One year at famous acrobat who wanted to show the world the extent of his talents. He decided he would push a wheelbarrow with a person inside across a tight rope that was strung over Niagra Falls. He practiced often and early, working hard to make sure that it would be a success. As he was practicing one day, an observer came by and said, “Wow! This is such a wonderful idea. And I have seen your talents and abilities and I have every confidence that you can do this!” The acrobat replied, “Do you really?” “Absolutely,” the observer countered, “There is no doubt in my mind that you will be successful at this.” The acrobat pushed him a little harder, “You really think I can do this. Even with a person in the wheelbarrow?”
“Yes! I have complete faith in you. Even with a person inside, your skill would overcome any danger!” came the quick reply. The acrobat smiled a huge relieved smile as he replied, “Good! Then tomorrow you will ride in the wheelbarrow!”
“Are you crazy?” the observer countered, “I could get myself killed!”
We believe, God. Help our unbelief.
Faith. We say that we are believers. But do we really believe? This joke points out to us that belief, that faith, is not just about declaring that we accept something as true. Our actions show at a much deeper level what, in fact, we actually believe.
Historically we know that there has been a division in our church, between those who believe in salvation by faith, and those who believe in salvation by works. This was one of the key issues that surrounded the Protestant Reformation. Parishioners in the Roman Catholic church at that time were told they needed to earn salvation, first by doing good things, but also by buying indulgences in order to get out of time in purgatory and into heaven. And Martin Luther said “no” - we are not saved by the things we do, or the money we give the church, but by our very faith. Salvation does not have to be bought with action or money or favors or anything other than our faith. He had a good point in saying that grace is a gift, not earned, something we can do nothing to obtain. But I would dare to say, that what began as an important point, what started as a stand against injustice, has in itself become a corrupted understanding that has now led once again to the creation of injustice in some of our churches.
In bible study, we have talked about one example of this that was really evident in Central America for a long time. For many years, the dominant religious leaders were enforcing injustice, keeping the poor people poor by proclaiming that since they are richer in their faith when they are materially poor, and since God promises their reward will be much greater because of that wealth of faith, that they should be grateful for their poverty and not try to raise themselves up. This is a corruption of the doctrine of salvation by faith. It is a misuse of biblical passages, it is a mistaken declaration that future salvation means that the present life doesn’t matter and that it is okay for those who are wealthy to ignore the current suffering of the poor, because we believe that they will be saved after death by their faith.
When I worked as a missionary in Brazil for a summer, I saw a very similar situation there. There were two kinds of missionaries serving in Brazil, and often standing across the street from one another in an especially poor area. On one side of the street would be people handing out Bibles. In Brazil, the Christian church is starkly divided between Protestants and Catholics, and the people handing out Bibles were Protestants trying to “save” Catholics into Protestantism by declaring that Catholics were not really believers. Across the street from them would stand the other group of missionaries, with a hot pot of soup, a truck full of good, second-hand clothing, a couple chairs for people to sit and rest for a minute. These two groups of Christians were often at great odds with one another. Those handing out Bibles told those serving soup that they just obviously did not care about the salvation of the people, the only thing that really mattered. And those handing out soup stood on the passages of the Bible such as the passage in James 2: 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” In the middle of this fighting, the faith itself, Christianity itself, looked problematic to those they would serve; it seemed confused and corrupt, it looked like a faith that was lost.
Today in the story from Mark we met the rich man of faith. He had read the scriptures, knew and believed the commandments, he had lived by the law to the best of his ability. But it didn’t feel like it was enough and it made him uneasy. So he went to Jesus, and after flattering him (because my guess is that this usually got him the answers he was hoping for), he asked Jesus what was needed to inherit eternal life. Jesus didn’t play the flattery game, but challenged it: “why do you call me good? Only God is good!” He also didn’t just tell the man he was fine and everything would be okay. He told him in order to earn eternal life, he had to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We are told that the man responded by walking away sadly. It wasn’t that he didn’t have faith, at least not in the way it has often been described: I think he believed Jesus. But he didn’t have ENOUGH faith to believe that what Jesus was offering was better. He didn’t have enough faith to believe that what God offered would be more full, more filling, more everything.
