Sunday, September 09, 2012

Luther and Loyola

James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Within Christianity there has always been a tension between two poles. At one end of the spectrum stands Martin Luther, who said that Christian faith is about trusting in God to put us right - or make us righteous - through the saving death of Jesus. Luther came to this conclusion when he was a professor of New Testament studies in a little town in Germany called Wittenberg. One year he decided to teach his students about Paul’s letter to the Romans and that’s when it suddenly dawned upon him that Christian faith is all about trust.

At the other end of the spectrum , stands someone like Ignatius Loyola the founder of the Society of Jesus. He spent a lot of his later life in crisis, first struggling to overcome severe wounds that he had suffered when he was a soldier and then during two short periods locked up in a cell by the Spanish Inquisition. He came to believe that the Christian life is a similar sort of struggle, a lifelong call ‘to prayer, self-examination and surrender’ to God’s grace, a struggle which we all have to undertake in order to overcome what James calls ‘the sordidness or moral filth and wickedness’ that otherwise tends to take us over.

Loyola’s preachers used to travel round Europe, and then other parts of the world, with a sort of travelling circus, creating a carnival atmosphere as the backdrop for their missions. When they had gathered a crowd they would then spread the shocking message that we are all in constant danger of falling into moral decay and that this will lead inevitably to our eternal death and damnation. They were the pioneers of the sort of revival campaigns later pursued by people like John Wesley and Billy Graham, except that their remedy for sin wasn’t simple trust in the saving death of Jesus, but a life dedicated to prayer, service and receiving the sacraments. For people like Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther’s quick fix - have faith in Jesus and everything will be all right - seemed like cheap grace, not the real thing.

Different they may have been, but Loyola and Luther had at least one thing in common. They were both great communicators. Luther was someone who dedicated his whole life to popularising difficult ideas so that ordinary people might better be able to understand them. During a lengthy period of enforced inactivity, he made a very fine translation of the bible into German so that everyone would be able to read it and know what God wanted them to do. However, the same impulse that led him to translate the Bible also led him to make some rather simplistic statements - always with the best of intentions but not always with the intended outcome.

Imagining that some people might be pressed for time, or might just not be very good at reading, he advised them to concentrate on John’s Gospel, the letters of Paul and the first letter of Peter. These books didn’t tell us much about the life and teaching of Jesus, but every Christian should be advised - said Luther - to read them first and to read them the most often.  ‘In them,’ he said, ‘You find depicted in a masterly manner how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation. This is the real nature of the Gospel … St. James’s epistle is really an epistle of straw compared to them, for it lacks this evangelical character.’

Of course, Luther was only making a comparison. He wasn’t saying that the letter of James isn’t worth reading at all, only that - if you didn’t have time to read the whole of the New Testament, you could safely miss James out. And this didn’t stop him from quoting James whenever it suited him. But the sound-bite has stuck, and James is now often referred to as the book which Luther called an epistle of straw.

The truth is, though, that Loyola and Luther may represent two separate poles - one emphasising trust, the other emphasising struggle - but they are joined by a lot of common ground and the letter of James sits in that common ground. Luther soon began to wonder, for instance, how you could be sure that you had put your trust in Jesus, and how other people would know that you had done it. God would know that your faith or trust had put you right with him, but other people would only know - and you would only see for yourself - if being put right with God led you to the right kind of actions.

Today’s passage from James actually seems to begin with a powerful reminder of God’s grace. Every generous act of giving is inspired by God. So when we think we’re being especially kind and loving to Cousin Maud, who only gave us a pair of bed socks for Christmas last year whereas we’re sending her an angora sweater for her birthday, it’s God who is inspiring us to act generously, it’s not something that any of us would be capable of by ourselves. Every perfect gift is from God, whereas our own natural inclination is to behave like my two little granddaughters, who always want whatever the other one has.
Whenever Loyola was struggling to overcome his doubts and problems, he always knew that he was struggling with God’s help, just as - whenever he was able to do the right thing - Luther knew that God was helping him to do it because he had already been put right with God.

