Immanuel was founded in 1871. They are being served by Pastor Ken Weiss, since March 2018.
This is Oscar, at Immanuel. It’s his 94th birthday his weekend. A lifelong member of this community, Oscar told me he feels his age. “Two years ago I was vaccinating a calf and I got knocked down by a cow. Haven’t felt the same since.” Impressive. No one in my family has made it to 90. I can’t imagine vaccinating a cow now, much less at 92. One of nine children, all the boys are veterans. He said 24 from Immanuel served in WWII, and all came back, though all were also affected by it. I appreciate listening to the stories, history and impressions of those who have seen so much. Here’s to Oscar.
Below are some of the congregation’s Confirmation photos, to give a window of history.
In 1851, the St. Chrischona School sent their entire graduating class of six. Among them was Johann George Ebinger. Ebinger sailed on the Franziska from Bremen on September 2, and arrived in Galveston on November 5, 1851, at a time when immigration was completely open, except for the occasional mobs of thugs who would scare away whoever they thought were the wrong kind of people.
Ebinger was present for the organization of the Texas Synod on November 10, 1851, Martin Luther’s birthday. The day after the synod assembly, Ebinger headed to Rose Hill, now Tomball, Texas.
On December 24, 1954, Pastor Ebinger conducted the first Lutheran worship service in Washington County. Then, on July 5, 1955, Eben Ezer, the first Lutheran Church in Brenham was organized in the Berlin community.
A conflict arose between Pastor Ebinger and the leaders at Eben Ezer in 1956. So Pastor Ebinger and a few members went three miles south to “the prairie,” where they formed Salem Lutheran Church.
Today Eben Ezer is served by Pastor Ken Weiss, who served them while in candidacy, starting January 1, 2010. He was ordained February 17, 2013. Although Eben Ezer’s attendance is stable and has even grown a bit, this year (starting March of 2018), Ken agreed to also serve Immanuel of Wiedeville in Brenham, at the encouragement of Assistant to the Bishop Blair Lundborg.
Eben Ezer has been served by many pastors in its 163-year history.
Below are some (not all) confirmation photos, hastily taken, to share some perspective.
Proverbs 31:10-31 – A capable wife who can find? She is more precious than jewels.
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16 – 2:1, 12-22 – Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’
Jeremiah 11:18-20 — But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!”
Psalm 1 – How blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked… he will be like a tree planted by streams of water.
Psalm 54 – God is my helper; it is the LORD who sustains my life. (Ps. 54:4)
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a – Why do conflicts arise among you?
Mark 9:30-37 – Who is the greatest? Be a servant.
EPISTLE OF STRAW: A 5-week Series on James
Here is this week’s text (James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a) in its entirety:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the framers of the lectionary omitted a section out of this. Why omit verses 4-6? I have included them above, but put them in blue, so you can see the section left out. I know the Epistle of James is organized chaotically, but it is his letter after all. Shouldn’t we just let it speak?
In the first section, wisdom is mentioned several times. You will recall from your Old Testament studies that Wisdom is very important in Hebrew literature. It is even personified. She is even feminine. Some equate it with the later New Testament understanding of the Holy Spirit.
I’ll also remind you that Robert Gundry calls James a “manual of Christian conduct that assumes a foundation of faith” In his Commentary on James, in Baker Academic’s Commentary on the New Testament Books, copyright 2010. The Kindle version of this commentary is only $1.99.
Wisdom surfaces quite a few times in this short letter.
James 1:5 says, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”
James 3:13: “Who is wise among you?”
James 3:15: “If you are envious, that kind of wisdom does not come from above, but from below.”
James 3:17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
Paul also speaks of wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, 2:1 and 2:7-8. Wisdom in the Greco-Roman world is the wit to conquer, be powerful and wealthy. For Paul, the wisdom of God is Christ crucified. It is revealed in a mystery: us sharing the likeness of the image of God’s Son. God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world. Following the despised and executed Christ leads to glorification. This is the wisdom of God. If we suffer with him, we will share in his glory.
James also sees wisdom as something other than the world’s definition of power and success. Note, however, James’ concept of wisdom is different than Paul’s. It’s not cunning, cleverness or intellectual/academic acumen of the world. It’s not Paul’s concept of mystery (a word that James does not use in his letter). For James, the wisdom of God is peace, gentleness, a willingness to yield (bend?), mercy and good fruits without partiality or hypocrisy. It is egalitarian. It values rich and poor. And this kind of wisdom comes from God, free for the asking. This wisdom from above is being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1). James is painting a picture for us of the Christian life, from his viewpoint. Can you hear it? Let those with ears hear.
