A year ago the novel coronavirus was a story of interest, but not headline news in most of the world. It had been identified in China and had just been confirmed in the Mediterranean region (World Health Organization interactive timeline). Daily briefings from WHO didn’t begin until February 5 and it wasn’t until February 24 that WHO issued a warning about the potential for rapid spread.
The epicenter moved to Europe in early March, and interest in the US began to rise, but still, other news, mostly political, ruled the headlines. But by the middle of March, following the official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, people in the US started paying attention. On March 11, the day WHO declared the virus as “the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus” (npr.org), it had spread to eight countries and killed 4,000 people.
As of this writing, COVID19 has taken 2.16 million lives across every continent on the planet. It’s far more devastating than anyone could have imagined a year ago.
Through this year of loss, God has not forgotten His children. We may feel like our prayers are unheard, but He hears. We may momentarily wonder where to find respite, but He is with us in the middle of our pain.
How long will this endure? There’s no telling. But God has not abandoned us. He is eternal and waiting for us to focus less on loss and to take refuge in His everlasting arms.
When this pandemic is over (and it will eventually end) we will look back and see how God revealed Himself in the middle. He will be glorified by the testimony we share because He brought us through it all. When we abide in Him, we are safe in His arms, no matter what happens in the chaos of the world around us.
If I were to choose two people from the Old Testament to illustrate what faith in action looks like I would probably include Abraham. Patriarch of three major religious traditions, blessed by kings of multiple nations, and known for direct conversations with the Almighty, Abraham is an easy choice. If you want to read his whole story, start in Genesis 12 when God calls him to leave everything he knows and goes to a place that God will show him. God didn’t even give Abram (his original name) the destination! The Father said, “Go…and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). And Abram packed up and went. No argument, no questions, and no hesitation. At 75 years old, he gathered up his possessions and moved.
Abram had his moments of insecurity, to be sure (including passing off his wife as his sister twice), but ultimately, he trusted God more than his own wiles, and his faith was profound enough that God made a binding blood covenant with him, promising him a great nation from his descendents. Abram had no children, but he believed.
Long story short, Abram tried to make things happen on his own (Genesis 16) when his wife, Sarai’s faith was not as strong as his, but eventually (Genesis 17), God renamed Abram (which meant exalted father) to Abraham (meaning father of multitudes) and established His covenant with him. Abraham’s wife, renamed Sarah, gave birth to Isaac (another fun story from Genesis 21).
Then God called on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). At this point, Abraham had to know that God would work things out, but he had no idea how. Just like packing up and leaving his home close to 30 years before, Abraham acted on his faith. Eventually, Isaac married Rebekah, gave birth to Jacob who married Leah and Rachel, whose 12 children made up the tribes of Israel (Genesis 24, 26, 29, 30, 46, 49).
So, as an example of active and living faith, Abraham makes perfect sense. But of all the people to call out as a second example, Rahab? Not Miriam, sister of Moses (Exodus 2)? Not Deborah, the great judge of Israel (Judges 4)? But James chooses Rahab, whose story is found in Joshua 2.
There are good reasons to not understand why Rahab is part of James’ letter. She was a woman. She was a prostitute. She was not Jewish. She lived in Jericho, an enemy town. What could Rahab possibly have in common with the father of multitudes?
Rahab acted. That’s what she had in common with Abraham. She had heard about the God of Israel, and she believed HE was the all-powerful God over all the familiar gods she knew from childhood. She didn’t understand all the details, but she knew in her heart of hearts that hope for salvation would come through Israel. Her actions, hiding the spies, marking her position, and keeping her word, demonstrated her faith in the Unseen God. The Israelites promised to preserve her and her family, and they were faithful to their word (Joshua 6). She had no way of knowing what might happen to her once she got out of Jericho. She might have been taken as a slave or some man’s concubine. She could have been shunned, maligned, and marginalized for being a pagan prostitute. But she acted on faith is a God she did not yet know, trusting His salvation. Her faith in action gave Israel the victory, and this woman, in spite of all the strikes against her, became part of the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1).
I think James chose these two to make a point. God uses whomever will believe and act on that belief without hesitation and without necessarily know how all the details will work out. Abraham was 99 years old when God told him that Sarah would give birth to a son, at age 90. They had no children before that–and Sarah actually laughed at the idea. But Abraham believed. And Sarah had a baby boy, naming him Isaac, which means laughter. I love that. This boy bore a name that reminded his parents of their initial response to God’s words, even as they acted on them. Abraham modeled faithful action based on his knowledge of God.
Rahab, on the other hand, did not have a knowledge of God, but she knew His people. She could not have known what might happen even if the Israelite spies rescued her and her family, but she knew their God was superior to hers. Abraham had a visible covenant but was physically weak. Rahab had youth and vitality, but no connection to this God she chose to trust. Both, however, took action in response to a call they recognized as coming from outside themselves. In both Abraham and Rahab, faith was active along with works and faith was completed by works (James 2:22).
