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.
For the next several weeks we will continue to be working with the Letter of James. Tradition says that this letter was written by the brother of Jesus and James was one of the new Christian leaders in the church at Jerusalem. The letter is addressed to Christians everywhere and not to a particular early church. Paul’s letters are to various early churches in the Middle East. The purpose of the Letter of James is to teach Christians how to live Christ-like lives. James gives very practical advice on things like anger and quarreling, showing favoritism, controlling the tongue, boasting, patience and prayer[i]
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?
Briefly 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 definitely 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 actually 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.
And now a personal experience: One of the most defining faith and work experience that Ann and I had was thirty years ago. Even as I prepare this message, the visual memory of the past is quite present. Ann and I went on a Mission Experience trip to Haiti with a group from the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC. It was three weeks long. The plan was simply stated that our experience would be that we would become deeply involved in working with Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity in City Solei in Port-au-Prince. This area of Haiti cannot be expressed in words. None of us have ever experienced the most appalling living conditions that the poorest of the poor have in City Solei. Metal shacks, human sewerage polluting the water that surrounds the shacks. There are no sidewalks – only elevated boards over the polluted water. No electricity and no running water that was drinkable.
We were assigned to the Home for the Destitute and Dying that was run by the Sisters of Charity. At this point, I cannot remember what Ann’s role was, but mine was in the Men’s Aids ward. Each man was lying on a metal cot with only space between the rows. My job was to wear protective gloves and a mask and to rub soothing cream on their bodies. Aids patients in the end-stage always have a fever and their bodies are warm and were sensitive to my touch. But the cream was enriching their bodies and there were smiles on their faces.
Then the passage for today came into play. faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. It was nearing noon and the sisters all moved into the courtyard and they began Mass: The prayers and singing by the Sisters of Charity brought joy to my heart and to the men and women in the home for the Destitute and Dying. I will never forget that scene.
Today’s daily reading from the Church of the Saviour is perfect for us and for me: I have been pondering what it means to have faith. To cultivate a life where I listen with the ear of the heart and act with the conviction that my life is meant to bear witness to Love. But not just me and my life. Each of us born to be a unique expression of divine goodness, beauty, and truth and to join in God’s work of shalom for peace and wholeness. This has been my cry many times as I face the enormity of the challenges in my home and of the world. I am aware of my very real human limitations and fallibility, mixed emotions, and contradictory behaviors. But I know that to practice good faith I must move aside the doubt and feelings of inadequacy. I must cultivate a way of seeing deeper and longer than ordinary sight and thinking. I must lean into my spiritual heart and do what I can to be faithful, trusting that in the big picture God’s got this set for me. Remarkably, being honest about my limitations opens me to my greatest potential in God.
Our friend from the Church of the Saviour, Kayla McClurg said it well: “Jesus reminds us that we are not the masters of God’s purposes, but the servants. We have enough faith to do what is ours to do, to serve what matters. What part of our world’s pain touches the depths of our own brokenness? Where does creation’s struggles for life and meaning touch our own longing? We show our faith in God, in all creation, each time we step toward this place[ii].
A message to PGUMC: 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. But don’t 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 person, 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).
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!
Obviously, the last question we must ask ourselves as the congregation of Pleasant Grove UMC 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.
Thanks be to God.
[i] From the NIV introduction to James
[ii] From “Inward/Outward Together October 1, 2022