James then reminds us that there is no shadow of turning with God. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Father who created the stars, who said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. In him there can be no darkness at all. He is totally generous and utterly reliable.

‘He gave us birth by the word of truth,’ could be a reference to just what Luther was talking about when he said that we need to trust in the saving death of Jesus. According to John’s Gospel the word of truth is Jesus himself; according to the second letter of Timothy it is the Gospel message. Either way, we’re reborn when we accept Jesus into our lives or accept his message into our hearts, and we do this by putting our trust in him. Then, says James, perhaps borrowing an idea from Paul, we become part of the first fruits of God’s great harvest, when the whole universe will be put right with him.

So far, then, the letter of James sounds as though it could easily have been written by Luther’s heroes, Paul and John. But then comes a change of tack. James goes on to say that good people, people who have been put right with God, don’t go on to act in haste or to do and say things when they’re angry. They take a deep breath.

Perhaps this was Luther’s real problem with James, because he was quite an angry person. He famously nailed a notice to a church door in Wittenburg announcing a university lecture - or perhaps a series of lectures - in which he would set out 95 reasons why the Church authorities of his day were in the wrong. That’s a pretty long list. He was never someone who was slow to speak or get angry, and yet he believed that his actions had helped, not hindered, the spread of God’s righteousness.

Both Luther and Loyola felt they were sordid, wicked people who needed God’s grace to put them right, but Loyola was probably closer to James in believing that God implants the Gospel message, or the spirit of Jesus, deep within us from our birth where it waits to be released, or perhaps quietly works away in the background, until the moment when we consciously turn to God for help.
The implication of this, as John Wesley was to recognise, is that even if we have to trust in Jesus before we can be put right with God, God can then work on our character, at least in some of his followers, to make us better and kinder people.

Luther was always much more pessimistic. While putting our trust in God might lead us to do more of the right kind of things, we can’t really expect to get much better in his view. Being right with God is always only about Jesus dying to put us right, it’s not about anything we can do even with God’s power working in us.

When James goes on to talk about ‘the perfect law’ he’s not harking back to the Jewish Law, he’s thinking of something more like a scientific law. Scientific laws describe, explain and predict the way things are, and he’s describing and explaining the way God acts - and will always go on acting - to set us free from human nature and give us true liberty. Those who make a habit of focusing on these things will find that some of God’s generosity and love will rub off on them and bless them.

Finally, James has a word of warning about being religious. It always puzzles people who don’t come to Church, but the Bible generally has some pretty harsh things to say about people who are religious. It’s the kind of thing which later led another German professor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to say that we need ‘religionless Christianity’.

What I think James means is that being consciously religious can be a sham, it’s worthless and useless unless it’s grounded in God’s love and compassion and unless it actually produces righteousness alongside all the talk about being made righteous. This is true whether we take Martin Luther’s root to religious faith and say that we have placed our trust purely in the death of Jesus, or whether we take the root of Ignatius Loyola and place our trust also in prayer, serving God and receiving the sacraments. And it’s true whether or not we are seen by other people to be doing the right sort of thing. We also have to be doing right things for right motives.

James characterises the right sort of religion as caring for orphans and widows and avoiding contamination with the world’s values of prestige and plenty. There’s nothing special about widows and orphans in God’s scheme of things, except that they are good examples of people at the bottom of the pile, people who have no power or influence, and certainly no money, with which to reward us for our help. The truly religious person helps others just because it pleases God.

The reading from the Gospel seems to be a comment on the same sort of empty religiosity that James attacks. The pharisees and teachers of the law, who otherwise agree with much of what Jesus is saying, are puzzled that he allows his disciples to eat without first washing their hands. Jesus responds somewhat harshly, and people have wondered whether, after his death, his reply was sharpened by the conflict between the early Christians and their Jewish neighbours. But, even without the insults, the underlying message is clear - real religion is about who we are and our true motives for doing things.

When he ran the Polly Peck business empire twenty years ago Asil Nadir was celebrated as an amazing example of enterprise and business acumen.  Today he’s in prison because appearances were deceptive.  Are our appearances deceptive, or is our religion pure and undefiled?

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