Written for the Church of Another Chance, Davidson Co. Male Correctional Development Center, Nashville, TN + August 21, 2015
Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23
Before I start in on the preaching, I want to do a little activity. Everyone close your eyes for a moment. I’m going to say a word, and I want you to grab hold of the very first image that comes to your mind. The word is: Jesus.
What did you see?
Today I’m going to start off by telling a bit of the story of Martin Luther. Not Martin Luther King, Jr. – though his dad did get their name from Martin Luther. And as some of you might now, I’m a Lutheran, and this guy is where we get our name from, too. But anyway, I want to start telling Martin Luther’s story by talking about the image of Jesus that would have popped into his head when I asked him that question I just asked you.
I’m pretty sure this is the image that Luther would have seen, because this image was all over the place in Europe 500 years ago, which is when Luther lived. And it was right there in the yard of his church. It was a picture of Jesus sitting on a rainbow – which is almost too sweet and happy, like something you’d seen on a kid’s TV show. In one hand he holds a lily, which represents the resurrection and eternal life – still sounds pretty good. But in the other hand he’s got a sword, and that represents judgement and eternal suffering. So despite the rainbow and the flower, it wasn’t really a happy image: it was the image of the Christ the Judge. Its message was loud and clear: watch out, ‘cause he’s watching you. It terrified Luther, and he refused to look at it. But he could still see it inside his head.
This was a time when most Christians were terrified about their eternal fate all the time. First of all, plague was wiping out lots of the population, pretty much without warning, so death felt even closer and more sudden than usual. And then the church’s message of salvation was focused on how people had to make up for their sins: by doing good works, by fasting, by giving money, all sorts of things. Salvation was like math, like accounting: you had to make sure your total number of good works was at least as high as your total number of mistakes or sins. If you were trying to figure out whether or not God accepted you, the common answer was, “Well, just try your best.”
So Luther did. He was a monk who followed some really strict practices: praying all the time, forcing himself to stay up all night, or sleeping in the cold without a blanket, fasting so much he almost starved himself to death, even hurting himself. He spent hours – I’m talking, like, 6 hours at a time – confessing his sins to another monk, over and over. And this was a guy who spent all his time with other monks, or alone praying – so you have to wonder what sin was eating at him so badly. But no matter what he did, he never felt like was safe from that image of Christ the Judge.
The man he was confessing to all the time finally told Luther to become a teacher at the local university, hoping that teaching would get his mind off of his own sin. And while Luther was studying the Bible so he could teach it to others, he discovered something: he kept finding parts of the Bible that said things like, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:15). Over and over again he read — right there in God’s Word — that humans aren’t saved by what they do; they’re saved by what God has already done. Luther realized that if he wanted to feel safe and accepted by God, he didn’t need to be constantly counting up how many good things he’d done and making sure that number was bigger than the number of sins he’d committed. He needed to have faith that God loved him and accepted him just as he was.
I wanted to tell this story today, because I thought we could all relate. Almost every time I’ve been to worship here, someone has stood up during the Joys and Concerns and shared that he was struggling to forgive himself. He was struggling to believe that God really does love him and forgive them and accept him, even with his past, and even with his struggles and his weaknesses. And always, when someone is brave enough to share that burden, a lot of people in the room nod like they know exactly what he’s talking about. Like that’s exactly what they’re going through. And most of the time, I’m one of those people struggling to believe that God loves me even though I’ve sinned and just keep on sinning.
And this struggle, this doubt that we have in common with one another and with Luther and with so, so many people – this struggle can get even more difficult when we hear Bible passages like the ones we heard a few minutes ago.
We’re struggling to hold on to the faith that we are loved by God, that we are saved by God, even though we do wrong; that what matters is faith, is trusting in what God has done, not what we do or don’t do. And then we hear that first reading, from the letter of James, and he is talking all about actions, about what we do. “Be doers of the word,” he says. If our religion is true and right before God, he says, our religion is to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.” He defines good Christian faith by what we do. In fact in the next chapter he asks, “What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” And he answers his own question: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14, 17).
