Monthly Archives: April 2014
This is the first of our 30 Hour Famine devotionals. As we joined together in fasting, prayer and service for those who suffer in poverty and hunger we also dove into some of the harder passages of Scripture that call us to serve God’s people. I will add our actual discussion video to the end of this post as it becomes available. Donations for 30 Hour Famine have not ended and you can still contribute here to help HVBC Youth address hunger and starvation in the world! www.tinyurl.com/hvbcfamine2014
When churches talk about helping those in need we often find ourselves stepping back to discuss the bigger question of faith and works. After all many of us, and Baptists especially, take the framework of our faith from Paul’s discussion of faith and works in Romans. Paul says things like “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Later major thinkers like Martin Luther took this even further making sola fide or his doctrine of “faith alone” a central piece of his theology, a Protestant theological heritage many of us share.
Unfortunately this often becomes a conversation killer. It’s the shut down conversation move. A lot of folks, with good intentions, end up using this thinking to throw the brakes on involvement in the community or service to others. It even becomes a put down we throw on other Christians. We invoke this argument to make ourselves feel better about not being involved. If they’re trying so hard at works they must not have faith. (This is of course a great big straw man version of this argument, written so you can see the problem in a paragraph or less, but you see where its coming from.)
But this problem isn’t new at all. When Paul wrote Romans he was still living in a church that was both literally and culturally Jewish. The oldest, earliest and most influential leaders, churches and thinkers in the early Church were all Jewish. And what they passed on to the Gentiles was still full of Jewish influence (and for good reason of course, Jesus himself was Jewish and understood himself as flowing out of Judaism). But something tricky happens here. The particular brand of Jewishness that was being passed on didn’t just contain many of the great things of 1st century Judaism but was also laced with that “yeast of the Pharisees” Jesus himself had warned against. This kind of Jewishness took “works” which for them meant very specific Jewish cultural elements (like circumcision, sacrifices, following the calendar of feasts and holy days and a very calculating petty version of tithing) and made them the center of salvation. They turned Judaism’s center from the people’s relationship with God and the lives of holiness He created in them to a narrow racial/cultural definition of salvation.
This got passed on to some of the early Gentile converts. Missionaries and evangelists other than Paul were spreading a Gospel which included Jesus but also (contrary to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) insisted that Gentiles take on all these cultural markers of Judaism to be saved. In light of all that its not surprising that Paul comes out pretty strongly against works and for faith when he writes his letter to the Romans.
Christians took Paul’s letters and their response to these specific “works” and started to take them to extremes. They made a version of the Gospel where God’s salvation was totally set apart from the things Jesus commanded us to do. So we see this pendulum swinging. God lays out commandments for life and justice and worship and over time people bend them towards one extreme or another and then back again.
So if we stop at Romans we don’t realize that we’re only getting half a conversation. To see a whole cycle we have to flip over to James chapter 2.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
James is a corrective, bringing us back to the middle. Our trust and our worship are important, when we try and separate them out from our service and God’s justice in the world it’s a bit like a dissection. We only find out how deeply connected they are when we start cutting those connections and find the pain, damage and suffering that follows.
Our love of God and our service to others are interwoven so tightly we can’t tear them apart. We see Jesus in the faces of those we serve, we have our hearts widened and deepened, when we carry God’s love into the world through our actions. We have the strength, the compassion and the courage to serve because we have been caught in God’s love and are being transformed by His holiness. When we neglect the poor we are not just callous but failing those whom God loves and died for. When our faith and worship fails we are no longer rooted in the source of our strength and our true hope for change.
Fasting is one of the most common and visible practices of Lent. It is one of the fundamental practices of Lent, recommended or even required in varying degrees by many denominations. Many Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays through all of Lent. The Orthodox churches take on a progressive fast, simplifying and restricting their diet more and more each week of Lent.
So what exactly is fasting? In the most literal sense it means refraining from eating. But thousands of years of tradition have given us many variations on what fasting can look like. Many now fast from things other than food, like caffeine, alcohol or media. Or give up certain types of food, usually particularly rich or extravagant foods.
So why in the world would we do this? Well, at the most basic level, we do it because it is a biblically recurring practice. Kings, prophets and even whole nations have fasted to show repentance or to prepare themselves for some great calling or event. Jesus himself fasted in the desert for 40 days in a time of preparation for his ministry.
We fast to take seriously our bodies as a part of us. We are not souls inhabiting a fleshy machine or a mind being carried about in a vehicle of blood and bone, instead we are some mix of all of these, a mind, a body, a soul, inseparable and interwoven. How we treat our bodies and what happens to them will affect the state of our minds and souls. We pray with our bodies. We preach with our bodies and we serve with our bodies. If we ignore them in our life with God we are leaving a part of us behind.
We fast to take God’s blessings more seriously. Many of us fast from things which are not inherently bad, like caffeine or meat, to be reminded of the goodness of God in giving us those things. When we have an uninterrupted flow of something we can be tempted to forget its source and become unthankful and entitled. We forget that the good things we have are a blessing and not a thing we have earned or required. Fasting helps reset us to 0,0. So we can see things where they really are and not where our skewed perspective puts them.
Finally, We fast to free ourselves for devotion to God. Many good things can become sinful if we let ourselves become reliant on them. They become one more barrier to our love and devotion, one more piece of baggage we are carrying. Many of us are literally addicted to things like sugar, caffeine, social media or technology. A dependence which should be reserved for God and a dependence which the world can use to twist you around. When we fast we invite God into our lives to free us from good things which have overtaken us.
Fasting reminds us of our bodies, reminds us of our blessings and invites God to free us from addictions and burdens in our day to day to life. When we fast we are joining with thousands of years of Saints and believers who have gone before and millions of Christians around our present world who also yearn to grow closer to God. And fasting doesn’t have to end with Lent. Through Lent we have been assembling a series of spiritual disciplines to carry with us all year. Fasting, prayer, bible study, silence, we take these with us to continue to grow in our faith and devotion all year.