Thomas challenges tendency of ‘belief over behavior’

Column by Emily Perper.

On Monday, the Rev. Buzz Thomas asked, “How do we become ‘exceptional’ in the biblical sense of that word?” and discussed barriers to national improvement, particularly a collective emphasis on belief over behavior.

Thomas continued his turn as Week Two’s chaplain with his sermon “Elevating Belief Over Behavior: How the Religion of Jesus Became the Religion about Jesus.” The Scripture reading was James 2:14-26.

“I want to make sure you understand I’m not talking about partisan politics. I’m not talking about churches endorsing candidates or taking up money for candidates,” Thomas said. “That’s not good for our churches and that’s not good for our government.

“I’m talking about something far more important than partisan politics. I’m talking about churches doing things. I’m talking about us collectively addressing problems that face our nation, rather than sitting back and wringing our hands and waiting on Washington to lead us out of the morass.”

Before discussing development, Thomas spoke about barriers to that development. First, the barrier of negativity prevents religious communities from promoting their vision in favor of what they stand against. Second, elevating belief over behavior has turned “Christianity into a head-trip.”

“Take a close look at American Christianity today, and you can’t help but notice we are fixated on what people believe,” he said. “In fact, Christianity may be the only religion that cares more about what you believe than how you behave.

“Denominational battles are fought over the language we use to describe the Bible. Just as an aside, I ask you this morning: Who has the higher view of Scripture, the person who is willing to say the biggest adjective about it, or the person who has incorporated scripture into his or her life?”

Jesus emphasized behavior over belief. In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus’ influence caused Zaccheaus to donate half of his income to the poor and to pay back those whom he cheated. After sharing the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells his listener to “go and do likewise.”

“Jesus believes that people do what they actually believe and the rest is just pious talk,” Thomas said. “Somewhere between Calvary and the Crystal Cathedral, I think Christianity has gotten off track.”

Martin Luther and St. Paul championed belief alone as the path to salvation, he said.

“But for Luther and St. Paul, the revelation about the importance of faith came after years of pursuing righteous living. These men strove for moral perfection only to realize that it’s impossible to attain, and more importantly, that God does not require it,” Thomas said.

“They came to the sobering conclusion — pardon my French — that we are all bastards, but to the joyful (conclusion) that God loves us anyway. This shift in emphasis, from ethical behavior to proper belief, explains a lot about 21st century Christianity. How we can drive luxury cars while some people ride the bus … or why we can live in gated communities while some people live on the street.

“Jesus taught his followers to renounce all that they have and share with those in need, but why worry about any of that stuff when all that really matters is belief?” Thomas asked.

He quoted Acts 4:32-34, which says “there was not one needy person among them,” because everyone collaborated to sell their possessions and give to the poor.

Thomas lauded the Christians in first-century Rome, who stood up to their oppressors while demonstrating their beliefs in concrete ways, such as fasting one day a week and giving their uneaten food to the hungry.

“If America’s faith communities are serious about our mission to transform the world into a more just and loving place, perhaps the key lies here,” Thomas said. “Until then, people might continue asking, as Gandhi famously did (of) the British, ‘How is it that you Christians are so unlike your Christ?’ ”

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell presided. The Rev. George Worth read the scripture. Worth is Week Two liturgist and senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Ga. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and serves on its board of trustees. The Motet Choir provided sacred music; the anthem was “May Jesus Christ be Praised” by Lloyd Larson. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship and sacred music coordinator, led the choir.