James 1:22-25; James 2:14-20
We can be gullible when we see advertisements for little gadgets and timesavers. You know what I mean – the electric waffle-boat makers, the inflatable massage chairs, the Flowbees and Garden Weasels and Clappers – things we never knew we needed until the cable shopping channels told us that we couldn’t live without them. In most cases, what happens to this stuff after we buy it? If it doesn’t break, we use our earwax camera/cleaner two or three times before it gets pushed into the back of a closet or the corner of the garage with the rest of the junk we couldn’t live without. Last week’s novelty is forgotten just in time for this week’s ads, with a new hoard of debris guaranteed to make our lives easier, richer, and more convenient. Sometimes we’re so busy looking ahead to what we don’t have, we don’t take the time to enjoy, or put to good use, what we already do have.
The same can be true of God’s word. Are we living an active life of faith with the resources we’ve been given, or do we wait to act and move, thinking that we don’t have enough faith or understanding to really make a difference? Many of us in the church sit on our hands, thinking to ourselves, “I need more knowledge. I need to know God is real. I need a sign. I need more. I can’t do anything with my faith until I have more assurance.”
The book of James is concerned with this issue – the danger of spending all of our time acquiring faith and knowledge without taking time to put them into practice. Let’s read what James has to say:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?
Our Protestant tradition has an old document called the Heidelberg Catechism, which says that there is only one way that we can get right with God. One way – only by true faith in Jesus Christ. It goes on to say that all we need to do is accept the gift of God, Christ himself, with a believing heart. Then James comes along and argues that faith is not enough. He tells us three times that faith without works is dead. Useless! (2:20) He says that a person is made right with God by what one does, not by faith alone (2:24). Is James going against the rest of the NT and the teachings of the church? Is he suggesting that what we do is more important than our faith in Christ? We need to understand two key words to understand where James is taking us: faith and deeds.
For James, there are two kinds of faith. The first kind is found in churches all over the world. It is professed by people who consider themselves Christians. They have an intellectual understanding of faith. They know the right things to say. They can give approved answers to life’s questions. They can even worship with real feeling. They problem is that their brand of faith stops there. Their faith consists of knowledge and advice. Their faith may be intellectually stimulating and emotionally fulfilling on a personal level. But, James says that having only religious head knowledge is dead faith.
The other kind of faith demonstrates itself in action. The person with this faith has head knowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior. She has the assurance of a relationship with God through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. But, she’s not content with mere head knowledge. She finds ways to express her faith through loving actions. This is not dead faith. It’s an authentic faith that finds its expression in works of love.
James does not cancel out the rest of the NT. He’s actually completing it. Saving faith in Jesus Christ is the requirement to be right with God. But this kind of faith can’t stand on its own. It has to move toward expression. Good deeds and loving actions must follow.
To drive the point home, James offers the image of a mirror, as we heard in the first reading. James insists that we should not just hear or believe God’s word as is if it were an intellectual exercise. We are to put it into practice. He compares this to a man who looks at his face in the mirror. The man doesn’t just take a hasty glance. He looks at himself with careful observation and attentive scrutiny. He systematically studies his face and becomes thoroughly familiar with all of its features. Then, as the man turns from the mirror he immediately forgets what he looks like. Even though he studies his face, we can’t remember any of its features. James compares this man to the person who listens to scripture with great attention and at length. This person studies God’s word and understands what he hears. He knows what God expects. But as soon as he’s done studying, he forgets what he learned. The word of God has no impact on his daily life. The purpose of seeking truth is not to gain theoretical knowledge, but to live it out. The person who looks into God’s word with penetrating absorption and puts it into practice will be blessed.
James offers another image just as silly as the mirror. Imagine a couple in the church that is in dire need. They don’t have food or clothes. James over-exaggerates their condition by calling them naked – without proper food and clothing to make it through the day. They are desperate for physical help. So, a fellow church member comes by, sees the couple, and is obviously aware of their need. The church member says, “I wish you well, go in peace.” It’s as if the person walks by and says, “You poor people. I’ll pray for you. By the way, you should really get dressed and get yourself something to eat.” James asks, “What good is this? Faith without action is outrageous nonsense.”
Lukewarmness and indifference invalidate any claim to authentic faith. It is vital that we engage ourselves with the world and live our faith. How expressive is your faith? Does your belief in Jesus Christ and your awareness of God’s love make a difference in the lives of those around you? What a challenge for parents. Parents, your children wait to see your faith expressing itself in action. Remember this old phrase: Do as I say, not as I do? Children don’t need to our lifestyles contradict our words.
What a challenge to students. They know they cheapness of talk. They clearly see the hypocrisy of words that aren’t balked up by actions. They stand arm-in-arm with James who says, “Show me your faith.”
What a challenge for our friends who scrutinize our lives to see if pious words and religious knowledge is matched with live in action.
Let me leave you with a little story. An old Scotsman operated a little rowing boat for ferrying passengers about on the water. One day one of the passengers noticed that the man had carved on the blade of one oar the word ‘faith’ and on the other oar the word ‘works.’ Curious as to what this might mean, he asked for an explanation. The old man being a mature Christian, and eager to share his faith, seized this opening. Let me show you, he said. Immediately he discarded one oar and plied the one called “works” and they proceeded to move around in circles. Then he dropped that oar and applied the one called ‘faith’ and the boat went around in circles again – this time in the opposite direction. After this little demonstration, the old man picked up both the oars, faith and works, plying both oars together, and the boat sped quickly over the water. He explained to his passenger, “You see that is the way it is in the Christian life. Dead works without faith are useless, and faith without works is dead, getting you nowhere. But faith and works pulling together makes for safety, progress and blessing.”
People notice when our actions don’t back our beliefs. Our children, our family, our friends, they know when our deeds aren’t in harmony with the faith we proclaim. Deep inside, we know it, too. I want you to remember that tonight many people will go to bed lonely, alienated, isolated, broken, or hungry. They will be sick, sad, and crying out for something or someone to give them the hope that life can be better. Who will point the way to God’s tender love? James urges us to position ourselves in places where we can be the ones to preach our faith at all times, and to use words only when necessary.
What kind of faith do you have? Is it merely intellectual? Is it just warm and emotional? Does it propel you to loving action? My prayer is that we all can live a faith that cares for others with works that measure up to our words, or else, as James painfully reminds us, our faith is dead.