Text: James 2:1-26
Martin Luther hated this passage. Most of what he didn’t like about James is how it seemed to contradict Paul’s writings… at least if you took the small clips and verses and held them up against each other. Since Luther ferociously proclaimed that scripture could not contradict itself, the presence of James in the Bible was the thorn in his side… because it did seemed to do just that.
But James has always been a thorn in our side. It is every bit a part of the New Testament, it is every bit a part of Scripture, it is every bit something that helps us live out our faith in life. For that reason, it’s all the more challenging… James tells us faith without works is dead. James reminds us, faith is far more than simply coming and sitting in a pew.
James was written nearly a full generation after Paul, where the early church was gaining more a sense of its identity. Even though it is labelled as a letter, it far more resembles a sermon than correspondence… and a rather fierce sermon at that. James appears to have been written in a time where the early church was in a relative state of peace… This sermon preaches to a church that had become complacent in this time of peace… comfortable in their own pew… It seems that only in a few short years, they became much more interested in internal politics… and in many ways complacent about the world around them. Rank, privilege, and riches seemed to be creeping inside a community that proclaims that all are equal in the sight of God.
For James, one of his great concerns was how faith was lived out. People in his community would be boasting of their business plans of what they were going to do and where they were going to go… but it seemed that God was left entirely out of the equation once they were finished with worship. For James, this was unacceptable, the community was becoming complacent… no different than or worse yet, indifferent to the world around them.
So James goes off on a rant, slamming what he sees as an empty faith in his congregation… because while they may be saying all the right things, their actions, or rather lack of action, spoke volumes!
Yet ever the pastor, he does not cite a specific example, but provides a theoretical one:
2 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
One thing that many Christians stand accused of today is being judgemental. I find it ironic that as far as James is concerned, showing partiality is distinctly against what it means to be a follower of Christ. Being judgemental of others is something distinctly un-Christian. Wow… and James is just warming up!
8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker.
James is not mincing words at all, is he? But he’s not finished:
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
While his example doesn’t name names, he is calling out a pervasive attitude within his own community. Faith is simply being expressed as a feeling, a warm-fuzzy kind of thing that makes us feel better about ourselves. “As long as it gives me a bounce in my step, that’s what I want!”
For James, this doesn’t cut it, especially when there are people within their own ranks who are poor, who have needs, and yet those who are able to help aren’t lifting a finger. Being a follower of Christ is not something that is reserved exclusively for Sunday morning!
But James calls them on it, saying, “Okay… so you believe in God? Okay, that’s good… but then again even demons believe in God.” Even those cosmic powers that oppose God, believe. So is just getting all our facts right enough? For James, the answer is “NO!”
This is why Martin Luther had such a hard time with James. He had spent all of his life trying to earn is way into God’s good graces… and it was a profound revelation to discover that by grace we have been saved through faith… it’s God’s gift. God’s love is given to all of us. It became the rallying cry of the Reformation… but James as often thrown back at him.
So how do we square this? The problem is, we don’t have to. We set them up in opposition without realizing that they spring from the same foundation. We spend our time arguing whether or not we’re putting the cart before the horse… trying to figure out what we need to do or have first before we can get moving.
But neither James nor Paul would have gotten hung up on such questions. Faith, as always, is the starting point. For both of them, the question is not “are you saved?” But “God has already saved you… now what are you going to do about it?”
God has already saved you, now what are you going to do about it? Our outside actions are a reflection of that internal transformation.
Faith forms the foundation of what we do… it is by definition a part of every action in our lives. This is why James is harping on it so much. If our faith doesn’t transform and guide the way we act, how we treat one another, and how we live within one another, then what good is it? But taking the earlier words from James, we need to be very careful about judging others. We need to be very careful about the mindset that says “For your faith to be real, your experience has to be exactly the same as mine…” –but this isn’t true. Each of us is different, each of us experiences Christ moving through our lives differently, and each of us responds differently! It just needs to be real and authentic, it needs to be seated in the core of who we are… guiding our actions in all that we do and all that we are… and then it becomes a truly living faith.