Both & And

The morning Scripture:   James 2: 14-17     

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

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This week, the Book of James is so blunt, it is scary.  James is so straightforward, and his clarity is meant to cause every one of us to examine our hearts.  James is going to tell us that the faith we have in Jesus Christ is a guarantee that we will be changed.  Having faith in Jesus is so life-changing that we will be completely different after professing faith in Him.  We will become more Godly if we have faith in Jesus, and if we do not see that change in our lives, we have a real reason to examine our hearts to see if we actually have a life changing faith or not.

Now this kind of conversation is incredibly dangerous while simultaneously being incredibly true.  Let me explain the dangerous part.  Christians loves to beat up other Christians and we like to use language like, “Don’t be a fake Christian” or “Be the same Christian outside that you are at home”.  And though I do encourage us all to be the same person out and about that we are at home, often that kind language is used by scared parents to control their kids, or it used by the self-righteous to make other people feel bad.  Instead, the truth that real faith causes real change should be a cause for hope. Biblically, we see many examples of that change.  Moses from murderer to leader.  Paul from murderer to missionary.  Peter from arrogance to preacher. 

Your faith in Jesus’ goodness is a promise that He will gradually and continually conform your life to look like His.  That’s what salvation is.  It is not just, “forgive me.”  It is “change me.”  If we are struggling with a temptation or a sin, don’t think, “Oh no.  I’m not a Christian.”  Instead think, “There is a real, promised hope from God that I am going to grow in trusting Jesus and overcome this sin.  I have a real and lasting hope.”  Getting to that point though is hard.  And not struggling with or abusing people with self-righteousness isn’t easy either, so let’s walk gently, but trust God in great faith.  Towards that end, we are going to pursue this Big Idea this week.  Big Idea:  Faith without works is Dead

Today’s message is focused on four simple, yet powerful verses in the second chapter. These versus from James directs us to a question that many Christians seem to struggle with. Is faith alone sufficient for a close relationship with God or should faith be accompanied by works? At a glance this looks like a question any Christian can answer with a simple yes or no. But is it that simple? Jesus dedicated much of his Ministry to answer it. He used parables such as The Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the rich man, The Vine and the Branches to make us aware of both faith and works.

These four versus bring up the tension between faith and works. As we will soon see, these are not two different ways to serve the Living God, but really two combined expressions of challenges on how to walk with Jesus during our lifetime.  James is insisting that faith without works is good for nothing because it cannot save us, Now, some of you might wonder, why did Paul teach that salvation is by faith alone and not by works. But James isn’t saying we are saved by works. He is saying we are saved by faith verified by our works! (James 2:15-16).

What type of works can verify our faith? They are not works such as observing religious rituals or keeping of traditions. But if you want to follow this scripture and you are working to “love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. So, by works James means, treating one another with empathy. Without love, faith is dead and therefore cannot save because love is the only external example of true faith, (James 2:17). Christianity teaches we are saved by faith verified by our works!

An example of the contrasts: Several years ago, there was a very vocal man at the Westminster Rescue Mission. He always carried his Bible with him, and he could give you chapter and verse on any Scripture that you were seeking. However, it seemed to everyone there that this man loved to demonstrate his knowledge and intellectual interpretation of the Scripture, but he did not live by the words he quoted. He did not last very long at the Mission because he could not get along with the other clients.

Many of you have known Steve Hull. He has spoken to us several times and Art Smith and I have known him from our Friday morning’s Men’s Prayer Group. Steve had an audible awakening from God as he returned from a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Steve heard God’s voice to go back to the Dominican Republic and feed the Haitians in the bateys. Of course, Steve argued with God that God had chosen the wrong person, but Steve and Ann Hull were people of deep faith and out of extensive prayer and dialogue with other Christian friends, The Least of These Ministries was born and today thousands of people in the Dominican Republic are being fed.

A living faith is expressed by works motivated by love. Aren’t some of us guilty because we have failed to treat someone with such love at some point in life? Maybe we have shared the good news of Jesus Christ to others when we sensed that it was the right time. Many times, we blame the government and the social programs, for the misfortunes of others in society. but we have not done anything on our own. What shall we do then? We need to treat each other with love because that’s what God expects from us, and that love is best expressed in deeds not speech! Faith and works cannot be separated. Either they coexist in the Christian, or they don’t exist at all, because works are the natural result of faith in God! Where there is faith there are works and without works there is no faith, (James 2:18).

When we read of the life of John Wesley whose heart was strangely warmed at Aldersgate was, from early in his ministry, unflagging in pastoral visits to those in need. Wesley’s scheme for pastoral visitation was for five days visiting those in prison, one day reserved for just children, and Sunday to the poor and elderly.  Christ’s love is extended to all people. In today’s secular society, we are reminded again that Christ’s love is for all —male or female, Muslim, Jew, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or White, or people of other races, young or old, strong or weak, physically able or the physically challenged, brilliant or the mentally challenged, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat — Christ love is available to all!

I would like to leave you with a straightforward method of thinking about what James is saying to us today. The spiritual journey we have as a Christian is both inward and outward. It’s a balanced life. We need both the inward journey of studying the Bible and raising questions that strengthens our lives and deepens our faith. We need the outward journey that moves us into the world to share and experience the grace that God can give to us through the Living Christ.

Here’s what I would like you to do today: ask yourself if you are on an inward journey or an outward journey or both. If you are trying to do the outward acts of mercy and working to set the world right as Jesus wants you to, but you are not engaged in the inward journey of finding God deep in yourself in quietness and prayer and love for God, we are going to fall short. We would just be a do-gooder rather than a Christian. On the other hand, if you are trying to do the inward acts of believing and praying and growing spiritually, but you are not engaged in serving God in the world and working for the justice that reflects his kingdom’s values, then you are going to run out of steam, too. If you are not concerned for the world, you will not find God, because God is all about the world; God is all about justice and mercy and how they get lived out in individuals and in communities and nations. We cannot reach inside and find God unless we are reaching out to find our neighbor.

So, we, as the congregation of Pleasant Grove UMC have to ask, what shall we do? Here are some suggestions: deepen your faith by reading of Scripture and daily prayer and ask yourselves tough questions about your faith. That is what Spiritual Growth is all about. Second, get to know someone who is different from you. Share your life with them and they with you. Your will grow deeper as you pray for them.

Finally, just like we need both hands to clap, our Christian lives also needs both faith and works. Think of your right hand as faith and your left as works. Cut off one and your salvation becomes null and void. Works are not the root of salvation but the fruit. Faith brings a person to salvation and works bring that person to fruitfulness. It’s both and not either or!

Thanks be to God.