The Rev. Frank
Don’t just believe there, do something
Note: This sermon is immediately preceded by a video showing on the street interviews with teens answering the question, “Who is a Christian?” While some answer in terms of belief, most answer describing Christians by what they do, how they act.
Most of the teens felt that a Christian is defined by their actions. Interestingly, that is not the main thing the New Testament tells us. What the Bible says is that you become a Christian by faith. It is faith in Jesus Christ that saves you, washes you clean from sin and gives to you a righteousness that you did not earn. Faith is primary.
This message is a hard one for us to receive. We want to earn God’s love and God routinely reminds us that we can’t earn it or deserve it anyway. The love God has for each of us is a free gift. We call that unearned gift of God’s love “Grace.”
The ones in the video who defined a Christian in terms of belief got the answer right in one sense. The ones who emphasize faith get the passing grade for Sunday School.
It is worth noting that this emphasis on faith and belief sets Christianity apart from other world religions and particularly from the other monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Islam. I’ve heard it said that Christians want to ask people of other faiths what they believe and yet that is not the question they want to answer. For Jews, it is clear that to be a Jew is to walk in the ways of Torah, God’s teaching.
Walking. That is a favorite expression in the Old Testament for a relationship with God. We walk in God’s ways. We walk by faith. We walk with God. This idea of walking is such a part of Old Testament thought that Jews call their moral and ethical code halachah, which means “the way to walk.” For Jews, the main consideration in terms of ethics is how we walk. So Jews do not answer what makes one a Jew in terms of doctrine. They answer in terms of genealogy and then also with the practices of daily life and the liturgical year.
Jews do not have a creed. The closest the get to such a statement of faith is the prayer called the Shema which says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” That is as detailed as faith gets for Jews. Beyond that the practices of living a Jewish life matter more than doctrine.
Islam similarly emphasizes actions. There are five pillars of Islam: belief in the oneness of God and Mohammed as his prophet, saying prayers five times a day, giving to the poor and needy, self-purification through fasting, and taking a pilgrimage to Mecca if possible. That is what it means to be a Muslim. Only the first pillar is doctrine. You need to be able to say with feeling, “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is His prophet.”
Beyond this simple declaration of faith, doctrine matters less than the practices of the faith. This is perhaps why Sharia Law is so emphasized among the most ardent adherents to Islam as that law emphasizes the practices of living an Islamic life and Muslims do underscore the importance of how one acts.
This same dichotomy exists with other world religions which similarly emphasize the daily life and liturgical year practices more than arguing over fine points of doctrine. I do know this is a bit of an oversimplification as there are many in any faith who will argue doctrine. Yet, I think that Christianity places more weight on what one believes than any other religion. We come by this tendency honestly. It is because with belief that a Christian wins the ultimate prize of eternal reward in heaven. So if belief is what is most essential, then of course we will struggle within ourselves and among one another over exactly what it is that we believe.
Yet, in our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus reminds us that while belief matters, it is less the details of what one believes and more simple belief. It is not so different from those central affirmations of faith of Judaism and Islam. To believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through him we come into relationship with God sums up essential Christian belief. Beyond that, we are to live into that faith.
Jesus told this parable:
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not;” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir;” but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? They said, “The first.”
To the question, which one did the will of his father, I want to answer “neither.” As I would imagine the father would want the sons to make commitments and then follow through on those commitments.
Yet Jesus extols the one who, though he made no commitment, did follow through on what his father wanted him to do. The one who let his father down is the one who made a promise he could not or did not intend to keep.
It makes me not want to make any promises. Yet, we have made promises to God and continue to reaffirm those promises. Each time we have a baptism, we make some promises. We promise to support those who are baptized in their life of faith. We also promise to live out or own faith. For baptism is not simply a ritual for welcoming someone into an exclusive club. By virtue of your baptism, you became a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Notice that there is no distinction in scripture between followers of Jesus and the clergy. To follow Jesus is to be a minister, whether you are ever ordained or not. Ordination sets someone apart for a special ministry within the church. But baptism also sets you aside for ministry. Baptism sets you aside for ministry in your day to day life.
This is what you promised in becoming a Christian: that you would live into Jesus’ teachings, patterning your life to become more Christ-like over time. For in coming to faith and saying that you believe that Jesus is God’s Son, you also are showing that you believe Jesus’ life shows us how God wants us to live.
Jesus taught this himself. He warned those of us who follow that at the end of the age, there would be a pop test of sorts. Jesus never said that you would be tested on the fine points of doctrine. The quiz is to determine how you lived into the faith that is in you.
Here is the way Jesus describes the coming judgment. The Lord will say:
“I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?” And the King will tell them, “I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Jesus teaches again and again that the way we reach out to others shows what we believe about God. As we see how Jesus reached out to the outcast, the poor, the lost; then we learn from that that we too should reach out in love to others in need. With his parable of the two sons, Jesus reminds us that faith is to be active. It’s as if he tells us, “Don’t just believe there. Do Something!”
Belief matters. In fact it comes first. But saying “I believe Jesus is God’s Son,” comes with the implied promise that you will do something about it. In giving your life to God, you promised to go work in the vineyard, just as surely as the son who said he would go work. The question is, “In what ways do you live your life differently because of your faith?”
Think back over yesterday. Was there anything you did differently because you are a Christian? What about this past week? What were the moments in which you were living into your faith? Now look ahead to today and to this coming week. How will you live it differently because of your faith in Jesus Christ.
“Don’t just sit there believing. Do Something!”
 A lecture on the creeds by Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University in Atlanta helped underscore this distinction for me.