Fighting and quarrelling
James does a little digging now. Where do fighting and quarrelling come from? Before going on, invite your folks to ask themselves this question: What is the root of most quarreling?
You’ll likely hear a lot of different answers:
We are never so much disposed to quarrel with others
as when we are dissatisfied with ourselves.
– William Hazlitt
This is very relevant topic. Everyone quarrels. Every couple. Every parent with multiple kids will have to be a referee. Pointing out the humor and quirkiness of our family fights will bring everyone along with you. Share a personal story of a stupid fight you have had.
The irony is, our fights usually make things worse. We take a frustrating situation and then we add to the frustration by creating even more conflict, and saying hurtful things we don’t mean, or sometimes we do.
James would have us believe they come from our ego (the Greek word for “I”). It is self-centeredness that leads to such. Quarreling, according to James, comes from our cravings, the war within us. We want, we crave, we must have, and so we go out into the world and demand. Our greed is at the heart of every quarrel. We want to win, so we can get what we want. He can’t be wrong. He’s pointing to our pride, our hubris, our avarice. So, life in Christ, is letting go of the ego, our self-centeredness.
In every argument, big or small, it often ceases to become what it’s about, and instead becomes about winning, not losing face. Every little win tells us we are winning in life. Every loss makes us feel like we are losing in the game of life. We feel we can’t afford to give an inch of ground. James is pointing to this reality, whatever we want to call it, as the root of the problem. 1 Timothy points to something different, but similar also in some ways, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) This also points to greed. But, at the end of the day, greed and money are also about winning.
What is the Good News?
The good news is we have a diagnosis for many of the little problems in our lives, and the big problems in our world. If we can take an honest look at things, we can actually identify the source of the problem: our self-centeredness.
The good news is if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin, and cleanse us from unrighteousness. Do you believe that God can actually alleviate some of this greed problem?
The good news is God has provided an antidote to all of this. Putting our faith in Christ, putting all of our trust and hope in God (not progress, power, success or money), frees us from worrying too much about money, winning or even death. Jesus offers us an alternative focus. Grabbing on to Christ allows us to let go of having to win (beat the other) all the time. Knowing that life is not a zero-sum game, where others must lose for me to win… knowing the big game is in the bag, we can even feel good about losing a few. We can apologize, fall on our swords and maybe, just maybe let our spouses, kids or coworders win an argument.
Faith brings with it a sense of joy, because we are no longer carrying around our need to win. Drinking from this well, eating from this bread, envy begins to melt away, selfish ambitions are revealed as futile, and are replaced with peace, gentleness and other gifts of the Spirit, or wisdom from above as James puts it.
What congregation has not had conflict?
“We have never had any fighting or quarrelling over anything,” said no congregation ever.
This lesson is for every person, every congregation, every nation. Even our wars grow out of fear of not having enough: safety, oil, prosperity. We want to win, don’t we?
What family has not had conflict? What workplace? Do we believe that dying to ourselves and becoming Christ-centered might change things on the ground?
Invite people to write down a word or draw a picture that represents a conflict they had. What caused the conflict? Where were their own insecurities at play? Who won? What apologies need to be made? If I dwelled constantly in the peace and joy that comes with the confidence of faith, how might I have gone about this differently? How will I go about it differently in the future?
Conflict is inevitable. What matters is how we handle it. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. He acknowledges there will be conflict, and invites people to engage it in creative ways that disrupt the cycle of violence, physical or verbal.
Consider for yourself, preacher, the conflicts in your own congregation. How are you involved? What investment do you have in the outcome? Why? What’s at stake for you? What’s the worst case scenario? What’s the best case scenario? How can you be open about your opinions and yet also open to others’ opinions? How are you creating a culture of cultivating creative conflict at your church? How can you encourage your leaders to share openly and courageously their ideas, and learn to speak the truth in love when necessary?
To live in the wisdom from above, to let go of our need to win, we need to return to this faith well often. We need to confess weekly, maybe daily. Greed and envy resurface belligerently. Hearing the word of hope that grounds us in something bigger than ourselves is critical. Daily prayer to strengthen our faith, gives us the joy to be at peace.
Are you willing to dive into the deep waters of faith and trust?
Psalm 19 – The heavens are telling the glory of God.
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 – Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light. She is more beautiful than the sun.
Psalm 116:1-9 – I will walk in the presence of the LORD. (Ps. 116:8)
James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers. Tame the tongue.
Mark 8:27-38 – Who do people say I am? Messiah. Get behind me Satan. If you would follow me take up your cross.
Tame the Tongue
We are in a five-week series on James.
