May I speak and may we listen in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday, we began our preaching series on the letter of James and we heard that that letter is thought to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus – who later became the leader of the Early Church in Jerusalem.
And it is this James whose work we are focussing on in this month, Bible Month –
Last Sunday we looked at the theme ‘Doers of the Word’ focussing on James’ challenge to not simply listen to God’s word but to be people who do the word, who live the word, who are inspired by the word.
And we might recall James’ challenge: to ‘welcome with humility the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.’
Now, all of that was really related to the first Chapter of James, and today we are onto Chapter 2. Our theme for this morning is: ‘Faith and Works’.
On the 18th we will look at ‘Speech and Wisdom’ and in our final week, on the 25th June we will focus on ‘Living for the Lord’.
In his letter, James is really making a strong, heartfelt and clear appeal to the Jewish Christians pleading with them and challenging them to live out their faith, especially within the Christian Community. If you like, what James wants more than anything is for these Christians to actually live and act and be Christian. And for some, the letter from James is a welcome contrast, a breath of fresh air after the heavy theology and letters of Paul and the complexity of Hebrews. But to others, James is nothing more than ‘junk mail’….i.e we’ve heard it before, James – we don’t need to hear it again – stop waxing lyrical about all this Christian stuff and the right way to live.
You might be interested to know that that great theologian Martin Luther referred to the Letter of James as ‘an Epistle of straw’ because it contains no reference to the passion and resurrection of Christ, or to the Holy Spirit, and at times, particularly in James 2:14-26 seems to contradict Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith rather than through works. And it’s because of this lack of reference to aspects of Christ and his life that the letter of James has often not been used in the history of the Church as much as other letters because it doesn’t help to defend the Christian faith as well as others. It’s really a letter from someone’s heart to an existing Christian community – not an evangelistic letter trying to convert the unconverted…
So, James is the perfect letter for us – because we are an existing Christian community, and we are in need of inspiration and challenge as much as the first recipients of James’ letter. And today we are focussing on that important theme: ‘faith and works’.
James 2: 8-12
‘You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’
Now, what James is talking about really from Chapter two verses 1 – 13 is really ‘respect for the poor’. He’s speaking against our natural human tendency to defer to our social superiors those with the money, and the fame and the influence, and despise those who are apparently below us on the social scale, the poor, the unimportant, the powerless….and the example he gives, is the we may or may not treat new people in our community, in the Church, the Body of Christ.
In James 2:1-4 we read:
‘My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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, 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, ”have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?’
For James, when it comes to favouritism – there’s nothing Christian about it. The right thing to do, the right way of living – the way to show that we really believe in Christ is to treat everyone we meet equally. To love our neighbour as ourself, just as God’s commandments teach us.
So, it doesn’t matter whether you have fine clothes and gold rings and speak the way I speak, if you come into the Church.
It doesn’t matter if you come in dressed the ‘wrong’ way, not knowing when to sit or stand.
It doesn’t matter whether I’ve seen you before, or whether you’re trying to fit in, or whether you smell like Coco Channel, or like the rubbish I wheel out on a Thursday night.
It doesn’t matter because you are a child of God. And in the body of Christ, in our community, in the Church you are to be made welcome.
It doesn’t matter how other people come, because Church is not about us, or our preferences, or our idea of community – but about the worship God and about God’s vision and God’s ideals and God’s way – which is a way of welcome, a way of love, a way of embrace.
And James says it doesn’t matter how good everything else is.
It doesn’t matter how much faith you have.
It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe or how faithful your worship is – if you cannot love your neighbour, which is the fruit of your faith – it is pretty worthless, it’s pretty dead.
Now, we might not think here that it would be possible for us to judge someone and to treat them in a different way depending on how they look, and I’m quite confident at St Andrew’s not just because I’m your Minister but because I’ve seen and witnessed it – I happen to think our welcome is pretty good.
But I have been to other Churches and experienced the opposite, only a few weeks ago I was in London and I went to a very well-known Church for a midweek Holy Communion.
I sat down on one of the pews that had the Worship Book and Hymn Book on it, and immediately was kind of flapped out of the seat – with wagging fingers telling me that I couldn’t sit there – with no explanation as to why. So I struggled to find another seat, and once I’d found it I realised a few minutes later that a very eminent Methodist Minister who wasn’t taking the service was going to come in and sit exactly where I had sat.
Had I not been in trainers, jeans and a T-shirt, I wonder if I’d have received the same treatment?!
James, and his letter would have had something to say about that.
‘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, 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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves?’
The irritation for James though isn’t that we just make distinctions between ourselves, but we also make distinctions between our faith and our works.
We make distinctions between what we believe and how we act.
