T ODAY is Transfiguration Sunday, as you heard at the beginning of the service. It is also Valentine’s Day, which makes some people smile and others squirm. And it is the last Sunday before Lent begins. Today the sermon is going to lean into Lent, with a focus on our Christian faith.
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In anticipation of Lent, I am going to invite you to ponder a few questions. I asked these same questions to a few people last week. The oldest was 83, and the youngest was 11. These were very informal “interviews,” and I treasure the time I had with each person. The first question I asked, and I want you to ask yourselves right now is:
■ What does faith — Christian faith — mean to you?
Almost all the people I talked with used the words “to believe” when describing their faith. Sully said faith is hope and believing in God, and being a good person and leading a good life. (I’ve got to talk with our younger people more often!) Even my cousin Cathy, who identifies herself as an agnostic, described her faith as believing in a higher power.
Two people said they think of faith as knowing that God is always there with you. One said faith is trusting God; she knows where she is going because the scriptures say that God is preparing a place for her. Brenda quoted Hebrews: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The next question is:
■ Do you have to do what James calls “works” to go to heaven?
The James scripture has stirred up conversations, arguments, and even divisions among Christians. For someone to be saved, to be forgiven by God through Jesus Christ, do they have to just believe, or do they also have to do what James calls “good works”?
If the only instruction we had to go on were the verses that (Gail) read for us today, it seems that the answer is faith and works, or deeds. Many people do believe that. Years ago during a Bible study, I asked, “do you know if you are going to heaven?” One person’s answer stuck with me. He said, “I hope so, but I don’t know if I have been good enough.” That would seem to go along with James’ statement that ‘faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’
Rose said faith is only believing in God. You don’t have to do good to go to heaven, because even people who don’t do good go to heaven, because God forgives. But, she quickly added, we are put here to help. We are put here for God. One other person said we cannot buy our way into heaven (by what we do).
Now Sena said “works are a testimony of our faith,” which I agree with. Brenda said something similar. She said that because of faith, we will want to do good things. We will want to do good things for others. The last question is:
■ What have you been doing to nurture your faith since the pandemic began?
Since the pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for even people of strong faith convictions, I also asked and I’m asking you, what have you been doing that has helped you keep your faith?
Rose said she has never lost her faith. She has experienced many hardships, long before and including the pandemic, and that she doesn’t blame God for difficulties. One person said that being able to continue Bible study kept her grounded, and the how grateful she was for the online worship services.
Karl and Brenda said they haven’t stopped doing what they did before being isolated. They read the Bible daily. My mom cannot see to read anymore, so my dad does the reading. They worship — online instead of in person. They keep a prayer board in the kitchen. Although their health has declined, their faith has remained strong.
Sena and I never got to this question, and I loved talking with Sully so much I plum forgot to ask her this question! But I did ask each person I spoke with if I could share their responses with you, and they all agreed. I am grateful for our conversations.
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Bible and Presbyterianism
So, I hope you’ll take some time to think about your answers to these questions. One of things that drew me to the Presbyterian denomination is that it does not dictate what we must believe. Most reformed denominations encourage people to make their own biblically informed decisions, calling on the Holy Spirit for clarity, and being open to new ways of thinking: reformed and always being reformed.
We are always cautious about taking scripture out of context. I’ve said before, you can make this book (Bible) say anything you want it to, if you just look at a few verses. So as I have grabbled with the message in the James reading, I learned a lot from talking with other people. I also searched through the marked-up pages of my study Bible, done some googling, and even prayed. Now there’s an idea!
The reason our message was based on James today was because I was drawn to this scripture while studying Exodus with the online Zoom group. The reference was to the people who offered their gifts and talents freely while building the tabernacle. In the lesson book, the author, Matthew Newark, wrote, “although our obedience to God’s word does not save us, it is evidence that we have been saved.” This made sense to me. And it goes along with what Sena said, “works are a testimony of our faith.” For me, it is not that we must do works to be saved, but that when we are saved by grace through faith, we will want to do good works. It may be a semantics thing — different ways of wording the same thing, but it hit me, well, differently as I pondered Newark’s statement. I went to look at scriptures, and I read several that referred to faith, without reference to works. How about…
■ John 3:16–18
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And it continues… 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
■ Communion Sundays
All are welcome at The Table. If you do not feel worthy, you are especially encouraged to come to the table, for none of us are worthy, but through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. We cannot be good enough to get to heaven. And so God sent his son to die for us. Ephesians also emphasized being saved by faith:
■ Ephesians 2:8–10
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
■ ‘Faith Alone’ Solas
Presbyterians believe in the Five Solas, five Latin phrases or slogans from the time of the Reformation. The Reformers’ believed that these were the essentials of Christianity, which differed with the church at that time. In English, one of them is, “Faith Alone — We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.” (Not good works).
■ So, the sermon title: “Is Faith Without Works Dead?”
I believe that our faith may falter if we are not doing the things God calls us to do. But our salvation is not dependent on us.
■ Do you Agree? Disagree?
I read seven other verses about being saved by faith alone. You can text me or call me later if you’d like them, and they will be posted on our website. Or dig in yourself and let me know what you find. Want to talk about this scripture some more? Please contact me.
■ As for your faith …
I encourage you to be intentional throughout this upcoming season of Lent about nurturing your own your faith. Listen to our interviewees — read your Bible, worship online or in person, pray for others. Visit one of the two Sunday school classes. Or both! Make a decision to learn how to “Zoom” — one of the younger people can teach you — and join in the Thursday morning online Bible study. The study beginning this Thursday is based on the scriptures in the Lenten devotional booklets, which are the same scriptures Pastor Keith will be preaching. The study will look at each previous Sunday’s sermons.
One last suggestion for nurturing your faith — this one is from me. Call someone. The time I spent talking with people boosted my faith and helped me feel closer to each of them. Especially Sully. And Sully and other young people in the church, I include you in the suggestion to call someone. What a boost it would be for someone in the congregation to hear from you. We love you, and we pray for your faith journeys.
This Lenten season, may all of us grow closer to God and closer to one another. And may our faith spill out to reaching out to others — in Christ’s name. Amen.