Today’s reading from James has two major themes. The first theme we have dealt with this summer. James talks about it in terms of Christians showing “favoritism” for certain types of people and looking down on others. Discrimination and prejudice are other words that can be used. In the second section James states in no uncertain terms that if our faith is not leading us into doing any good works, then it is dead.
The point of the first section is that it really irks James that different people would have wildly different experiences when they visit a church that is based on their appearance or status. The example he uses is a rich person and a poor person, saying that it is scandalous to fall all over yourself welcoming the rich person and taking him to a seat of honor and treating him with the utmost respect, then tell the poor person to sit on the floor or stand in the back. James reminds his readers that Scripture shows time and again that God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.
While James uses the rich vs. poor dichotomy, many other examples of varying treatment could be used as his example. Black and white; American and Hispanic, or Arab, or Asian; well dressed and groomed and sloppy with tattoos. In my memory this congregation has generally passed the tests as they have come. I’ll never forget George Payne, the man who rebuilt this pipe organ, showing up for church on Sunday morning in his normal work attire: shorts, a t-shirt, and hiking boots, with his beard bound as in a pony tail. I wondered whether someone would give him $5 so he could get some lunch. Several people asked me about him, but I don’t think there were any embarrassing encounters.
The fact that we have a baptism today reminds me of one of my favorite stories from my last congregation. The church has a beautiful, octagonal sanctuary, church in the round with pulpit, communion table, and baptismal font right in the center. On this particular Sunday I was in the middle of presenting the child to the congregation and talking about the meaning of baptism when one of the doors near the pulpit opened. In walked a young African-American man who looked as though he were on a journey. He carried a bag and what looked to be a guitar case and a big radio. This week I have wondered how many churches he might be shot dead in if he walked in like that today with the paranoia following the Ebenezer Church shootings.
But this was a different time. No one hindered him, no one called the police, no one led him to a seat in the back. He came up the aisle and sat down in the seats which had been vacated by the mother and father who were presenting their child for baptism. He sat down next to the baby’s grandfather, who was almost totally blind and very deaf. His wife had recently died from cancer and the baby was named for her.
On one level I was nervous about what was in the bag and the case and what his intentions were. On another level I was worried that this was going to put a bad taste into the mouths of this family which had endured so much recently and already had so much emotion on this day. On another level I was trying to keep my thoughts on the baptism and do a good job with it. When I finished and the music began for the baptismal hymn, the young man gathered up all of his stuff and left the same way he had come. One of the ushers followed to see if he needed help.
The little subplot which had gone on which I didn’t know about until lunch with the family was that when the man sat down in the pew, the nearly blind and deaf grandfather had assumed it was his son-in-law sitting back down after the baptism, so he leaned over to him and casually said, “Is the baptism over, Billy?” The man probably felt a little like Dan Rather did on that infamous day when a man approached him on the street and said, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” Maybe he decided this church was just a little too weird for him and he might as well forget getting any help there.
What I thought was going to be a bad experience for the family ended up being good. It gave them an opportunity for laughter and shaking off their grief for this joyous occasion. Maybe that was Jesus popping in just long enough to do what needed to be done.
Everyone should be welcome in a sanctuary, and everyone should be treated with equal respect. This is God’s house, not ours, and every person is a child of God, created in the image of God. How a person is dressed, or smells, or looks should not matter. Is it easy? No.
James goes on to say, “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… Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
James begins the next section, which is the literal and figurative heart of his letter, with a question. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” This is not an idle question, because the lynchpin of the Apostle Paul’s preaching was, “We are saved by grace through faith alone, not by works.” Elsewhere he wrote, “Salvation does not come to us as a reward for good works at all, so no one can boast.”
Paul’s message was in response to the overwhelmingly legalistic Judaism of his day, where righteousness was totally judged by obedience to the law, and to the letter of the law at that. But as I have said, some of Paul’s converts took this to the extreme of saying that how they lived didn’t matter since all they had to have was faith. God is not keeping score and I’m not required to earn salvation, so I’m going to quit trying to earn points. A slightly more positive way of saying it is that what we really need to do is concentrate on our own personal faith, our own spiritual lives, our own relationship to God, then everything will fall into place.
This approach to life and faith infuriates James. He says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or food. If you just say to that person, ‘Go in peace! Be warm! Be fed!’ but do nothing to provide for those needs, what good is that?” James says it is the same way with faith. If faith does not lead you to do anything, it is dead – useless.
His point is not that good works are what allow us to receive salvation. His point is that faith, if it is genuine, will just naturally produce fruit in the form of good works. If you believe the good news, you will joyfully respond to it by wanting to live in a way that will make your Savior happy. The way to do that is to live by his teachings, and some of those urge us to the doing of acts of kindness in service of our fellow human beings.
In a few minutes you will hear information about ways you can produce good fruit by volunteering with the Family Promise ministry. Plenty of opportunities exist with AIM, Saturday Servants, Clean Start and the Soup Kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, and many, many more. If you are not currently finding ways to let your faith lead you to joyfully engage in good works, I hope you will make that a priority.
Faith and good works both need to be present and kept in balance in the Christian life. Paul is right to tell us that we cannot earn salvation, it only comes as a free and gracious gift by faith. James is right to tell us that while good deeds cannot produce salvation, salvation should produce good works. We are not saved by good works, we are saved for good works.
William Barclay uses the analogy of human love. A person who knows he or she is loved completely knows that this love is undeserved. So we want to spend the rest of our lives trying to be deserving of that love, trying to be the kind of person who is worthy of such love. We cannot earn such love but we can live in such a way that we want to be found deserving of love. If we don’t, then we really don’t know what love is. (Daily Study Bible Series, James and Peter, p. 87)
Barclay also tells a story making the point that faith without works is not sufficient for the Christian. It is a story about the Reformer Martin Luther. He was close friends with another monk, who was also convinced of the need for the church to be reformed but he did not feel led to leave the monastery with Luther. They made a deal. Luther would go out and fight the battles of the Reformation, and his friend would stay in his cell and pray for him constantly.
But one night the friend had a dream. In his dream he saw a single reaper engaged in the impossible task of harvesting an immense field without any help. The lonely reaper turned his head and the monk saw the face of his friend, Martin Luther. He realized then that he had to leave his cell and his prayers and go out to help Luther.
Barclay concludes: “If any person thinks that prayer can be a substitute for effort, then his prayers are merely a way of escape. Prayer and effort must go hand in hand.” (p. 91) Or, as James concludes, “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” It’s not the whole Gospel… but it is a part we do not need to ignore.
If you are reading ahead to prepare for these sermons, then you will want to read chapter 3 of James for next Sunday as we return to the topic of the deadly tongue.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 6, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church