So what do we do with that, when we believe that God loves us and accepts us regardless of how many mistakes we make, of how many outright-bad things we do, and even regardless of how many good things we do?
I’ll tell you what our friend Martin Luther did with that. He said, “Well, that book really shouldn’t be in the Bible. It’s got the wrong message.”
But I’ve got to disagree with him. And that’s because Jesus himself thinks that what we do is important.
Remember the passage from the book of Mark we heard a few minutes ago? Some really religious people come up to him and say, “How can you let your disciples eat without washing their hands? That’s against our religion!” And Jesus tells them, “It’s not what you take in that defiles you, that makes you unclean or unworthy; it’s what comes out of you.” And it’s tempting to say this is another case of Jesus saying, “Stop worrying so much about laws and actions and being perfectly obedient; spend all that energy thinking about what’s going on in your heart.” It’s tempting for us to end the story there, and say that Jesus wants us to stop thinking about works. But Jesus is saying more than that. He’s saying that what comes out of us, that things we do, the words we say, the thoughts we think – all that matters. A lot.
But he says the people who were yelling at him for letting his disciples eat without washing their hands have got it backwards. We can’t do good things and obey traditions and quote the Bible and wash our hands and pray the perfect words and give money to charity and hope that all these actions will win God’s love and acceptance. That’s backwards.
We do good things because we know that God already loves us and accepts us. We resist evil because we know that God already loves and accepts us. Jesus says, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” And I think that means that it’s from the heart that good intentions come, too. The question isn’t, “If I do this, will God condemn me?” The question isn’t, “If I do this, will God accept me?” The question is: “If you know God already loves you – unconditionally loves you – what does it do to your heart?”
And this got me thinking about where sin comes from. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can offer my own testimony. I know that when I sin, or when I fall off the path, it’s not because I’m willingly disobeying God. My sin comes from my own brokenness. I do what my friends are doing, even if I know it’s wrong, because I want to be part of the group, I want to feel accepted and loved, and I have a hard time believing that I already have love and acceptance from God. Even when I fall into sin when I’m alone, it’s usually me trying to escape that voice in my head that’s telling me over and over: You’re not good enough. Nobody loves you. You’re worthless. But God’s love can heal that brokenness and break those patterns of sin.
God’s love can overpower all the times people have told you you’re not good enough to be loved and all things people have done to you that make you feel like you’re not good enough to be loved. God’s love can overpower that broken record in your head that says, “No one cares about me. I’m alone in this world, taking care of myself.” God’s love can overpower our past and the hold it has on us. God’s love can overpower all our defenses and our doubt and our anger and our fear, and God’s love can break in to our hearts. And when God’s love gets into our hearts, when that faith that God loves even me grabs hold of us – everything changes. God helps us to stop acting based on all those old feelings, and God helps us to start acting based on this love. Not only God’s love for us, for me, but God’s love for everyone. We’re not doing good things because we’re trying to please God or because we’re trying to show everyone how Christian we are – we’re doing good things because that’s what love does, that what God’s love makes us do.
I think that’s what James meant when he said, “Faith without works is dead.” James said if you hear the word, the message of God’s love, and don’t then become doers of God’s love, it’s like you didn’t actually hear the word. He says it’s like looking in a mirror, seeing that you made a mess while you were brushing your teeth and got this bright-green toothpaste all over your mouth, and then saying, “Lookin’ good!” and walking away. You got the message, but you didn’t get the message. It didn’t get inside you, it didn’t inspire you to change.
But if we get the message of God’s love and the saving power of Jesus Christ, then we’re going to change. But we don’t have to do it alone; God works with us and in us. Through our faith the Holy Spirit is always transforming us, making us new, and so our actions will always be changing. We’ll always be getting better and better at acting out of that love, of pouring that love we have back into the world through how we treat other people. And we’re probably still gonna sin sometimes. And we’re probably gonna fall off the right path a few times. But God will never give up on us, God’s never going to stop loving us, and God’s never going to stop transforming our hearts.
 Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd ed., (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 56-58.
 Lindberg, 62.