EPISTLE OF STRAW: A 5-week Series on James
Here is this week’s text (James 3:1-12) in its entirety:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
This is a funny passage to read at the outset of a school year: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
But of course, James is speaking of teachers in the church. James says, “We who teach,” including himself in the conversation. “We who teach will judged with greater strictness.” This reflects several statements of Jesus from the synoptic gospels: When speaking of the Scribes and teachers of the law Jesus says, “they will receive the greater condemnation…” (Mark 12:40. Matthew 20:47.) Greater strictness. Greater condemnation. Strictness and condemnation are the same word in the Greek: κρίμα.
James has already said in this letter that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:26). It goes without saying, that if you stand in front of people to teach them, you will speak more than usual. Your listeners will remember your words, and hold you to them. It is a humbling thing to have your former sermons quoted to you. Teachers stand a greater risk of running off at the mouth, and causing harm.
There is an inherent danger here. We who preach and teach, hold up a higher standard than we could possibly attain. We point to heights and depths of faith. We lift up the beautiful vision of a generous world. We invite people to serve the needy, visit the sick, welcome the stranger. The second, however, teachers fall short of the lofty vision they proclaim, they will be called on it. This is as it should be, but it’s a hard thing. People put their leaders on a pedestal, even when we don’t want to be. So, we are held to a higher standard. James, therefore, urges his listeners to beware of seeking higher status in the community. With status comes responsibility.
This became real for me when I became a pastor and started wearing a clerical collar. If you are from a tradition that doesn’t have peculiar clergy garb, try it out sometime. Once you don the garb of the office of ministry, people watch your every move. Everything you do reflects on Christ’s church. In particular, what you say, and how you say it, comes under extreme scrutiny. What Happened When I Dressed Like a Priest is an interesting article: http://www.esquire.com/style/mens-fashion/a36947/how-uniform-style-affects-daily-life/
So, now James has another word for us on taming the tongue. Remember two weeks ago? Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. James now seems to get around to what he was trying to say earlier. He tends to bounce around a bit on his advice for Christians.
The tongue is a flame
This is a passage I memorized many years ago. In this age of blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram and so on, there are a lot of words out there. We are in constant tell mode. There are a lot of folks out there who are doing a lot of telling, but not a lot of listening. Not a lot of reading. No self-searching. Additionally, the immediacy of digital communication, and the perceived distance, make it easy to shoot off a sharp remark without fully appreciating the consequences. I confess, I’ve done it. We all have. It’s just too easy to slip up.
What makes matters worse, digital communications lack the body-language and tone of voice that often soften the edge of our words. Words are ambiguous and can be taken many different ways. A familiar acting exercise is to say the same phrase with a dozen different inflections, facial expressions and body postures. You can make the same words mean the exact opposite of what you mean. Try this out with your congregation, if you dare. Have them turn to the person next to them and say, “I love you,” several different ways. First, deadpan. Then sarcastically, with a rolling of the eyes. Sincerely. Emotionally. It will bring up some laughter and make your point.
What’s good about this passage, is it’s one we all need to hear. It’s eminently practical. People will be able to put it to use immediately, maybe even in the car on the way home.
James uses the example of a small bit that guides a horse. He then moves to the example of a small rudder that can guide an enormous ship. Likewise, our tongues are a small thing that can set immense events in motion. This is a blessing and a curse. A leader says something, and immediately people start moving to make it happen. Be careful what you ask for. A friend once told me being a leader is like carrying around a megaphone. Everything you say sounds twice as loud. This is sometimes hard for leaders to understand. They underestimate the power of words for good or for ill.
The tongue is also a fire, James says. It can set forests on fire. Have you experienced this? Have you said something and been surprised at how it started a fire or even an explosion? Ask this question and watch the congregation nod.
James says many animals can be tamed, “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” With the same mouth we bless and curse. Which do you want to be doing this week?
The time comes when you have to curse, so to speak. The time comes when you have to rebuke, or speak the hard word. As Paul says, speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). That word will be heard, if you have been speaking a mountain of blessings over time. It is like Stephen Covey’s description of the emotional bank account. Every word of blessing is a deposit. Every word of curse is a withdrawal. The latter costs a lot more. If you have to rebuke, but have not been blessing, your account with that person will go bankrupt.
Remember Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Don’t hold grudges. Measure your words.
This is a lot of advice coming from James, but that’s okay. Keep in mind Paul does the same thing, he just balances it with the good news of the gospel. Paul speaks the indicative (what Christ has done) first, and then the imperative (therefore I implore you to…)
What is the Good News?
