“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” – James 1:22
As evidenced by several postings on this blog, over the past several weeks I’ve been engaged in a sermon series addressing some of the affirmations made in our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith. From a preaching perspective, it’s been a lot of fun to take a fresh look at this rich and powerful document of the church; and it has seemed to have been well-received by the congregation, which I’m very glad about. However, I must confess that as the series winds down this Sunday, I’ve feeling a bit like Lucy Van Pelt in this vintage “Peanuts” comic strip:
Lucy (courtesy of Charles Schultz, who was ever the armchair theologian) understood: it’s one thing to talk about love; it’s quite another to actually mean it and to allow that affirmation to move our very lives. And so it is with the affirmations we make regarding our Christian faith: words are fine, and speaking them with understanding and conviction is even better; but ultimately, it’s what you do with those words that count!
One of my hopes with this sermon series was that we might experience a bit of what it means to say that we believe in God, to say that we’re disciples of Christ and to say that we are gathered as Christ’s church, laying a “foundation,” as it were, of our shared Christian faith with every new affirmation. However, as the weeks pass, sermons are written and affirmation has begun to layer upon affirmation, I’m realizing we’ve accumulated a lot of words! Good words, mind you; words that serve to define who we are as believers and tell what sets us apart from the rest of the world, but ultimately words that have no real life unless they are put to use!
To affirm our faith is a great thing, to be sure – and the creeds, confessions and other “statements of belief” that are parts of the church’s tradition are important tools in doing just that – but the truest expression of our devotion to God will always be “living the word,” acting on what we know and understand about God. In theological terms, this is what is referred to as praxis, which is simply the application of what we’ve received from God. In other words, without praxis, without putting the truth we espouse to work in our lives and in the world, all we’ve really got is philosophy. As the Epistle of James puts it, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17) Or to put it still another way, if we Christians don’t build on the foundations of faith we’ve laid, it’ll just remain an empty foundation of little lasting value.
So the question becomes, how do we build on our foundation? How do we move from theology to praxis, that our faith might truly define our works? There are actually a great many answers to that question I could give you: just as when you’re building a house, there’s a great many aspects of the construction that contribute to the strength and beauty of that house, likewise there are many kinds of “works” that show forth our faith: ministries of preaching and teaching, programs of mission and outreach, efforts for social justice, just to name a few. I would suggest that the building process begins in what we do each and every Sunday morning, gathering together to worship as God’s people, the Church of Jesus Christ. The church – our church – for all of its shortcomings, its quirks and its occasional overindulgence in words, is the place where praxis begins; our worship is, in the words of Martin Copenhaver, is the time that we are “cultivated in the community of faith,” and “formed into faithful people for the sake of the world.”
And the building process goes on from there. It’s very telling that in the “Mission Statement” that’s included as part of East Church’s constitution and by-laws it is declared that “we hold it to be the mission of this church ‘to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8)” (a verse, incidentally, that we’re currently teaching the children of our congregation during the “children’s sermon” portion of our worship!). It then goes on to talk about how that gets worked out in the policies, procedures and above all, the hospitality of our life together as a congregation. Yes, more words and further affirmations; but this time, rather than giving us a warm and fuzzy description of church life, here we have a mandate for committed, steadfast and even radical behavior for the sake of our faith!
It’s a reminder to all of us who would be about the business of “building on foundations” that it’s not just about the warm feelings we get when we come together in worship, when the Spirit is moving and the songs are beautiful and when scripture, sermon and prayers all speak to our hearts; as wonderful as that all is, it’s more than that. It’s about translating the teachings of God’s Word into the vocabulary of our daily lives; taking responsibility for learning and sharing that Word with others. It’s about recognizing that our “mission” extends not only to those who sit in the pews, or those who live in this town or dwell in this generation, but also all the people “out there” who stand in the spiritual, emotional and physical need of what we can provide by God’s grace both today and in the years to come. It’s about us being accountable – to one another, to our community and above all, to God – by ever and always living out of a position of moral responsibility and faith.
This is what happens when theology meets praxis, when faith and works are one, and when the foundation of our shared faith in Christ gets some framing and floorboards and walls and a roof built upon it. You get the Body of Christ, a people of God who are “proficient [and] equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:17) For me, that’s a crucial understanding, because if there was ever a time in this community and the world when we needed to be proficient and equipped for ministry, it’s right now.
An old friend and colleague of mine likes to say that the problem with the church in this generation is that it’s gone so far afield from the teachings of Christ that it no longer even resembles the church as it was intended to be. Now, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think that we’ve risked letting ourselves “go soft;” going for what’s easy and convenient and non-threatening about being the church; watering down the precepts of our faith to the point where there’s no longer any flavor or nourishment to it. Our faith is never meant to be generic in nature, beloved! It’s not supposed to be weak and, shall I say, decaffeinated; in this day and age, we need spirituality that full and pungent and real, and that kind of bold faith proceeds from the very pews in which you and I are sitting.
Affirming our faith is important, but even more important is to be living out the kind of faith that Christ himself taught and God’s Spirit encourages, “to proclaim the message,” to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,” to “convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2) It’s then that we build, and let ourselves be built into, the church that we are called to be, carrying out our shared ministry on the foundation of faith in God through Jesus Christ, and doing so boldly, without hesitation or fear.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry