James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18
“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”
Last Sunday we started reading the letter of St. James, and today we read from the second chapter.
One thing you can say for sure, James does not pull any punches. He tells it like it is.
In the first section, verses 1-5, James wrote to warn the church about favoritism. Do we look with more favor on someone who comes into our assembly with fine cloths and jewelry, and do we look with scorn on the poorly dressed?
I think that here in our little church, we are not quick to judge a person by their clothing or their jewelry. I remember the church of my youth, though, when all the men wore nice suits, and the ladies wore nice dresses, and sometime gloves and hats.
We had a picture book of parishioners made when I was pretty young, and I had this really cool Madras jacket that I wore for my picture. It was very colorful, as I recall, and I had a big smile on my face in that photo.
I’m not certain I ever saw a poor person in that old church! I’m sure they came to the office during the week looking for handouts, and other help, but I did not notice them on Sunday. It might have been that the ushers would intercept them at the door, but I don’t know that.
I have heard some stories about how people have been scorned for their clothing choices by the pastor or the ushers at other churches, but since the cultural revolution set in, the standards for clothing has become very relaxed.
There are still a few who do put on their “Sunday best” and I do appreciate you! On the other hand, this little church is accepting of a variety of styles of dress.
I can imagine that in the days the letter of James was written, most Christians were used to wearing their finest clothes in the church, and while it looks nice, it becomes too easy to judge others who don’t go all out. Perhaps it was the very religious converts to Christianity who came to the church with a concept of a social ladder.
The important point is that all may receive the riches of the Kingdom of God, and even as Jesus himself became poor for the sake of others, perhaps we can be poor in spirit so as to identify with those who are poor indeed.
In the second section of the letter, James wrote that we are to fulfill the royal law according the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This seems to indicate that James had access to one of the Synoptic Gospels, probably that of St. Mark, who in chapter 12 records the words of Jesus when asked about the greatest of the Laws of Moses.
James, who seems to be particularly harsh, wrote: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
Eugene Peterson’s Bible commentary, The Message, puts it this way, “Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgement every time.”
Verse 14 in the third section of our reading this morning begins thus: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?”
This statement by James has caused a lot of stress among the commentators of the Biblical world.
St. Paul wrote in several places that justification was by faith alone, not works of the Law.
Martin Luther wrote about his objection to the letter of James, stating that faith alone was necessary for salvation. He contended that works were not necessary, because they were related to the Law of Moses, which does rely on works.
Today, commentators generally agree that James was not really writing against St. Paul’s opinion on justification by faith, but against what others had written twisting the words of St. Paul.
St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2; 8, 9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Some who read St. Paul’s letters came to the idea that they were saved by grace, and they didn’t have to do anything, like care for the poor and the widows. This is what St. James objected to.
We heard this morning his opinion on the matter: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
But in fact, St. Paul’s idea of faith was much more than intellectual belief. It was the total surrender of oneself to the Lord, as the old self was dead, and the new self was alive in Christ Jesus. Good works naturally flow out of this kind of faith.
The lesson for us, then, is that if our faith is truly alive, and we are alive in Christ Jesus, then we are guided into good deeds by the Spirit of Christ within us.
We give to the poor, mostly through the outreach of this church, and we donate food to the pantry, and we donate old clothes and jackets. We use our resources to help others. That is what makes us at St. John the Divine a lively church. We show our faith by our good works to the needy of this world.
We don’t do these things to earn our place in heaven, but we do it because of the love that Jesus has for us that naturally overflows to others.
As St. Paul wrote,
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Amen.