at the centre of the Christian life is living out love.

Ask yourself, if you have had a debate about your beliefs as a Christian with another: what are the things you hold in common? Are you really so different?

An old motto of Christian unity is this: In the essential things, unity; in the non-essential, liberty, but in all things, charity. Let that be your guide.

2.   Living Reconciled Faith

So, we need to take James’ point: Faith is something we need to live. And when it comes to diversity, we need to live out Christ’s reconciliation. And if that is the case, we have not done in our works what we often believe.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6 says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

James might get us to look at that and ask, “Do you really believe that?”

James says You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. The real difference is that we are willing to act on this.

Do you really believe that we are one?

Do you really believe if someone is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are your brother or sister in faith? Even if they are a Catholic, even if they are a liberal, or even if they are a fundamentalist? Or whatever group in Christianity is the group you tend to have very little patience for. They share in this oneness, and we need to live accordingly.

It is one thing if we all call ourselves Christians. James might say. It is quite another whether we actually treat each other as Christians.

The opposite is a dark path of believing only people like us are the true believers, and everyone else is wrong, or worse, evil, and living out our days in an ever-shrinking echo chamber of our own making.

This does not mean that we compromise on what we think is true and good. It does not mean that just because someone calls themselves Christians, we give them a free pass to believe anything they want.

I say that as a person that had to leave the Baptist denomination my grandfather helped found because I became convicted that God’s kingdom means equality between men and women and that women should be ordained. After I was given a threat that if I kept speaking about this, I would lose my funding as a church planter, I realized I had to leave for a denomination that did support women’s equality.

And if you have ever had to leave a church family, you will know these moments are painful. We have to be wise on what we take our stands on and be diligent to be healers of the wounds that mar the body of Christ.

There are things we need to take a stand on, but that does not mean seeing those who differ from us as evil or stupid, and hopefully, we can navigate these tensions with gentleness, patience and peace.

Other times, our differences should not get in the way of Gospel work. I remember when I worked at a soup kitchen. This ministry attached Christians from all different strips. And it always struck me that when we centred on the task at hand of helping those who were in need, our differences always felt smaller.

So, I will repeat this, realizing that Christianity is a diverse place does not mean we compromise on the truth, but it does mean we go about the truth a different way.  

It might mean giving the benefit of the doubt before judging.

It might mean having some sense that we are just as fallible, and we need to listen.

It might mean taking steps to be patient and forgiving.

It might mean being tolerant and focusing on our shared tasks of caring for others.

All of this speaks again of what James is challenging us with: we need to put our faith into practice. We need to step up and do the work of listening and discerning, confessing and repenting, forgiving and reconciling.

It means treating people like family, knowing that God is bringing together all peoples into one family through what Jesus Christ has done for us.

3.   Witnessing the Spirit in Unity

Only then will we welcome differences not as dangerous but as a reflection of what the Spirit started doing at Pentecost, bringing people together as members of many tribes and nations, languages and ways of thinking, into God’s family.  

Can we allow ourselves to be open to this?

I remember one event where the Spirit moved in this way. It was at a unity service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seven years ago. I was pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. Our church participated in the ecumenical service for several years before that, but I suspected we did that as some way of showing the other churches just how much more biblical we were than them. Well, over the years, that didn’t quite work out that way. Members of our church got to know members of the Catholic, United, and Anglican churches, and different members attended each other’s events. In a small town like Garson, that meant we all started saying hi to one another at the grocery store and being neighbourly to one another. We all intuitively started thinking we were not so different after all. Maybe we do have something in common.

Well, that unity service, held at the catholic church that year, it is like this all bubbled up. I remember the one pastor gave a great monologue as if she was the woman from the well. And people were asked to come up in pairs to a pool of water. They were asked to say words of repentance, acknowledging how we have harmed each other, the body of Christ, and then make the sign of the cross with water over the other’s forehead.

I remember sitting there with the other pastors when I looked back and saw people beginning to break down and cry. Others were hugging, saying, “I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.”

I can tell you that I have never seen the Holy Spirit move in a room like I did that service, and it happened by a willingness of those in the room to repent and realize the people in this room, despite different traditions of Christianity – were all family.

Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, how might we see the Spirit move among us today if we are willing to reconcile with other brothers and sisters in our Christian family? What might our witness be in this broken, fragmented world?

What would the Spirit do if we are willing to let go of our arrogance, be willing to listen and learn, but also go forward together to care for one another and serve those who need help in our communities? I am excited to see what the Spirit will do.

Let’s pray:

God, our Father, who has brought us all together as a family through your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us for all the ways we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves, and especially have not treated fellow Christians as family.

Let your Spirit move amongst us with a spirit of repentance and humility, a spirit of service and solidarity. Show us ways we can come together and live our faith in the Good News.

In Christ’s name, amen.

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