This semester, we are going to explore toxic attitudes and relationships in our lives during Thursday worship. Some of these toxic items work their way into our lives like deadly vines, choking out what could be a glorious and beautiful relationship. Instead, it becomes a toxic habit that needs to be eliminated or controlled.
Some of these toxic subjects will be obvious to you but we will take them in a little different direction: self-centered, commitment-phobia, and toxic habits in dating. Vicky, my wife, will join me for a few messages in October and we will explore different toxic issues for guys and for girls separately. Some of these subjects you will wonder why they are toxic at all: Christmas, Thursday’s subject being safe, and today’s subject: belief.
But, Brandon, aren’t you are a pastor? Yes, as a matter of fact, I am, United Methodist by training in case you are curious. Aren’t you then in the belief business? Well, not really. Belief in and of itself has lead to lots of problems on our planet. You mean belief is a toxic attitude? Yes, it most certainly can be. Thanks for asking.
As you saw in the beginning of worship today, we are a people that believe lots of things. Some things are just kinda fun and we grow out of these beliefs as we get older: Santa Claus and the tooth fairy for two examples. Others are fun for some and more serious for others: ghosts and the existence of aliens. We get more serious when we ask about love at first sight, life after death and whether or not God exists. They are more serious because the way you answer these questions shapes reality, how you see the world and how you will live in it. You will treat romantic relationships differently if you believe in love at first sight; you should live differently if you believe there is a God who cares about us. For many today, though, a belief in God gets jettisoned along with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus as something we only tell our children because it is comforting, not because it is a true belief.
I can certainly understand why some people want nothing to do with belief in God. You saw in the John Mayer song just what certain beliefs have led to on this planet. A strong belief that the white race is the best led to some horrible racial murders and atrocities. A strong belief that abortion is always wrong led some to murder abortion doctors. A strong belief that America is irredeemable and evil led to September 11, 2001. Beliefs acted upon, followed through, can lead people to do some crazy, distorted, destructive, and yes, evil things. This kind of belief, the belief that leads to needless destruction and hate, the kind that John Mayer sings about, is toxic.
Maybe this is why we are a people that tend to be afraid of extremes, especially when it comes to religion. The news is filled with these kinds of images, of religious extremists who blow themselves up and commit murder on a mass scale. We rightly do not want to be like them so we do not get too crazy about religion. It is still fairly standard practice in this area, though less and less folks do it, to go to church on Sundays but, for the majority of those who say they follow Jesus, it does nothing to affect how they live their lives the rest of the week. We don’t want to be one of those people who “get religion” or “got saved.” Sunday mornings become this ritual that has lost all meaning and power to change anything in our lives. Most people want their Jesus to be tame, to ask nothing more of them to show up once in a while on a Sunday morning, and to leave them alone the rest of the week. Is that the kind of belief that Jesus had in mind hanging on that cross 2000 years ago?
This is the kind of toxic belief we are talking about this morning. Belief defined is “passive agreement to a principle or doctrine.” This is unfortunately where so many Christians live each day. At some point they said yes to Jesus being their Savior and Lord, their sins are now forgiven, became comfortable with the fact, the doctrine, that they will now go to Heaven, and hardly ever think about it anymore. They have agreed with those ideas and concepts which are noble and powerful and life-changing but they have been drained of all of their power by passive belief.
Throw up your hand if you went through a confirmation or CCD program. Unfortunately many confirmation programs only perpetuate and produce Christians who only believe. I hope you enjoyed yours better than my 3 years in it. There are many high schoolers and college students in this part of the country who see confirmation or CCD as graduation from church. You complete the coursework, you participate in service projects, you say the right words at the right time and poof you are a Christian, a member of your church and never have to come to church again! How wrong and messed up is that?!
Our Scripture this morning came from the book of James. James wrote this letter to the churches in his care who were dealing with some serious issues. In case you were not aware, churches are not perfect places; people attack each other, gossip about each other and generally are sometimes not nice. We expect church folks to be nice but the truth is, just as hospitals gather the sick under one roof, churches gather people who desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and they have not learned yet how to do that.
