Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

painting of Jesus healing a woman held up in bed by another woman
The first step is to see another human being there

This morning we talked some about what James meant by faith “saving you,” or not as the case may be. We looked up that place in Romans (it turns out to be Romans 3:28) where Paul says “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” and then made a list of the “works prescribed by the law” that Paul seemed to have in mind (e.g., in particular, being circumcised – see Romans 3:30 – but maybe also including not eating the wrong food, and maybe traveling up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, and that kind of thing), and then making another list of the works James uses as examples in James 2:14-26: giving clothes and food to a brother or sister who is naked and hungry; being willing to sacrifice your most precious and longed-for “possession” at God’s request; being willing to betray your town into enemy hands because it seems God is on their side. Really two different kinds of works.

According to me, the “saving you” James is talking about is not the “have faith and you will be saved from your sins to have eternal life” kind of saving. Rather, James is saying something more like “if you are standing there naked and hungry and someone comes along with faith and says ‘have a nice day,’ will that save you from your naked hungry misery?” I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it. I don’t think we need to kick James out of the Protestant grace alone, faith alone Bible. But if I really trusted God the way I presumably could and should, I would presumably do what I’m called upon to do when I’m called upon to do it, and I wouldn’t make its costliness – in money or emotional attachment or social standing – a deal-breaker. That, for me, is something to take seriously.

And then we had one of those sermons that everyone in the congregation feels is addressed directly to them; Jesus takes people by the hand – like Peter’s mother-in-law, who is in bed with a fever – and raises her up, and the fever leaves her. It seems that the first step in this healing, or casting out demons, which Jesus also does for the rest of the afternoon, is to see the person there, rather than the demon or the disease; Jesus seems to see everyone first as a person, a beloved child of God, and to connect with them in that way – not “here is a demon-possessed person” but “here is a person, and this person is sick … in the grip of an evil spirit … is addicted … “ whatever … basically the opposite of what we do these days when the first thing and maybe the only thing we see is someone’s ethnicity, or party, or social class, or some label that’s been slapped on them …

And we even do this to ourselves. We look in the mirror and see … the problems. If only I were youngerthinnersmarterfunnierBETTER … I would be … OK. But since I’m not better, I’m … worse. And not seeing ourselves as children of God, it’s hard to connect with, to see others we meet, as children of God. So, we do need to be told, to know, that we are, by God’s grace, children of God … that God loves us unconditionally. “While we were still sinners, God loved us …”

I know I felt like that sermon was addressing me personally. But I also know that I was not alone.

[It’s Paul and James on the same page: trust it, we’re accepted unconditionally by a gracious God, apart from works of the law – including the law that says you can’t be an OK person unless you lose that next 10% body weight, though God alone knows who made that law – so we are free to do whatever it is God calls us to do, now, even before we are “better,” because God has said “you’re OK by me.”]

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