14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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? 17 So 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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.James 2:14-26
We have been on quite the journey through this series. As I stated when we began, I wanted this to be a series as much for those desiring to become members of this church as it could be for those who have been members here for any length of time (either of this or another church).
So often in our faith, we can get into this manner of complacency as we live out our faith. We can be “inducted” into faith, and then our manner of participation in the church becomes boiled down to; coming to church, maybe serving on some committees, and occasionally doing some sort of service or ministry activity. However, it is this complacency that has caused the local church to be so unappealing in the midst of a faith that is rapidly evolving and maturing.
If you look in the Book of Acts (the history of the early church), you will see a “fledgling Christian church” develop, we see a community charged with action and desire. I am not saying that we do not have that charge now, but I think centuries of living at the top of the religious food chain (so to say) have created a sense of piousness that manifests as complacency.
If we begin to look at these vows in consultation with the covenant we make in our faith we see the same pull that was given to the disciples. This is a pull that we see separate from the connection of Christianity with Empire ideas.
What this leads us to is an intentional covenant lived through God in our local communities.
Why This Series Matters
We have looked at four “words” that play into this role. We have observed our participation in our local communities with our prayers, presence, gifts, and service. For the most part, these words, while a great calling in and of themselves often lead to this complacency. We are not pulled outwardly in greater action for the Gospel. Even looking at service our direction could fall inward.
Up until 2008, these four words (prayers, presence, gifts, and service) defined our covenant with the local church. However, for many, there felt like something was missing, something to tie all of this together and push us into a world yearning for God’s grace.
In 2008 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to add “witness” to this list. Why? This is what they said:
“When the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders submitted its proposal to Discipleship Ministries, our Board agreed that the vows of ‘prayers, presence, gifts, and service’ were primarily ‘inwardly’ focused and institutional in character. They offered little insight or inspiration for disciples of Jesus Christ to engage in God’s mission of transforming the world. Though in an earlier vow those seeking professing membership promise to be ‘Christ’s representatives in the world’, there was no reflection of that baptismal promise in the vows of membership in a local congregation. Adding ‘and witness’ to the list may help our members, new and old, to recognize their responsibilities not only to ‘show up,’ but to ‘show forth’ God’s saving love in all that we do.”Discipleship Ministries of The UMC. Found at https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/new-membership-vows-and-ritual-revised-and-corrected
This is the reasoning we now look at this fifth piece of this vow;
“As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by…your witness?”United Methodist Hymnal pg 39
This is where I point out and remind you that this is one vow. None of these words work in isolation from others, but they work in tandem with one another to make up the fullness of our community together.
Witness boils down to the way that we both live and share our faith not only within this congregation but even more with those outside of our church.
On one of our UMC Resource pages, witness is laid out like this,
“The dictionary defines ‘witness’ as ‘having personal knowledge of something and giving testimony to it.’ Thus, one is an observer of an event and then is able to tell others what one has seen or heard.”United Methodist Church umcdiscipleship.org/resources/giving-witness
This is where the rubber begins to meet the road. The rest of the portions of this vow, define an inward decision in a way. They define how we relate to one another, and how we relate to God. They define relationships within this community and even how we serve together. Even when it comes to service, some could argue that without considering witness, we will fall into the innate nature of inward living.
Witness calls us to look beyond ourselves. Witness, in conjunction with the other parts of this vow, calls us into community, because we recognize that faith is not just about faith. Yes, our salvation (as I have said multiple times) is connected to our faith. However, faith without works is a dead faith. It is a faith that means nothing to anyone. God still saves us, but in the matter of being part of the transforming work God in Christ through the Spirit is doing here on earth it is nothing.
Learning About Witness From Scripture
Witness boils down to the living of our faith, and this is why we have turned to the Book of James to see what this truly means in the context of our faith at large, and within the context of our faithful ministry to the local church.
Breaking Down James 2
The writer of James is ultimately encouraging us to go beyond the mere use of words in our faith and to allow the words of our faith to be defined by our works.
“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 2:14-16
So here then, let us define (or come to an understanding of) what the writer here means by works.
When we look at the early Christian church we can see very quickly that sharing the Gospel verbally was a very difficult thing to accomplish. As the persecution of Christians was rampant, the words of faith became secondary to the “actions of faith.” These actions are exemplified by Christ through the telling of the Gospels.
You did not have street preachers in Biblical days. You learned about Jesus behind closed doors, in house worship, or in expressions of church they had in the day. Therefore, when you left those spaces to speak the name of Jesus was punishable by execution. Now there were those who took on the mantle (namely the disciples and leaders of these communities), but a greater emphasis on faith was living the transformed life.
These people literally participated in all the ministries of their faith communities by living their faith. They prayed with and for their community, they were present within communal events, they gave gifts to their community, they even served with and for their community, and then both inwardly and outwardly they were witnesses to their faith as a part of their missional community.
This is why the writer of this letter is bold and confident enough to continue by saying,
“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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.”James 2:18-19
If our faith means anything to God, then witness is the outcome of the transformation we claim we are experiencing by the nature of God’s grace. Offering our witness means taking what we have seen, heard, and experienced; and allowing it to bear fruits in the life we live.
We Are Witnesses
In our contemporary church…if we are participating, that means using what we have seen, heard, or experienced, to help others understand the nature of Christ within each of us. Therefore, we name in this idea that we are not sideline Christians. Nor are we only Christians when it pleases us.
In our vow to God through baptism, we recognize the world that surrounds us and covenant to be a part of the work that God is doing in it. Rightfully so, the writer of James is claiming that faith without works is dead. I so love this calling, because it names the basic fundamental of our faith. James is not trying to say we are somehow “saved” by our works. They are naming what is obvious: if we name our lives are transformed by God’s love and grace…then act like it.
As I have mentioned, there is no arguing that in our justification, we are not saved. Salvation is achieved in our faith in God. We cannot change that. God will always love us despite our flaws, despite even our worst sins.
Our witness though is the fruit of our faith. Our witness is gained by our experiences of faith. The manner in which those experiences occur within the community becomes the foundation for that witness as well. This is why we profess our faith communal and in so doing covenant to be a part of said community.
We do not communally profess our faith to show off. We communally profess our faith to acknowledge the covenant with God and God’s church. We do so because the witness we offer through community exemplifies God’s desire for humanity.
This means that our faith should produce fruits, and those fruits are our works. The thing with faith is that it is the very basics of believing, and saying we believe, is nothing if we do not live as if our faith has an impact on how we live.
To be a witness means we take the Gospel, and we allow it to transform us. We breathe in the Spirit and as we go forth in the world, the Spirit is a part of us and calls us to a living beyond ourselves. The witness ministries of our church exist in the way we are sent forth.
Living Our Witnes
Whenever we go anywhere. We are representatives of God and of God’s Kin-dom.
This local church community, or any church community, needs your witness. We need your experiences, we need your beliefs, we need your faith in God, and we need the transformation that God is working on within you as a part of your faith.
At Beech Grove, participating in the ministries by your witness does not boil down to one thing or another, it cannot be quantified in a specific ministry of the church. To do so means that you are taking your experience and your faith and molding them together as you are sent forth in God’s name into the world. It is being commissioned by the Spirit each and every time you are present here at church and allowing that transformation to be seen as you go forth and do God’s work.
Our outward commitment to the church manifests itself in how we serve others, in the relationships we have outside our church community, and even in the way we carry ourselves across creation. When we participate in our community, outside our church community, we are participating by our witness in our church communities.
How will the world see you? How will you show the church you are a part of, and even more importantly, the God you believe in?