Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Invocation of Jesus' Name

I often feel that the invocation of Jesus' name is a kind of swearing.

The Biblical injunction against swearing, codified in the commandment, "Do not take the Lord's name in vain," may have risen out of the context of the times: swearing oaths by the gods (or God) was a common practice, one committed without reverence.

Just so, it seems to me that the purpose or meaning of living a Christian life is precisely in the living, not in the proclamation of faith. James writes, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (James 2:14-17). I take that
message to heart. "...I by my works will show you my faith." (ibid, 18b).

Of course, many criticisms can be laid against me in the expression of my faith. Do I do enough? No. But will I ever shirk my duty in the living of my faith? No. Because my duty (our duty) is to make our lives expressions of our faith. That is not and is not intended to be easy. It is not about going to church. It is about action.

Protestations of faith, particularly of the "I love Jesus" variety, are not faith. I'm not even sure what relation, exactly, they have to faith itself. It seems to be a form of bragging. It's a point at which one would do well to remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)

I am the tax collector. If anyone ever was in need of mercy and grace, I am that one.

One Sunday, I was at church prior to service, helping to set up the hospitality tables for the fellowship gathering that takes place after
service. The phone in the fellowship hall rang. My friend Tim answered it. The caller was an elderly woman, living in a motel, and disabled. She was calling the church on a Sunday morning because there were no social services available on the weekend and she had no food. Someone had given her the number of the church. Tim took the call, got her name and location and phone number. He then set about collecting food for her from our pantry. At first, he was just going to get her a few items and take them over to her after service. By the time he finally headed out the door, he had three boxes of food, gathered with the help of numerous members.

There are many ways that could have played out. He could have taken the call, referred it back to the pastor; referred it to our minister of visitation; called the soup kitchen/pantry in downtown Waterbury; even told her to call back on Monday when the office was open. He didn't. For Tim, the natural action was to gather up what she needed and take it to her. His plans for that afternoon were superseded by the needs of a helpless old woman that he didn't know.

That's living, dynamic faith.

In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan describes a period in his imprisonment during which he was so overwhelmed by his sense of his own sinfulness that he experienced it literally, physically, as pinpricks all over his body. Bunyan was imprisoned for 12 years for refusing to abandon his Puritan beliefs and attend Anglican services. "If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow," he said. Although he may have believed himself as one of the "elect," chosen by God, he never saw that election as justification; but rather, saw his justification before God as the living of his faith.

We should all go there.

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