The Apostle Paul asserts that we are saved by grace, not by works. But the Epistle of James states that faith without works is dead. How can we have a faith that works but doesn’t rely on works? Join us on Sunday to find a community that puts our faith in action! All are welcome, really.
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? 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
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. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Martin Luther, one of the original protesters who ignited the Protestant Reformation, once said, “St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” The phrase “an epistle of straw” hearkens back to a verse from I Corinthians (3:12-13) that argues that Jesus Christ must be the foundation of all things, otherwise, it will be burned up like a foundation made of hay or straw.
Now, admittedly, to say the letter of James isn’t about Jesus is, to some degree, true. It’s not like the gospels that tell the story of Jesus.
Nor is it like some of Paul’s letters, Romans and Corinthians, that then exposit on these stories and write high-flatulent discourse and theology, even creating a religion around the story of Jesus.
James is different from that. James is not about Jesus. It’s about living like Jesus, about embodying the message he preached; about letting the Word of God take hold in our lives and acting and doing that word in the world and in our own lives.
James isn’t about Jesus, but it sounds a lot like Jesus, especially Jesus the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, those Beatitudes that turned the world-order upside down. That’s James.
Now, I can see how this letter might be problematic for those early Reformers. When you’re building a movement based on “grace alone,” “faith alone,” and “scripture alone,” having a book in the Bible that says things like, “faith without works is dead,” might give everyone some pause.
Wait a minute. Didn’t Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” If we are not saved by works, then what is James’ obsession with works?
Well, once upon a time, a homeless, itinerant preacher in Palestine said, “You will know them by their fruits,” (Matthew 7:16-18) Meaning, we will know who is a follower of Jesus, not by what church they attend, not by what accolades they’ve received, not by how they look, but by their actions, by what they produce and give back to the world.
As a reformed Christian, shaped by the Protestant Reformation, I can affirm that yes, indeed, we are saved by grace alone and faith alone.
That’s why we baptize babies like Liliana in our tradition, because there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. We don’t require that babies, or adults for that matter, to pass some test to be baptized. We don’t require that babies bring to us a checklist of what they’ve accomplished to deserve baptism. God’s love, God’s grace are freely given, and we simply need to open our arms and receive it.
And yet, as a reformed Christian, shaped by the Protestant Reformation, I can also affirm that “faith without works is [indeed] dead.”
Not because our works save us, but because if we have truly experienced God’s love and grace, we cannot help but live our lives to reflect that love and grace.
As John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church once wrote, “St. Paul speaks of works antecedent to faith; St. James, of works subsequent to it.”
Or, put another way, “We are saved FOR works, not BY works.:” Works do not save us. But as people of faith, works are required of us.
Because God has called us for a purpose. God has chosen us to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
We do so, not to work towards our salvation, but because we have already experienced that lavish, un-deserved grace of God, and we cannot help but be compelled to share that good news, that redemption, that peace, that justice and that love with everyone we may encounter.
We are, each and every one of us, called to works, saved for works: to do the work of justice, to do the work of reconciliation and peacemaking, to do the work of love.
Each and every one of us is called because each and every one of us will embody and live this out in different ways. We all have different strengths when it comes to the works that we are called to do.
Some of us will be advocates, amplifying the voices of those who are silenced to those in power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize. Some of us will be helpers, addressing immediate needs like hunger by providing food to those who are food insecure. Some of us will be bridge builders, using words and theology to bring people along, to allow people to see why actions and works are so critical to our faith.
None of us should be boxed in to just any one of these things. We should do all of them. But the reality is that some of us are better and more inclined to act in certain ways than others. That’s why all of us are needed.
Now, a focus on our actions is not meant to be legalistic in any way. We are not bound by a set of rules or a list of do’s and don’ts, musts and musn’ts. Human beings tend to gravitate towards that kind of religion because it’s easy. It’s a checklist. Tick, tick, tick, and you’re in.
I’m sorry to say, our faith is not easy. It requires us to engage critically, to think, to wonder, to check our privilege and to consider how we might be helping or harming others; it requires us to re-align ourselves with God again and again – that’s why we pray a prayer of confession every week, because we fall out of alignment so easily.
Our faith is not easy; it takes work. But it is simple. Simple in that it can be boiled down to five words.
James quotes, it is simply about loving God and loving neighbor.
That’s it. It is just that simple: Loving God and loving neighbor. That, in five words, is what our lives of faith is all about.
Now love, in James is a call to action; it isn’t emotional or theoretical, it is a verb.
And in this particular chapter of James, it specifically lifts up love as showing no partiality, as viewing the world through the loving eyes of God rather than through our own human biases and prejudices.
Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we all hold biases. They are based on our own experiences, based on media’s coverage of people and individuals, based on what we’ve heard from friends or absorbed through our culture. And these biases effect the way we interact with others.
Some biases are even biological. Shanna Brooks, in an article about poverty wrote, “just seeing poverty can trigger [a] scarcity response [in us], [which leads to] a dehumanizing response, and [in doing] so, creates defensiveness and disgust. These are survival reactions…”[i]
So, some of our responses are deeply embedded in us as a means for survival.
