I was preaching in a friend's church this morning as he was away. He wasn't daft picking that Sunday to go. As well as there being a communion and other stuff to "fit in" to the service he left me with a passage to preach on which has caused controversy for years (2000 years, roughly). Paul Versus James. The Big Fight. Or NOT. Luther, a real fan of Paul, called the letter of James an epistle of straw, but Luther couldn't be right about everything and, IMHO, he was wrong to see them as opposing each other.
Paul went to great lengths in all his writing to explain to us something crucial that sets apart the Christian faith from all others. Indeed it's something which some members of other faiths find offensive, and some just find bewildering. In our faith, as Paul explains it so clearly, over and over again in case we miss it, we are taught the astonishing claim that God gives us our ticket to heaven at the BEGINNING, not the end, of our faith journey. That's so unlike other religions. We believe that as we can't even fully keep the most important two commandments (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and Love your neighbour as yourself) for half a day, never mind for our whole lives, Jesus paid the price so that our reconciliation with God could be bought and then given to us (just because God loves us) rather than earned. What some people have thought James was saying was that this was not enough, and good works had to be present in order to win salvation. But James wasn't talking about how you BECOME a Christian. He was talking about how you show, prove, evidence, that you are a Christian, and he says that if there are no good deeds, that's an indication that your so-called faith is dead, demonic and/or useless (James doesn't like to miss and hit the wall).
If you were arrested today would there be enough evidence to convict you? That's basically all James is asking, and Paul would agree, and they'd both be agreeing with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus, and Paul, and James, all want us to be the real deal as Christians, not fakes with masks. In the old days, prisoners sometimes used to fake conversion to try and increase their prospects of parole. Nowadays I reckon that's more likely to earn you the diagosis of some psychosis and damage rather than improve your chances. But even when it was happening, fellow prisoners could always tell the real thing from the fake.
James wasn't arguing with Paul about our inability to earn our salvation, just stressing the obvious - that our faith needs to be the real deal, the real thing, not just mental assent to propositions, but life-changing and ACTION-changing.
I reckon that if you're like me and you've been going to church for a hundred years, it's possible to act the part of being a Christian quite easily. It would be harder for someone without that background, but I could certainly act the part. I know what to say, what not to say, and so on. I could fake it reasonably convincingly (not that God would be convinced). If you, dear reader, have a church upbringing you'd probably admit that that's possible for us to do, and it's therefore, inevitably, a temptation sometimes.
I don't want to slide into a fake-faith that's just an outward act. I want to be the real deal, walking the walk as well as talking the talk - every day. I'm no longer fussed about having spectacularly cleverly worked out doctrine with all the i's dotted and the t's crossed. I'm no longer bothered about trying to prove myself in some imaginary and non-existent minister-competition, or indeed, since I'd have "dual citizenship", minister's-wife-competition (boy, I'd be last in that one!)
I had my appraisal interview with the governor recently so I was having a bit of a think about my official job description. I realised that you could really put a line through it all and just write "love the prisoners (and staff)" in red pen across it all, since that's the essence of prison chaplaincy. What I'm trying to say is this: I WANT TO BE GOD'S LOVE WITH SKIN ON, FOR THE PRISONERS (AND STAFF).
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