Sept. 5, 2021 Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is James 2: 1-17.
1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. [11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.]
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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In last Sunday’s sermon I noted Martin Luther’s opinion of James’ letter; he called the book of James, an “epistle of straw”. He opined that James’ letter placed an emphasis on works, rather than on the accepted theology that we are saved by faith alone, without the need for good deeds. In other words, we are saved through God’s grace by our faith in Christ, and there is nothing required from us to secure our salvation. But, as I mentioned last week, I don’t think James is outright stating that we are required to perform works to be saved, but that it’s anticipated that we ought to act in response to Christ’s teaching. He wrote in the previous verses, “be doers of the word and not merely hearers”. This morning’s selection from his letter invites us into a deeper examination of James, certainly; but also, into a more nuanced comparison between his and Paul’s theology, from which Luther drew his conclusion of “faith only”; “Sola Fide”. And, at first glance Paul and James appear to be quite contradictory.
But, if we take a look at the different ways James and Paul (and thus, Luther) define “faith” and “works”, we likely come to the conclusion that they are not so diametrically opposed after all. For Paul, faith is the trusting acceptance that the sacrifice of Christ has secured for those who believe, a right relationship with God; salvation, redemption. James’ understanding of faith is more of an intellectual agreement with the concept of Jesus’ identity and sacrifice. Paul is confident that one’s faith is defined by the singular acceptance of Jesus as Savior. James is a bit more practical; for him, it’s fine to state your belief in Christ as Redeemer, as Savior; but unless this is accompanied by action, the declaration of that faith is hollow. He suggests that one’s faith becomes apparent when it is expressed through action. But, before we get too bogged down, it might be best to agree that the opposition between these two understandings is potentially “a distinction without difference”. After all, Paul and Luther would be the last to suggest that we’re not compelled to take those actions that Jesus commands us to do; to emulate his deeds, his “works”. I submit to you that both Paul and James are on the right track; they both direct us as followers of the Way of Christ to lives of selfless service to others.
Whether we do so in accordance with James’ declaration that this is necessary, or from Paul and Luther’s perspective that “works” are not needed, but ought to be done out of thanksgiving for the salvation Christ has secured for us; either way, we must cross the gap that exists between head and heart. As Christians we understand that, although we are redeemed, we are still expected to act in accordance with God’s Law and the teachings of the One who saved us. Our understanding of our relationship with God prompts us to do our best to put our faith into action.
James offers up a wonderful example of this command to honor God’s Law and to act in a Christ-like manner. He points out that we are prone to favoritism, and condemns his readers for this behavior. Paul and Luther would agree that we ought to show no favoritism to the wealthy, but rather that we are commanded by Jesus to favor the poor. James asserts that the dishonoring of the poor shows that we are not proclaiming our faith by neglecting to do the appropriate good “works”; by treating the poor one the same as the person dressed in finery. Again, this seems “a distinction without difference”. Either way, Jesus expects that we treat everyone alike; rich or poor, clothed in rags or dressed to the nines. I must admit that I chuckled a bit when I read the verse that assumes the well-dressed person visiting the assembly would be offered the best seat in the house; we don’t really have to worry about that happening here; nobody sits in the front pews anyway.
James goes on to make his most familiar statement to readers of the bible; “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”. Again, while there is a great deal of tension generated by this assertion, and Paul and Luther would disagree with James, if our faith isn’t evidenced by, and backed up by our actions, how are we, or others to know that we are who we say we are? If we avoid the seedy character in favor of cozying up to the person of power or wealth, where does that leave our faith? What does this say about our proclamation that we truly are followers of this Jesus?
If we don’t do the works that James proclaims are necessary is our faith really dead? Saint Paul and Luther would argue that no, our salvation is still secured, but what does this ultimately say about the faith we profess? Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as having noticed this apparent disconnect between what Jesus taught and the actions of many of his followers; “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Is our faith really dead?
Prior to Covid curtailing their mission events the Lutheran Inter-Parish Youth Group travelled to Cathedral in the Night, a ministry of worship and feeding in Northampton. You may recall that Emanuel and the other LIPY churches donated the food and supplies that our young people prepared and distributed to the needy folks that attend this weekly gathering. It was late October and a cold rain was pouring down on everyone. As the poor ones in dirty clothes that James tells us about were standing in the rain to receive sandwiches to take with them to wherever they planned to spend the night, one of Emanuel’s youth noticed that a young woman was shivering and that her hands were red from the cold. She didn’t think we noticed as she took off her own gloves and slid them on to this other person’s cold, damp hands. I think she may have slipped her an extra sandwich as well, in case there might not be lunch the next day. As she smiled wide with gratitude for the kindness she was shown, I noticed the severely damaged teeth that result from meth addiction.
But there was no thought of “sit at my feet” as James admonishes us not to play favorites. This was an example of “have a seat here please”, right at the front, in the best seat in the house. I think Paul and Luther would celebrate this act of works being done as a result of the faith this young person possesses. It didn’t have to happen but it did. Her salvation wasn’t dependent on this act, but the joy of an abundant life in Christ results in the desire for others to share in some measure of that same abundance. Allow me to paraphrase the last verses in the reading from James this morning; I’m going to change just a couple of words to make his words more fitting for our time and place;
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 sister needs warm gloves and lacks an extra sandwich, and one of you says to her, “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.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, we profess to have faith your Son as Savior, and far too often we neglect to act out our faith in ways that would portray us as his followers. Help us to always remember that the poor ones in ragged clothes are those that he would invite to sit beside him, and that those in finery and wearing gold are not the ones we ought to show favoritism to. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One in whom we place our faith; and we pray that this faith of ours will prompt us to do those good works that he commands of us. We pray that our faith will never be dead. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.