The dichotomy which we have set up, between faith and works is a false one. If we really, actively believe that Jesus is the divine incarnate, then we will believe what Jesus says. And if we believe what Jesus says, then we must believe that the call of our lives is not only to love God with everything we’ve got, but also to love our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves. If we really believe, at our core, that we are to love everyone as ourselves, then we will live lives that try to make sure that all people, not just our family members, have enough to eat; we will live lives that work to make sure that all people, not just those close to us, have lives worth living; we will do everything in our power to make sure that all people, not just those who agree with us politically or are in the same economic class, same race, same upbringing, same economic class, same country of origin, or same whatever can all live the lives that they want to live: lives filled with enough material good, with education, with healthcare, with dignity, with respect, with joy, with opportunities for their kids, with safety and well-being. If we really believe, then we will have to take very seriously Jesus’ statement that our call to serve the poor is not just for them - it is for our very salvation as well.
James makes really clear in this passage that we are asked to do this, we are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves, for our own sakes as well as for the sakes of the poor. I am poorer in my faith because of my wealth. It is only in giving that away, in being willing to risk and in living by that faith that my faith is built and increased. We are called, by this passage, not just to help the poor because they are poor and in need of our help, but for our own salvation, for the increase of our own faith, for the living out of God’s kingdom for all.
Taking this to the next step, then, we have to recognize that this call is hard, hard, hard beyond anything. As Jesus himself said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And ALL of us here are richer than the people Jesus was referring to at the time. The reality is that we are not just short in our works, it is not just that we all fail to earn our salvation, the reality is that we also don’t have enough faith for our salvation. We just don’t have it. Very few with resources like we have really do. Very few are willing to get into the wheelbarrow when we are called to the test. So where is the good news in this? Where is the good news that we are promised in our faith when we fall short both in works and in faith?
I am reminded of a story in which a man who died was told by St. Peter outside the pearly gates that he had to have 200 points in order to get into heaven. The man thought hard and finally said, “Well, let’s see. I was a member of my church of 47 years, a deacon, and a Sunday School teacher for 32 years.” St. Peter replied, “That’s very good. That’s one point.”
The man looked scared but he continued, “Oh my. Let me think again. I was a good husband. I never cheated on my wife. My children loved me because I was a good father. I tithed, and volunteered at the soup kitchen. I was in the Lions Club...” St. Peter responded, “That’s very good, too. It sounds like you were a man of both great faith and great works. One more point.” The man began to sweat as he thought and thought, searching for something that could give him the last 198 points. Finally he said, “Gosh, if I get in here, it will be by the grace of God.” At this St. Peter exclaimed, “And that’s worth 200 points. Come on in!”
We fall short in our Christian actions because we fall short in our Christian faith. We believe, God, Help our unbelief. But the good news in this is that we aren’t saved by our works, and frankly, we aren’t saved by our faith either. The good news is that God wants to make possible our impossibilities. As Jesus said to the disciples, “what is impossible for humans is possible for God.” The good news is that God loves us despite our inadequacies of works and faith. The Good news is that we are saved, not by works, not by faith, but by Grace. God saves us through God’s grace which chooses us, forgives us, loves us, and calls us. It is through that grace and only that grace that we are brought into eternal life. It is through that love which gave its life for us that we are brought into God’s realm. It is through that passion by which God overcame even death to be with us, even when we killed God’s son, that we, too, are brought into new life. We have failed ourselves, each other and God. But God still loves us more than life and still wants us to be part of God’s kingdom.
I’m not saying that faith and works don’t matter. They do. But they, too, are reflections of God’s grace. Faith itself, Paul tells us, is a gift from God; not earned, but given. Works are a living out of that faith, a grateful response to that grace freely given. In other words, it is through God’s grace that we have faith and do works. It is through God’s grace that we find our faith and have the courage to begin living it out. Through God’s grace, God helps us to grow closer to God and to love more deeply.
Dear God, we pray that you would give us the faith to see your grace all around us, in every day, in every way. We pray that You would help us to live out that grace through deeper faith and more generous works. We believe God, help our unbelief.