“In the beginning was the Word,” John begins his gospel. God spoke and life came into being. God’s word has power to create. Our words have power too, maybe not the same kind of power, but our words can also create, build up, or tear down.
John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is God’s definitive Word to the world. This is a word of unconditional love, self-sacrificial love. God on the cross. This is also a word of hope, resurrection. This is the Good News. God’s announcement.
Isaiah says in chapter 55(:11):
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
God’s word accomplishes things. It endures forever. When we tap into this, amazing things can happen. When we announce the word of grace and love, it has a much more profound effect than we can imagine. When we pronounce a word of forgiveness, it can bring a flood of tears.
The good news is we have met the Word made flesh.
There are countless so-whats here. Lots of go-forwards. Below is a list. You could offer one or two, or type up a list and let people pick and choose. How do we align our words with God’s Word?
Invite people to think about their digital communications. What are the messages you really want to be putting out there? Ask people to think about their messaging. If you could only say one thing to the world, what would it be? Is that message coming through in your words, written and spoken? How do you respond to trolls? When do you choose silence, and not respond at all? When someone jumps you online, make a practice to pick up the phone. People often talk past each other more easily in writing.
Consider taking a day of silence this week. Pick a day when you are off, and can just be quiet. Can we stop blathering for a day? Take notes in a journal about what it’s like. Just be. Remove the need to speak or post. See what happens. Or, if that’s impractical, have a day of significantly reduced conversation. Speak only when spoken to, or when you absolutely must, and then say what you must with the fewest words possible. Listen for God. What words is God speaking to you?
Listen this week for interruptions. How often are the people around you interrupting one another? Interrupting you? Notice who interrupts the most. How is power at play? What’s going on? Be aware of your own interrupting. Are you? If so, why? Is it possible to have an entire week where you never interrupt anyone? I have a couple of friends who never, ever interrupt. It is a remarkable thing.
Take an inventory of your words this week. Listen to yourself talking. Every sentence. Keep a journal. Write down the things you find yourself saying. For your prayers this week, reflect each day on what you said, at the end of the day, or the beginning of the next day.
On the other hand, in your journal, write down the things you’d like to be saying, ideally. What messages you really want to be sending out to the world? What kind of person do you want to be? How would you like to be remembered? Pick some top messages and start using them regularly in speech and in writing.
In your journal, write down the names of those with whom you will be interacting this week. This is an exercise you could encourage people to do during the sermon, or during communion. What do you think the people you have written down need to hear most this week? How could you speak a word of blessing to them?
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 – Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
Isaiah 35:4-7 – Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not be afraid.” He will come and save you.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 – Don’t show favoritism to the rich. Faith without works is dead.
Mark 7:24-37 – Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter.
EPISTLE OF STRAW: A 5-week Series on James
Here is this week’s text in its entirety:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For 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, 3and 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,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For 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. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
There are two basic parts to this text. First, the concern for the economic disparity, and second faith and works.
Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus makes it clear that Jesus was deeply concerned about poverty, and in particular, the way the rich treat the poor. The Matthean beatitudes say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Jesus puts it simply, “Blessed are the poor.” All of this reflects the earlier prophets’ admonitions, like Isaiah 58:6-7:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What should we do with a church that doesn’t share its bread with the hungry? This may have been James’ concern. What do we do with a society that treats the poor with disdain? I have heard the poor in our society called freeloaders, moochers, lazy, leeches and so on. Programs for the poor, which make up less than 2% of the federal budget, are routinely called “entitlement programs,” clearly made up because the poor feel they’re entitled to an unearned handout. The rich pundits stir up animosity towards the poor with phrases like, “You make it. They take it.”
This simplistic understanding of our economic realities is beneath us. We live in one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever known. How we treat our poor in this so-called Christian nation, will be a testament to us. If you want to encapsulate some of Jesus’ edgy teaching, consider the Sermon on the Plain, in Luke 6:24-25, which is from Q, a source that James matches in his writing:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
James pulls no punches. If you treat someone in poor clothes with less respect, you clearly do not know the God who loves all people. Robert Gundry, in his commentary, translates it, “a gold-ringed man in lustrous clothing.” If you treat the rich person in Armani, driving a Lexus, with greater deference, you shame yourself. James is spelling it out. Read this slowly.
“But you have dishonored the poor.” “You have made discriminatory judgments among yourselves,” says Gundry. And he acknowledges something we seem to have trouble admitting: the rich oppress the poor. “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” This is pretty moralistic stuff. If you hit them with this, they will need a way through. Fortunately, there is one.