One other reason he may have wrote this letter: there were some Jewish followers of Jesus in those days trying to stir up the population for a revolution, to start a war. James encourages them to remember that Jesus’ words on nondiscrimination and nonviolence were not optional; they must not simply be acknowledge but lived out. He describes this just before our passage this morning when he tells us under what circumstances that faith is dead.
Now James is using the word faith the same way we are using belief this morning. The kind of faith he describes as useless is one that is passive agreement to certain principles or doctrines. The way we have set it up this morning the two words are interchangeable. He writes: “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:14-17 NLT).
Faith by itself is not enough. Belief by itself is not enough. This kind of mindset does not lead to the radical lifestyle that Jesus calls his followers to have. Friends, true belief in Christ, true faith is not passive agreement to doctrines; it is a living out a reality on which you reorder and stake your life. It is time we grow out of this notion that belief in Jesus is equal to belief in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, or aliens. To be a follower of Jesus requires we turn our entire lives, lock, stock and barrel over to his control and his will. Is that your desire this morning? Or are you content to still live with Jesus equivalent to Santa Claus?
To further James’ argument that faith by itself isn’t enough, that it must be lived out to fully work the changes in us that Jesus wants, he writes “Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? (James 2:18-20 NLT)
For James the evidence of true belief in your life is good deeds, helping those who are in need and loving those who most people consider unlovable. You cannot have one without the other; belief and living it out are inseparable. He also attacks those who have merely passively agreed to the principle that there is one God. It really sounds like to me he is mocking them by saying even the demons believe there is one God and it obviously doesn’t affect them, it hasn’t made them followers of Jesus! The passive belief must become an active part of your life that actually leads to changes to become more like Christ.
So what does living in the reality of Jesus supposed to look like? James gives us some hints as to what life looks like. We saw in the passage that we should be concerned about those who do not have the basic essentials, like food or clothing. Those who are trying to live in the reality of Christ meet the needs of those who do not have as much as they do. So those who are moving beyond belief to live out their faith help those in need.
One of the core values on our campus is service and if you choose to stay all 4 years, you will experience many service and mission opportunities to reach out to those who would love to be seated where you are today, who would love to have even a fraction of what have today, to those around Mitchell, around South Dakota and literally all over the world. At DWU, we do our best to instill this lifelong value into all who come through this campus; it truly comes from this idea that reality is that Jesus is alive and wants us to mirror his life.
Frankly, there are all kinds of people, students, staff, and faculty that are trying to live into this reality of God. It is not easy and it is not done when you’ve said yes to Jesus. The reason we gather for worship, the reason we gather for Bible studies and mission trips and prayer times, is to connect with God together to better understand the reality of Jesus, to move beyond belief to living out our relationship with Christ each moment of every single day.
When you are flying solo as a Christian or even with a similar group of friends that think the same way you do, it is way too easy to follow a God of your own making, of your own choosing. Here is a new favorite quote of mine: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” (Anne Lamott).
My challenge to all of you today is this: get involved with others to seek out Jesus. Make a commitment to join in worship every Thursday at 11. I guarantee you that you will be worshipping besides folks who do not share your same views on everything; heck, our student leadership team doesn’t even share the same views. Friends, there are opportunities right outside your dorm room (service projects, small groups, etc.) to explore and to ask questions about who Jesus was and if you even want to spend your time following him. You may even think you made a mistake coming here because they made you come to a worship service for freshman orientation. Do me a favor and don’t write it off so quickly. Give something a chance and explore what it might mean to truly follow Christ with all that you are.
I’m not in the belief business; I’m in the disciple-making business. I care much less about you believing in Jesus; I care that you start looking like Jesus. Believing in Jesus is easy because we believe all kinds of things without much thought or reflection. Looking like Jesus, now that is hard work and what truly begins to transform us to look like Christ. It is selling out wholeheartedly to Jesus’ way of life. Ultimately, folks, God does not want your belief; God wants your heart.
May we be a people moving beyond belief to living out our faith each moment of every single day. Amen.