Summary: Evangelical Christianity often struggles with the words of James 2 when he declares things like "faith without works is dead," and "Abraham was justified by works." This sermon reconciles his meaning to that of Paul and demonstrates genuine faith is always expressed in works.
GHOSTS IN A CULTURE'S PAST
During my Sophomore year of college at Wartburg College – a Lutheran school in Northeast Iowa, I had the privilege of taking a class which took us to Germany for a month to tour sites associated with the Reformation, as we learned about the history of the movement and its effects on the world. And during our stay, we visited a town called Rothenburg, which had stood since the Middle Ages, and was filled with quaint old German buildings, a medieval wall, an old castle, and beautiful gardens and streams running throughout. It was like walking into a fairy tale or a Disney cartoon. It was beautiful! And the local Germans prided themselves in the ancient history of their town… well, most of it anyway.
You see, there was a darker side to the city of Rothenburg, a side hinted at in a modest plaque which rested in a beautiful garden, surrounded by flowers and a low wall which divided it from the shops and buildings beside it. This plaque told the story of how the local rabbi in the late 13th century had attempted to lead a group of Jews out of the city to find a new home in Palestine after the Holy Roman Emperor took away the rights of his people and laid heavy taxes on them. He was arrested, and when his captors suggested he could be freed if his people provided a ransom, he refused; fearing it would lead to the arrest of more rabbis. He died there in prison, and eventually all the Jews were banished from the city of Rothenburg and their cemetery was torn up, with the headstones being used to build the wall around the castle garden.
This obviously isn’t the only tragedy to befall the Jewish people within German borders, as the atrocities of the Nazis during WWII immediately come to mind. But I remember touring other ancient cities, and finding similar plaques telling similar horrific stories in many of them, including one in which all the Jewish people of the city were hauled into the synagogue in the 1100’s and burned alive in side. These stories are horrifying! And most of the Germans we met naturally didn’t want to talk about this side of their history. They wanted to go about their daily lives and remember the pieces of their history that spoke well of their people, but the stones which had been placed centuries before, some of them ruins now, still spoke the truth. It’s a truth that runs through the histories of most people on the planet at some point or other, and it’s a truth that we often try to avoid seeing – preferring to only see the good in people.
But it’s a truth we cannot ignore, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty; because if we do, we run the risk of repeating the actions of our ancestors. And that truth is that fear, especially the fear of death, can drive people to go to unspeakable lengths to preserve themselves. Now, we might think we’re exempt. That none of us would ever allow history to repeat itself. But I think we’ve seen a glimpse of what people are willing to do in the wake of the current Coronavirus pandemic and the acts of hoarding – of all things toilet paper, soap, and pasta apparently – which have followed.
This pandemic has caused many of us to realize that our lives and livelihoods aren’t as secure as we thought, and that even our own bodies might unexpectedly fail us. And naturally, that makes us afraid. Fear is a perfectly normal emotion in the face of stress, but it’s when we succumb to it and allow ourselves to be consumed by selfish needs at the expense of our neighbors – or at worst, to seek scapegoats to blame our problems on – that it becomes dangerous.
THE DANGERS OF FEAR
Germany of the late Middle Ages and the early Modern era was no stranger to fear. By the time the year 1517 rolled around, in the century and a half that came before it, a plague much worse than ours – the Black Death – had rolled through Europe, killing 1/3 of its population. Wars raged between so-called “Christian” kings for decades, and the life expectancy of the time was only between 30 and 40 years. People were constantly reminded that they were going to die – soon! And it naturally made them afraid. Many found a sense of peace and assurance in the practice of religion. They needed to know that after a short life filled with pain, loss, and suffering; there would be something better for them. And since Europe was a Catholic continent, they turned to the Catholic Church.