Ms. Brooks, however, continues by saying, “but that doesn’t mean that [these biases are] justified, or that they’re healthy, or that they’re acceptable. Our job as human beings—as neighbors, as people with hearts and souls—is to acknowledge them, consider them, and then and override them,” (ibid). The good news is that the more we can recognize biases in ourselves, the less likely we will be to fall prey to them.
In James’ day, when this letter was written, those who were wealthy had a tendency to oppress those who were working class and those who were poor. The rich were not necessarily known for their kindness or generosity. And yet, people in the churches that James was writing to, even though some of them were being harmed by the actions of the wealthy, were still biased in positive ways towards those who were rich. And as such, fawned over them when they came into their assemblies.
These biases inclined them to lift up, pay respect, and preferentially treat those with wealth and power over those who were poor. James writes, “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”
He is trying to point out that their biases for the wealthy are so deeply engrained in them, that even when it is not in their own interest, they still favor those who are rich.
He reminds them saying, “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?
But you have dishonored the poor. … 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.” (James 2:5-9)
Friends, our human inclination is to bow down to those with power, with wealth, with status. But God challenges us, to not only see those who are poor as equals, but to see them with the great love that God holds. Liberation theology calls it God’s preferential option for the poor.
This gospel message is an upside-down, backwards way of looking at our world. But it is God’s way. Margaret Aymer Oget, a professor at Austin Theological Seminary says, “As Christians, regardless of our political affiliation, the epistle of James calls us to a collective responsibility for the needs of the poor and to a collective prophetic stance against the excesses of the rich. We are called to answer to a higher royal law, a law that puts neighbor and the needs of the whole community equal to our own needs.
We Christians, James reminds us, are called collectively to affirm the marginalized, and to ameliorate the injustices faced by our neighbors. Especially if they are poor… For James, no community can claim to be Christian unless that community honors and meets the basic human needs of the poorest of its poor. This is Christian morality…”
She continues, “…. But James is not a treatise on collective charity. James is a critique of societal class disparities and wealth-based injustice.”
The letter of James claims that to love as God loves is to love all people without discrimination based on wealth, class, status, or power. And in 21st century America, I would add to that list race and citizenship-status.
Furthermore, to love in this way is to seek out and create just systems that honor all, so that these disparities and injustices no longer exist.
In the first chapter of James (1:27), the author quotes the Hebrew scriptures saying that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, … is to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
The Hebrew scriptures specifically lifted up orphans and widows because once you became an orphan or a widow in that society, you had no means to advocate for yourself. You were stripped of any access to power, to money, even basic rights.
These were the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups in Israelite society, and that’s why they were lifted up again and again as those who must be cared for.
Consider today, who is the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for that group of people.
Personally, when I think of those who are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us today, I think of those children, taken from their parents at the border, many of whom still have yet to be reunited with their loved ones. These children are living with embodied trauma and fear, alone and uncertain of their futures.
It enrages me that this happened on our watch, in our country. And if I’m honest, sometimes I feel completely helpless and hopeless. What can I do? How can I act? It can all seem so futile.
But a faith that works, persists with hope and believes that every little action can bring forth greater change. Every act of kindness, of compassion, of love, has far-reaching effects that we may never know. Like ripples in a pond, our small actions may have a much larger impact in the world.
That letter you write to your congressperson, that kind word and meal you share with someone who is hungry, that child you comfort, the banners you hang outside your church, they all connect us to a larger movement for change because (1) it transforms us as we do them and because (2) it impacts those around us.
As we care for those nearest us, we should be compelled by that love to look outward to consider what is going on in the world and who might need our love beyond those closest to us.
The reverse is also true, as we consider all the pain and hurt in the world and work to make a difference, we should look closer and consider how we might alleviate some of that same pain and hurt in our own homes and in our own neighborhoods.
My concern for those children separated from their families has to translate to the children in front of me today; I have to care and love the children before me daily if I dare say I care for those children I have yet to see. In the same way, if I say that I love and care for the children in my own home, then that love should also compel me to love and care for all children, no matter where they’ve come from or who their parents are.
We are all interconnected, and the more we move inward and outward, outward and inward, loving God’s people the best we can, the greater the possibility for hope and change.
Mother Theresa is quoted to have once said, “We cannot do great things. Only small things with great love.”
Most of us do not have the power to create sweeping change across this country and world. If you do, I think our faith requires you to use that power and ability to do just that.
But the reality is, most of us occupy much humbler spaces with only so much reach. And for us, while we can’t do it all, there is great hope in knowing that we can still do small things with great love.
Friends, how will God use our small things to make a big difference in this world? How will you commit to have a faith that works? Who and how can you love better, without biases and prejudices?
Through this so-called “epistle of straw,” the Holy Spirit convicts us to reflection and to action.
May our faith be a living faith that works for the kin-dom of God here on earth. Amen.