The lesson to take away from this passage is clear: faith apart from works is dead. And dead faith is worthless. But faith is available to everyone, not the select few. And all of us who believe have both the power and the choice to demonstrate that faith through action.
This part of James’ letter is familiar to most churchgoers. Faith without works is nothing.
Times were hard for James’ audience as both State and Religion tried desperately to squelch the new Church. Times are hard now for most people as COVIC-19 wreaks havoc on the health of people and the economies of nations.
Words mean little in times of chaos unless actions follow. There is plenty of negative news right now, but there is also a resurgence of the Church acting as it was meant to act. Churches aren’t meeting in person, but they are in communities, serving those in need through food delivery, supporting healthcare workers, sharing resources, using their connections to provide water, and encouraging believers to worship together virtually. The Church has shifted to the hospital for hurting people as it was intended to be. Not all local congregations or pastors are living out their faith, but many are. They are making sure their communities are warmed and filled (James 2:16) while they live out the commandment to make disciples. New believers and those who have been part of the body are working together, putting concrete actions to what they say they believe.
Faith without corroborating actions as evidence is not saving faith. Faith is inextricably intertwined with the work of the Church. Anyone who is not part of the work in caring for the needs of others attends church like it’s just another social club. With social distancing as a reality, it is apparent who approaches faith as one side of the salvation coin.
Working out faith does not mean violating recommendations or orders to isolate physically. Action takes many forms, not all of them requiring personal contact. Look around at the needs of others and use your resources to fill the needs and encourage those who have no choice but to be vulnerable (e.g. health care workers, food preparers). Encourage one another through letters, cards, and calls. Learn how to walk out your belief now, and then keep working after this crisis is over. Show your faith BY your work, both now and in the future.
No matter what is going on in the world or in our culture, our testimony for Jesus is borne out by the way we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to ONE body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, serving ONE God (Ephesians 4). Showing any kind of partiality is wrong. The heart of the fight against injustice, racism, classism, ageism, and all the other “isms” is the way in which we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ.
That is easy enough in theory, but is can be hard in practice, especially if we disagree about things like politics, music preferences, worship styles, clothing, and all the other things that divide us. If we are really serious about our claim to be Jesus followers, we must be known as people who default to grace, mercy, and love the way Jesus did. That means we don’t succumb to the temptations to fight back over insignificant things. It means we hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior than those who do not yet understand the gospel.
We also need to stop comparing sins. There are no greater or lesser sins; sin is sin and no one can claim to be sin free. Knowing we have been redeemed by Jesus is not license to sin in any way (Romans 6). We must remember that the Law reveals the need we all have for God’s mercy and our response must be to show mercy to the people around us. That includes the people in the church with whom we may disagree. Mercy triumphs.
At the church I attend here in Las Vegas we are working through a study of what it means to be a Jesus follower. This morning’s reading included then section of Matthew where Jesus walked on water. I went back a few verses for context and I think someone who reads this may find comfort.
Matthew relates how Jesus taught crowds and crowds of people. 5000 men did not include the women and children there who listened to His teaching and received healing. I’ve heard estimates of up to 20,000 individuals gathered there by the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Tiberius). No matter the number, it was a lot of people in close proximity. In this particular case, evening came and the people grew hungry but didn’t want to miss Jesus. Instead of letting them go, Jesus told the disciples to feed them. And they did. Five loaves of bread and two fish become enough to feed everyone to satisfaction with 12 baskets left over.
Immediately after, Jesus told the disciples to take the boat across the lake while he dismissed the crowds. There’s no word about how long that took, but when then people dispersed, Jesus went to the mountain alone to pray. Jesus took the time he needed to isolate himself for time with the Father.
In the meantime, a storm broke out over the lake. It’s a big lake, and pop up storms are common. Many of the disciples were familiar with the sea and its storms, but evidently, this one was exceptionally strong. As the men are rowing with all their might to maintain control of the boat, they looked up. There was Jesus, walking on the water.
WALKING ON THE WATER IN THE STORM.
The disciples couldn’t believe what they saw, but Jesus called out to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid. “
It is I. Do not be afraid.
Maybe this current pandemic feels like the most terrifying storm you have ever seen. You feel like you are in the middle of it, rowing with all your might just so you won’t capsize.
You are not alone. “Take heart,” Jesus said. “Do not be afraid.” Whether it’s feeding a crowd or walking on a raging sea, Jesus is with us. Trust. Breathe. Pray. Love. Help one another. He’s got this.
