Faith and Works

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, 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 2:14-17).
I am preaching this Sunday from James 2, which speaks of the dangers of favoritism, and as noted in the passage above the importance of connecting faith with works. As I shared with the congregation this past Sunday, we make a mistake when we try to interpret James in light of Paul. Paul and James, to me, offer two sides of the question of what it means to be a Christian. For some, the need is grace.  For others, it is a challenge to live differently.

For people whose sense of worth is damaged, and who have been led to believe that they cannot measure up to God's standards or to that of the church. After all, the church can be good at shaming people. In such cases a good dose of grace, and a reminder that we cannot, of our own will, please God, is useful and healing. For others, however, James is a necessary tonic. Bonhoeffer spoke of the danger of cheap grace. James reminds us that true faith will give evidence in the way we live our lives.  That is important, especially right now.We know that the world is watching. They see hypocrisy in our midst. They've seen the reports of sexual abuse by church leaders (and not only among Roman Catholics). They see and hear hateful messages directed at people, especially people on the margins, from pulpits. They turn away in disgust.

The Niebuhrian side of me recognizes the reality that we are all sinners in need of grace. We are not by nature perfect. Even my best efforts will fall short. Nonetheless, that doesn't give me a free pass to act in any way I please. It is good to remember that James makes a claim on us, reminding us of Jesus' addition of the second commandment, drawn from Leviticus 19:18, which declares "You Shall love your neighbor as yourself." This addition on Jesus' part to the Shema is, according to Scot McKnight, an expression of the Jesus Creed.  Only such faith, one that is rooted both in the first command and the second can save us. Scot McKnight puts it this way:

We must also respect what James is saying: there are those who claim faith, who are connected to the community of faith, who confess an orthodox faith, and who may well be supports of the faith, but who do not have works --- and their faith cannot save.  [McKnight, The Letter of James (NICNT), p. 233.]

I do find James challenging, but as I pursue this series of sermons from the lectionary drawn from James, I must disagree with Luther. This isn't an epistle of straw. Instead, it is a word we need to hear. From here, in two weeks, I get to tackle James word about the fiery tongue. That is, I think an important expression of this word about faith and works.  

As a side note, if you have a chance, I would love for you to join us Sunday for worship.  If you can't check out the sermon video, and see what becomes of my reflections.


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