This week PAYG has centred on extracts from the letter of James, so I am happy, as this is my favourite book of the Bible. It has been good to hear other people's thoughts on aspects of what it says, and to be reminded of the challenges it brings.
Today was my absolute favourite part, the 'faith without deeds is dead' bit, and the example of Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (I typed only descendant, but that's clearly not true, as Ishmael predated Isaac). Abraham saw in Isaac the fulfilment of God's promise that he would be the forebear of many nations, and now God demands Isaac back as a blood sacrifice. It is a horrible story, a horrible portrayal of a God who, it seems, gives and then takes back in a very gruesome fashion, what has been given. PAYG noted that Abraham, however he may have felt, was willing to do whatever God demanded - even if that meant losing his future. Of course, we know how the story ends, and how the unfortunate ram entangled in the thicket becomes the substitute acceptable to God. And of course many of us know the story of the judge Jephthah who offered his daughter as a blood sacrifice and no ram appeared. And of course we can expend endless energy trying to make it all make sense in a nice 21st century western world where our values and mores are very different.
But, James say faith without action is empty, meaningless, dead. Dogma and doctrine without compassion and generosity cannot salvation bring. And Abraham, willing to abandon his future hope is the exemplar. Gulp. Where is my/our future hope located? In the houses we own? In the qualifications we work hard to attain? In the pension plans we pay for? In our children? And would we hand any of these back to God in order to fulfil what we understand as God's will... even if there was no ram in the thicket?
When I sold up to train for Baptist ministry, I can honestly say I would have walked out of my front door in what I stood up in, and done whatever the college and the BU had demanded of me. Now and then I hear of ministers, or people wanting to be ministers, who quibble over the demands fo the BU or the college, who say they cannot afford to sell up, or to move here or there, who say that God is not calling them to sacrifice... It troubles me. Not because I am especially virtuous or spiritual, but because it reflects a poverty of confidence in God, and possible even an unwillingness to put God at the centre.
Looking back, it amazes me that I was so confident in that moment, but I was. And it is good to remember it on the days when the temptation to a more self-directed, self-determined life style lures me towards comfort in the here and now.
Faith without deeds is dead. Faith that is willing to sacrfice its dreams and hopes is living.
Stern stuff indeed!