Times were hard for the Thessalonian believers. To their credit, they loved each other and continued to do good, in spite of their confusion about the Day of the Lord. Paul commended them for their commitment to the Truth, reminding them that the Holy Spirit was working in and through them and that they were able to stand firm on what Paul and Timothy taught them through the Sciptures. He offered a benediction that God would comfort and establish them in goodness.
At this point, it seems like Paul was wrapping up the letter when he remembered something else. It’s a “but wait, there’s more” moment.
Paul carefully balances recognition of what the church as a whole is doing well with a direct admonition to the busybodies who caused trouble and refused to work. In a quick shift, Paul turns from the distant future (eschatology) to the immediate present. Perhaps it was the influence of the false teachers that caused some individuals to quit working and become both freeloaders and busybodies, but Paul admonished them, saying that those who were unwilling (not unable) to work should not eat. Instead, they should be encouraged to do their work quietly and earn a living, just as Paul and Timothy had done.
Finally, Paul encouraged the people to “not grow weary in doing good.” When life is hard and nothing makes sense, we must choose to do good anyway. We can trust the Father and be encouraged that we are being set apart for His glory. The Lord is faithful and will establish His own in peace and grace through Jesus.
After reading Joel about the Day of the Lord, I thought I would turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, a letter where he addressed the Day of the Lord 300 years after Joel did.
I didn’t get very far before I was struck by a new-to-me realization. In chapter 1, verse 3, Paul wrote about the work of faith, the labor of love, and the steadfastness of hope, traits the Thessalonian church demonstrated. Most people are familiar with faith, hope, and love from 1 Corinthians 13:13. But work, labor, and steadfastness? I hadn’t really put those together. So, what is the work of faith? I skimmed through familiar passages of the New Testament and came up with 7 things. I know there are more, but 7 seemed a good place to start.
One of the criticisms of the evangelical, mission-minded Church is that people go into other countries with the intent to share the gospel and then change the culture and social structure of that community. It is a legitimate critique. But Paul reprimanded the Apostles, naming Peter specifically, saying that forcing cultural change on new believers is hypocritical. Those are strong words, especially since Peter at that point was the go-to authority. But Paul backed up his criticism with facts.
When Peter wrote to the Galatians the Church was about 20 years old. Paul had been to visit Peter twice, mostly to make sure his teaching was in line with what was being taught in Jerusalem. However, Paul ended up setting Peter straight instead of the other way around.
Peter had a vision of God’s impartiality long before Paul’s second visit, and he had been teaching that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:35). Peter was the first to see the Holy Spirit active in the Gentiles, but he was still acting one way with the Gentiles and another way with the Jews. Peter, while teaching that the gospel was for everyone still allowed fear of the Jewish leaders to prevail, and forced the new Gentile believers around him to live like Jews. Paul confronted Peter on that and reminded him that no one is justified by adherence to tradition, but only by faith in Jesus.
God never made surrendering a home culture a prerequisite for salvation. The gospel is not defined by nor limited to a particular cultural point of view. Titus, a Greek, was not required to be circumcised and convert to the Jewish religion. He was Paul’s partner in planting churches and sharing the gospel while maintaining his cultural identity as a Greek man. The Ethiopian whom Philip taught, returned to Ethiopia, taking the gospel to Africa without any mention of conversion to a Jewish form of Christianity. Philip also taught the Samaritans–without demanding they become Jews first. Acts is full of examples of how people in multiple cultures were welcomed into the Church as the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem into African, Asia, and Europe.
Somehow, in the years between the beginning of the church and when Paul went to Jerusalem, Peter started to acquiesce to the “circumcision party” and force the Gentiles to live like Jews. Paul called Peter out in public, calling his actions hypocrisy and not in line with the truth of the gospel.
In some current Christian evangelical and missionary circles, the same thing happens. The gospel is preached to all (while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us), and then there is an expectation that those who believe begin to act like Western Christians. This idea is misguided (at best) and is one of the sources for resentment of the Church.
Culture is a social contract between people. It defines acceptable behavior for a particular group. Being part of a particular culture binds people together with a common point of view and approach to making meaning of the world. Our particular culture does not justify us, nor make us uniquely qualified to be saved or sanctified. God does not privilege one culture over another, which is the point of Galatians 2. The grace of God is for everyone, wherever they are.
God is more than any one particular culture. He cannot be expressed by Western or Eastern or African or Asian or whatever culture. In fact, it is only through a multicultural lens that we can begin to understand the whole of God’s nature. Each culture adds a dimension to how we see God, how we might worship Him, and how we can serve Him. The gospel is simple: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That love is not specific to any one culture, but is for everyone, without any other demands or expectations. No one is saved by going to a particular church, wearing Western clothing, or not eating certain things. These are cultural preferences, not laws of justification. When we are crucified with Christ, we live in faith in Him who loved us–so loved all of us.