We make a distinction between our love of Jesus and the love we should have for one another.
James delivers a punch to us, because he says –
You know, all that stuff about being doers of the word, and not just hearers,
All that stuff about loving your neighbor – the stuff you know about and have heard about and have tried to live up to – it really can’t get muddled up with partiality, with favoritism….with preferential treatment.
When God says love your neighbor as yourself – James says to do anything other than simply that – is to commit sin.
‘For, whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’ , also said, ‘you shall not murder’.
In other words you can’t pick and choose between faith or works.
You can’t pick and choose certain sins above others.
You can’t pick and choose those whom you want to treat as your neighbours, or welcome into your communities, or sit with and share bread and wine with in Church….
It’s not good enough to keep a long list of sins you haven’t committed and expect God to simply forget the ones you have – this is why James mentions a very easy sin with one less easy…he mentions adultery in the same sentence as murder. This is how seriously God takes the commandment given to us, to love our neighbor as ourselves….
James reminds us that as much as our actions can lead us into sin, so can our lack of action.
And as much as our faith is enough to save us, our lack of action can reveal to our shame, that our faith is actually nothing at all, but is dead and untrue, and lacking like a seed rotting away in the soil.
‘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 brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’
It seems, that what James is getting at is that faith which stops at words is not faith at all. Even, he says, the demons believe in God and fear him, but that won’t save them from God’s judgement. Real faith works – God accepted Abraham, and Rahab because their faith resulted in action: in other words, their faith was genuine and seen to be so. If what we believe doesn’t affect the way we live, what we do, how we act, then it is dead.
You know, I could imagine that if James was out walking and bumped into one of us Christians today, he might at some point ask us is if we were Christian, and he might stand back shocked and exclaim: ‘Well, you don’t act like one!’.
I reckon most of us would be offended – but do we really live as those who have seen, and experienced, accepted and been changed by an encounter with Jesus Christ?
The lady who very rudely told me to shift that afternoon in that Central London Church didn’t act like that.
Perhaps we on days when our energies are running low, and our frustrations are insurmountable, don’t act like it.
Perhaps we, in our Church meetings – when big things we are protective of are at stake or when we feel we have a much better way of doing things, don’t act like it.
Too often we put ourselves at the centre,
And our neighbour and God become miniscule and insignificant.
It becomes about our way,
And our preferences,
And our Church.
But James says: remember God sees not just how much you believe, but also how good your works are, if they are even there at all.
And how does God know that we love him?
And how does the world know that we follow Jesus Christ?
And how do we make God’s love known in the world?
We do so by acting and living and behaving as those who believe in the Gospel.
We act and live and behave as those who are being changed from glory into glory.
That doesn’t mean being a nice person – it means much more than that actually, and sometimes our faith being seen in our works, means we might have to at times say hard things and do hard things – because that is what Jesus would do.
Acting and living in that way, and James doesn’t tell us in Chapter 2 exactly how to live, he simply reminds us that faith without works is dead, but acting and living in a way that is inspired by our faith isn’t what saves us –
because the only thing that can save us is our faith in the person, name, blood, and cross of Jesus Christ – but that faith is shown and revealed in how we act, and how live, and how we love.
St John of the Cross says it beautifully, he says: “In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.”
That seems to me a message we need so deeply in our world today – that nothing else, but how we love is what will in the end matter. And that is love both for God, and for those whom God has placed around us.
As scary as the thought may be that God will judge us on our actions, I Thank God, that we are justified, we are saved by faith and not by works – because at times, in fact too often – the way we live is a poor embodiment, a poor reflection of what we believe. That’s not going to change overnight – the fact that this letter from James still speaks to us so many years later, is testament to the fact that we are not that different to his original readers – but let’s us not be complacent, relying just on our faith to save us –
Let us be people who as visionaries, as dreamers, as advocates, as people who love and people who are merciful, as people of understanding and people of faith and people of hope – continue to work hard, out of the love we have for Our Lord that our faith might be seen – that the world might know Christ, and love Christ, and live in Christ’s way.
It seems to me, that if we were doers of the word, and not merely hearers that would happen – and if the word was the centre of our lives, it would be the centre of our Church, and if it were the centre of the Church then Christ would be the centre of everything…and we with all our human pride, and yearning for control would simply let God be God and our actions would be inspired by our faith completely.
|Not I, but Christ be honored, loved, exalted,
Not I, but Christ be seen, be known and heard;
Not I, but Christ in every look and action,
Not I, but Christ in every thought and word.
|Oh, to be saved from myself, dear Lord,
Oh, to be lost in Thee,
Oh, that it may no more be I,
But Christ that lives in me.