Faith and Works
Generosity is the antidote to materialism. Just as the Feeding of the Five Thousand began with a little boy sharing his lunch, our turn around can begin with generosity. But where does generosity come from? We were told last week. All good gifts, like generosity, come from above, from the Father of Lights. God is the source of all generosity. Seek God, and the Spirit will grow generosity within you.
The next section begins:
8εἰ μέντοι νόμον τελεῖτε βασιλικὸν κατὰ τὴν γραφήν, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν, καλῶς ποιεῖτε…
8If you fulfill the king’s law in scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well…
Love is at the center of the law. Jesus taught love of God and neighbor. James picks this up.
The faith versus works tension is a straw dog. The two go together like heat and fire. Apple trees produce apples. People of faith produce good works.
In his commentary on James, Robert Gundry says, “James denies the benefit of someone’s claiming then to have faith if he doesn’t have good works to authenticate his claim. Faith works to authenticate his claim.”
In February of 1520, before he had been excommunicated, Luther’s old friend Spalatin reminded Luther he had promised to preach a sermon on good works. Luther’s enemies said that an emphasis on justification would result in a total neglect of good works. As Luther worked on it, the material grew beyond a sermon. Luther wrote Spalatin and told him it would be a small book, or treatise. In Luther’s Works 44:21 we have this treatise. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, it is available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/418/418-h/418-h.htm . Also, Timothy Wengert has a study edition.
Luther begins by saying the good works we are called to do are the Ten Commandments, not this ridiculous list of traditional, ritual and cultural baggage. When the young man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus puts before him the commandments. He then quotes John 6(:28-29) where Jesus says, “This is the good work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus redefines good works as faith. Luther points out most preachers breeze past this important passage.
Praying, fasting, establishing endowments, leading a good life, paying taxes, being punctual… these are all great things, but they go on apart from faith. Meanwhile, working hard at your job, respecting your fellow citizen, and taking care of your family seem to account for nothing among many religious leaders.
So, whatever is done in faith is good. Whatever is not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Luther finds it strange that he is being labeled a heretic for saying this.
Works done without faith, are “false, pretentious, pharisaic good works.” Luther quotes Augustine, who says the works of the first commandment, having no other gods, are faith, hope and love. Luther points out most people in his day considered the works of the first commandment to be dressing up, going to church, singing, praying, reading, playing the organ, bowing, kneeling and praying the rosary. These are all good, and can be a blessing when done in faith. If, however, they are done without faith, they become an attempt to prove ourselves, earn our way to God and deceive ourselves. We set them up as an idol. God cannot tolerate this, Luther says. Grace is free.
When the church leads people to think they are made right with God by their good works, it is subterfuge. I can drop a few dollars in the plate and assume I am right with God. We dupe people into thinking this is spirituality. We allow them to believe they are close to God if they do good things. Meanwhile, they are missing out on something huge.
Luther makes it clear he is by no stretch of the imagination forbidding good works. They are a blessing to all. But if we do them because the church commands it, we have missed the point.
The thrust of Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, is to move us away from the dogged religion of the law, to a religion of faith, love and the Spirit. He does not want to do away with works. He simply recognizes that they come from faith. If they come from a misguided notion that we are earning our righteousness, they too easily become self-righteousness and can actually work against our relationship with God, rather than toward it.
Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (LW 35:371)
What is the Good News?
The Good News is that God in Christ has gracefully made our relationship right with God, through faith. Whoever puts their trust in God alone, has done the work of God. Whoever puts their trust in Christ, will find their body and mind pulled by the Spirit toward the work of God. You need not keep track. You need not add up your good works to ascertain if you have been good enough. That’s not how it works. Christ died to get us out of the sin accounting business and the good works accounting business. Turn your heart to Christ, and see where that leads.
Congregations need to hear this more than ever. We live in a society that still values people by the amount of money they gave to this or that cause (regardless of how little a percentage of their income it was). We still live in a society that values people on how neat their house is, how well dressed they are, how outwardly religious they are. Who knows what their relationship with God was really like?
So away with self-righteous, pretentious shows of piety and religiosity. God is not impressed. As Jesus says, go to your closet and pray, give secretly. Do the good works that emerge from a heart of faith, and not what will impress your neighbor.
Our people need to hear this. They need to hear that the fight between faith and works is a false dichotomy. It’s like asking if you’re burned by fire or by heat. Lutherans and Catholics arguing about this is a waste of time. We all put this to bed in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in Augsburg, on October 31, 1999.
We can say with James, and all the faithful, “Faith without works is dead.” Of course it is.
Here’s how Luther put it.
And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (LW 35:371)
Listen to that last part again: “Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.” That’s another one that’s worthy of a poster. Here you go…