Proverbs 1:20-23; James 2:18-26; Mark 8:27-38
Our readings from Proverbs, James and Mark have, I’d suggest a common theme – the call to a lived out and authentic faith that reflects God’s mission of mercy, forgiveness and restoration and may well be personally costly.
They are an antidote to the presentation of the gospel message in a way that suggests if we turn to Jesus we will be healthy, wealthy and have a care and pain free life.
The German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his 1936 book the Cost of discipleship put things into perspective with these words …
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and Incarnate. … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life….”
Our Gospel reading from Mark has two parts. Verses 27-30 and then verses 31 – 37.
Part one (verses 27-30) is where with Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ – the long- expected Messiah who has come to save God’s covenant people, the Jews.
We don’t know how much time passed between that the scene in these verses and the second scene starting at verse 31, though it is likely they occurred within a short period of each other.
The section of the passage starting at verse 30 is the first of three sections where Jesus teaches the disciples about His death and resurrection.
They have been with him for probably more than two years though we can’t be totally sure of the time frame. But what a time it has been for them as they witnesses to miracles, healings and Jesus interactions with all sorts of individuals and crowds. While all along Jesus has been teaching them about what God wants for and of them and interpreting the scriptures for them.
Now Jesus turns (verse 31) his teaching to a new and disturbing and that is how he must how suffer and be rejected before He is killed and will then rise again.
In verse 32 Mark tells us how this is all a bit too much for Peter and he rebukes Jesus for this way of thinking and teaching. I suspect Peter was being the spokesperson for all the disciples. I wonder if they were thinking “Hey look here mate we’ve followed you, we reckon you are the Messiah and now your telling us that it all going to end badly!? You want to take us to Jerusalem so you can get yourself executed. How about just overthrowing the Romans and re-establishing Jewish rule.
In response Jesus, in no uncertain terms (verse 33) puts Peter and the others in their place and then, without missing a beat, turns to the crowd and uses his disagreement with Peter as a tool to teach them some hard truths.
In verse 34 Jesus summarises what is going to happen to him. Those listening would have been more than familiar with the Roman’s use of a cross as a means of torturous execution. It was much more than the idea of “oh well we all have our cross to bear”.
In verses 35 – 38 Jesus outlines what he expects of those who follow him.
When Jesus talks about losing life he is not necessarily referring to our physical life here, although that for many followers of Jesus even to today this has been a reality.
Mainly Jesus is referring to our inner life …look at verses 36 & 37 “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Jesus is saying we cannot choose to follow Him and continue to pursue your own life, with all our wants and desires and priorities as our main agenda.
In verse 38 Jesus finishes this initial teaching with stark words.
Words which show he is referring to both our private and public lives.
This private and public dimension to us being a follower of Jesus is very much at the heart of the Letter to James.
In verses 4-17 of Chapter 2 which we read last Sunday, James says that a faith which claims to look to the mercy of God, but then does not display itself in acts of mercy is mere religiosity with no real substance – nothing more than an expression of religious piety.
A faith like this is dead and means nothing – futile and barren and bears bad fruit. The fruit of this “dead” faith is cold approach to a lived life of faith, and has disregard for the needs of others. In simple terms, “faith without deeds is a dead thing.”
In verses 18 James puts his argument in the words of an imaginary objector.
The objector looks to separate faith from godliness, suggesting faith (that is a trust in God’s mercy) can exist in isolation from works of faith. This argument runs counter to James’ position that genuine faith shows itself in deeds of mercy, and, is a sign of godliness.
James issues a challenge which can be expressed this way “I challenge you to prove to me that you have faith in any other way than by actions”,
Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.
We live in a post Christian / post church world.
There are many in our society who are 2nd or 3rd generation non churched – that is they have no idea about Christ. So, what is going to be a most effective way of having them come to know of God’s love and mercy? Perhaps we will have to show the Good news before we can tell the good news?
In verse 19. James answers his challenge.
First, he points out that a “faith” which is little more than a verbal profession is next to useless, and he uses a graphic illustration…The demons believe that God exists and shudder at the thought of their coming judgement. So, just saying “I have faith” means nothing in itself.
A profession of faith evidences nothing. To James a lived out faith is evidence of an authentic, so proving his point that “faith without deeds is a dead thing.”
To further his teaching James goes into the OT, remember he originally wrote this letter to Jewish Christians, and uses the life of Abraham and Rahab:
In v21-24. James makes the point that both Abraham’s deeds and faith (trust in God) are interlinked and is why he considered to be being right with God (righteous). The illustration drives home the point that a genuine faith in the mercy of God will show itself in deeds of mercy.
At the end of verse 23 there is a very intimate picture of Abraham being a called God’s friend.
In v25 James again using scripture James uses the example of Rahab’s deeds and faith captured for us in the Book of Joshua. The quality of her faith is evidenced in her deeds – she did all that she could to protect God’s servants in Jericho.
James finishes with an example, in verse 26, which is probably sadly familiar to many of us this morning who have been with loved one’s when they have died.
The lack of evidence of breath and a beating heart usually indicates a lack of life. Similarly, the absence of good deeds (acts of mercy, forgiveness, love, obedience to Jesus…) indicates the absence of genuine faith.
For James, if we are unwilling to walk before the Lord in deeds of love and mercy and compassion, then we really have no claim on him. He is obviously not our friend.
There is no value in trying to find security in religious faith while our lives are lived out in an opposite way.
St Francis of Assissi summed things up nicely when he said – “For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned and Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
If anyone would come after me let them take up their cross and follow me…
Let us pray.
Christ, whose insistent call disturbs our settled lives: give us discernment to hear your word, grace to relinquish our tasks, and courage to follow empty-handed wherever you may lead, so that the voice of your gospel may reach to the ends of the earth. Amen
The Venerable John Barnes