“2 My brothers and sisters,[a] do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?[b] 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,”[c] 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] 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.”
“14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[a] 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.”
-James 2: 1-10, 14-17
“A DEATH AND LIFE MATTER”
James 2: 1-10, 14-17
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
September 6, 2015
This passage from the book of James prompted the famous Reformer Martin Luther to announce, “I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove!” He was not the first to be upset by James’ words and he has not been the last. There has always been concern that James seems to be teaching the opposite of Paul. For Paul tells us that we are saved by grace through faith alone. But James tells us that faith without works is dead. These concerns caught fire during the Reformation when the rallying cry became “Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone.” Anyone who said our works were important was considered a heretic to the new movement. So James was declared “an Epistle of Straw” and left on the back shelf to gather dust.
In the 400 years since, we’ve had time to do some thinking. And we’ve noticed that James doesn’t seem to be as contradictory as we thought. For example, he never once sets up a “faith versus works” scenario. It is not as if he thinks we can choose: I will have faith or I will do works. Works are not in competition with faith; works complete faith. The only comparison James is concerned about is the comparison of two kinds of faith: one that is alive and shows fruit and one that is only words and is dead. He is not concerned with how we start our faith life as Paul is. Paul is clear: we are made right with God not because of anything we have done but because of grace through faith. But James is not looking at the beginning of our faith. He is looking at the week after, and the year after, and then the year after that. He cares about the ongoing life of faith, and he simply believes that if your faith has not changed you, then what good is it? How is it going to save you today, this week, this year, if you can just stay the same as you were before?
There are faiths that won’t ask anything of you. One that has become famous in the last 30 years is called “Sheilaism”. It is named after a nurse Sheila Larson. She was interviewed for a book about her religious beliefs and this is what she said. “I believe in God. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…” Sheila went on to say that she bases her decisions on what does and doesn’t “feel right.” Sheila opens the door to over 200 million new American religions, one for each of us.
And none of them would ask anything of us. Johnism and Bettyism, and certainly Tashaism, they would ask nothing of us. We would just do what feels right to us and trust our own little voice.
But here’s the thing: I have learned that I am completely untrustworthy. These are not words you want to hear from your pastor! Let me explain. It was a few years ago when it finally hit me that I could not be trusted. Imagine this scenario with me: I would consider going to the gym and my initial response was that it wouldn’t help, wouldn’t feel good, wouldn’t be worth it. Yet, if I did go, I would discover that all of my first responses were wrong. Now you would think that the next time an opportunity to exercise offered itself I would jump at it, right?! Wrong. My first response never changed, even with mounting evidence to contradict it. I have found I do this all the time, not just with the gym. At the end of a long day I will consider, should I call that friend to catch up? My little voice says, “You are too tired. You will catch them at a bad time. It won’t be relaxing.” But when I call I find out I was wrong. I told you, I am completely untrustworthy!
If I relied on my own little voice, I would never move my body and I would never speak to anyone!
How would your life go if you always followed your first instinct?
Because James is pretty sure we are all this way. That our own little voice will not lead us home, it will lead us astray. To the voice that says the poor are just leeches, Jesus reshapes us saying, “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To the voice that says we aren’t worth anything, Jesus molds us saying, “Even the hairs on your head are counted.” To the voice that says we can’t do anything, can’t make any change in this world, Jesus pounds on us saying, “You are the salt of this earth. You are the light in this world.” If you follow your own way, a way that asks nothing of you, James asks, “Can that kind of faith save you?” Can the kind of faith that asks nothing of you, that demands no change, that lets you just do what comes naturally to you, that has no fruit; can that kind of faith save you?
It comes down to this: do we believe that God’s view for this world is the same as our view? If we do, then we do not need molding and pounding into a new shape. But if we do not believe they are the same view, God’s and ours, then we must seek out a faith that is open to making us look different. One that is open to making us act different. That is what James means by works. Our works show that we are letting our view be reshaped by God’s view. They don’t save us but following God’s voice and not our own will be our salvation! James takes as his focus how we handle the poor and the rich. He recognizes that it is our natural inclination to honor the rich and hold them up, and it is also natural to distance ourselves from the poor. Our own little voice would tell us it just feels right. But James is clear: God says your initial response is not right. In fact, God pushes us to do the opposite of what feels natural. He honors the poor so we are never to dishonor them. God answers need so we are never to look away from need either.
If our faith is in God, then we cannot rely on our own intuition. We have to follow, as best we can, what he says. And that following will make us act differently than we naturally would. This is a matter of death and life, this acting differently from our nature. Sheilaism, or Tashaism, it won’t ask anything of us but it won’t give any life either. Left to our own devices, we are untrustworthy creatures who will choose the ways of death. The way of Jesus is the way to life. His way will not be our natural inclination or often match the little voice in our head. Instead, faith in him will ask everything of us. But, through it, we will finally be alive. Amen.