CNS photo/courtesy St. Francis Mission

Faith without physical expression is not faith

  • September 3, 2015

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 13 (Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 116; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35)

There is no shortage of individuals claiming to be agents and proclaimers of God’s will. Unfortunately, many of them represent nothing more than their own opinions, fears, prejudices and desires. Stripped of the cloak of God-talk, their words, thoughts and actions usually have little if anything to do with God. Often they divide or exclude people, stir up negative thoughts and emotions, and even end in violence that they believe is divinely sanctioned.

How do we know if someone is doing God’s will or their own? How do we recognize the “real thing”? A genuine call coaxes one out of their comfort zone on a number of levels.

First of all, proclaiming God’s message often results in resistance, rejection, ridicule, persecution and even death. The life of a prophet is not for the faint-hearted or those who love comfort and safety.

Secondly, the message to be proclaimed may come as a shock to the prophet — it may not (and often doesn’t) reflect their own attitudes and opinions. They may feel uneasy with the message they have to deliver.

Finally, the message is concerned with the common good, as well as reconciliation, justice and unity. God will definitely stand beside one who proclaims such a message and that divine support will be needed.

The response of most biblical prophets to their call was dismay, fear and a sense of inadequacy, all of which would be justified if they had to rely only on their own resources. In each and every instance, God had to reassure the individual that they would not be alone. A prophetic call is always accompanied by the grace and strength to accomplish the mission. Swimming against the current requires courage and determination in the best of circumstances. Calling people back to their divine vocation would be overwhelming without God’s support.

In our own time, moralizing and fiery denunciation simply will not work. Persuasion and appeal to the better elements of human nature are far more effective tools. Kindness, simplicity, humour and good example go a long way in winning human hearts and minds, as Pope Francis has shown. Even so, his prophetic message concerning care for the Earth and its people has met hostility and resistance from some. But one needn’t be the Pope to develop these qualities and use them for God’s purposes — it is the call of every Christian.

The tension between faith and works is based on a lot of misunderstanding. It is certainly true that we do not “earn” our way into God’s presence. We cannot present a list of our good deeds as some sort of entitlement — salvation is a gift, pure and simple. But as James points out so well, faith devoid of physical expression is not faith at all. Faith and works are both essential elements of our response to God. Genuine faith should not be self-absorbed and overly concerned with one’s own salvation while ignoring the needs of others.

Jesus had the greatest prophetic mission of all times — and so much more. He was to be faithful to the will of God and His mission to reveal the nature of God and the manner in which God intended people to live. As with most missions of this nature, it met with hostility from many — after all, it challenged the status quo, cherished traditions and selfish personal interests.

Death was a consequence of that mission rather than the mission itself. Jesus’ message would be met with the same resistance today. When He posed His identity question to the apostles, they replied with all the labels they had heard on the street and in the market place. Peter’s correct response was not greeted with praise in Mark’s Gospel, but a warning: keep quiet! To avoid misunderstandings, Jesus explained that He was a new sort of Messiah — one that suffered and died before vindication by the hand of God. Peter’s appeal to fear and self-preservation was met with a rebuke from Jesus, for this represented a retreat from His mission. Anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus had to sign on for the same sort of thing: death to self, and laser-like focus on continuing the mission of Jesus.

Letting go of our fear and trusting in God does not deprive us of anything but limitation and lack of freedom.

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