This essay serves two purposes: it discusses saving faith, and it also shows how to preach a lectionary-based sermon. I preached this sermon on 29 May 2005, which was Proper 4 in Year A.
The Lectionary Texts
The lectionary texts for the day were as follows—I’ve quoted the verses that were most important for the sermon. The congregation read the psalm as a responsive reading.
Noah did everything just as God commanded him.
—Genesis 6:22, NIV
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging
—Psalm 46:1-3, NIV
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
—Romans 1:17, 3:22-24, NIV
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
—Matthew 7:21-23, NIV
The Sermon Notes
I preached the scriptures in this order: Romans, Genesis, Matthew, Psalm, and then I went back to Matthew for the conclusion.
To understand what Paul is saying to the Romans, we have to keep in mind that Paul identifies himself as a Jew and a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5). Paul’s argumentation is that obeying the Law of Moses does not save anyone. This is an astute observation, because there is no promise of eternal salvation in the Law; all of the benefits and penalties in the Law are this-worldly—it is actually an abuse of the Law to try to be saved by it. The purpose of the Law of Moses is not to save the Jews, but to make the Jews holy, as witnesses to the gentiles of the One True God.
Paul does not argue that we are saved by thinking pious thoughts, which is evident because he quotes, “The righteous shall live by faith,” not “the righteous shall think by faith.” Paul’s faith has hands and feet, for he says in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works [of obedience to the Law of Moses], so that no one may boast. For we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Without God’s grace, our faith would avail us nothing. We cannot force God to save us. Some people maintain that you can be saved by saying the words, “Jesus is Lord.” All the demons in the New Testament acknowledged Jesus as the Holy One of Israel, but Jesus did not pronounce any of them Christian demons. Some people maintain that we can be saved by saying, “Lord Jesus come into my heart,” but that formula is not scriptural. Scripture tells us instead that we must confess, repent, and be baptized. There are no magical incantations, no magic words, no pious thoughts that can compel God to save us. Ultimately, we can only be saved because God is predisposed to save us, and that is what we call God’s grace.
Paul says that God is gracious, so that if we trust Him, He saves us, and this motivates us to live a life of good works, which is what God designed us for. We can generalize this to say that works do not cause salvation, but faith causes works of obedience.
If you trust someone, you take his advice. If you say you trust someone, but you never take his advice, you don’t really trust him, you are just humoring him. So do we have faith in Jesus Christ, or are we just humoring Him? If we trust Him, we will obey His commandments; if our entire spiritual life consists of sitting in an armchair and thinking religious thoughts while we read the Bible, we are humoring Him. Surely God is neither mocked nor fooled into thinking that in humoring Him, we are trusting Him.
Later in Romans, Paul gives an example of living by faith that falls outside this Sunday’s lection: Abraham. Paul’s description of Abraham’s faith consists of an account about how Abraham obeyed God by relocating to a distant land with a wife who appeared to be barren. Today, however, the lectionary gives us the story about Noah as an illustration of living by faith. Noah trusted God and therefore took His advice, and as a result, Noah and the others with him were saved from the flood. If he had said, “Yes, I believe God, but I don’t have to actually build a boat to be saved, because that would be salvation by works,” he and the others would have drowned.
Noah built the ark, because as we are taught in the doctrine of the Incarnation, our bodies are as much a part of us as our spirits are. No one says, “Why did you punch that stomach? I was using it.” Instead we say, “Why did you punch me in the stomach?” Our intuitive speech is more insightful than our cogitations. Instinctively we know that our identity is not complete without our bodies, and that means that our faith is not complete without our obedience. Noah shows us that there are two parts to faith: we should have faith with our minds by believing, and faith with our bodies by obeying.
Jesus teaches us that in the end, what counts is not religious professions (“Lord, Lord”) and not public religious observances (prophesying, casting out demons, doing great works in His name—perhaps we can add church attendance), but what we have become. On television, you see a person who acts like a doctor, but when you get sick, you see a person who is a doctor. Occasionally we see a commercial on television in which an actor, dressed in a white lab coat, says, “I am not a doctor, but I play one on television.” What kind of spot are we in when we say by our comportment, “I am not a Christian, but I play one in church”?
Jesus makes it clear that if I say, “Jesus is Lord,” and I preach a sermon every week, and show up for all church activities, I am acting the role of a Christian. That’s not enough. I have to actually be a Christian.
One good place to for us to start becoming Christians is to obey Jesus’ commandment not to be afraid. If we truly trust Jesus, we take His advice; if He tells us not to be afraid, how can we fear anything? The worst anyone can do to me is kill me, but if I trust that Jesus has a remedy for that, why should I be afraid? Of course I would be apprehensive, because I’ve never died before, but I should not be terrified. As the psalmist says, “Therefore I shall not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake”—and even if the government puts us on ultraviolet alert. Jesus said not to be afraid, therefore I will not be afraid. Whether I am afraid or not, the same things will happen to me anyway; my fear changes nothing. If I am not afraid then at least I will have a clear head in the crisis. So Jesus’ commandment is very wise. I will strive not to be afraid. If someone tries to scare me, they are trying to manipulate me, and if I succumb, I disobey my Lord. Therefore I will not be afraid. This is how I can start going beyond acting like a Christian to actually being a Christian.
There are people who talk like Christians, they say, “The Lord willing, I will wash the dishes,” and “Praise the Lord! Gravity works downwards!” People like that can really get on your nerves, can’t they? And there are other people who play the role of a Christian, because they attend all the activities of their church and serve on various boards and committees. Many of them impress us as phonies, don’t they? That is why Jesus told us that we have to go beyond talking the talk and walking the walk to actually being a Christian deep inside.
So talk the talk and walk the walk, but beneath it all, be a Christian, in your body as well as your spirit. You cannot truly be a Christian when you act out of self-interest, whether that self-interest is to enter into heaven, to escape from hell, or to join an elite and favored group. You are truly a Christian when you have fallen in love with Jesus, and your innermost urge, your deepest desire, and your greatest joy is to please Him, and it surges out of your spirit and through your body to all the world around you. Let your mind think the thoughts that Jesus thinks and let your ears hear the cries of the needy as He would hear them—but don’t neglect to let your feet carry you wherever He leads you and to let your arms embrace the ones whom He loves. It doesn’t take much effort to love the lovely does it? Even worldly people can do that, so do as Jesus commands and love the unlovely—the lonely, the outcast, the unpopular, and the sinful. Love them with that perfect love of God that lifts sinners into sainthood and saints into glory. If we truly believe that we have a rich inheritance coming to us, we can afford to be generous without limits to all who are in need—whether they need food and clothing or someone to accept and respect them. We don’t need to worry if they are worthy, and we don’t need to worry if there will be enough left over for us. If you believe you have an infinite inheritance, you cannot possibly give too much of it away.
Let us live by faith—that is, by trusting Jesus—so that on that last day, when the house lights of the universe are turned up, and everything is out in the open to see, we are revealed—not as people who thought pious thoughts, or played the role of a Christian on television—but as people who have been transformed from the innermost parts of our souls to the outermost tips of our fingers by our faith and by our obedience into the very likeness and glory of Christ.
Have you asked Jesus into your heart? Congratulations, that is the beginning of your salvation, not its perfection. Ask Him into your hands and feet as well.
If you would be righteous—if you would be saved—live by faith.