Sermon for Sunday, September 9, 2018 || Proper 18B || James 2:1-17
Our second lesson today came from the Letter of James. I’ve always been attracted to the Letter of James, especially its understanding of faith and works. This short, five chapter letter is the only writing we have from this particular source, identified as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” From the early days of Christianity, tradition held this James was the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Early non-biblical witnesses report James’s martyrdom sometimes in the 60s A.D. which would place this letter around the same time as the writings of Paul.
I like the letter of James because of how forthright and direct it is. James does not pull any punches. He tells you exactly what’s on his mind without any beating around the bush. But accounting for the entirety of Christian history, I am in the minority. The Letter of James has often been maligned, most famously by Martin Luther who said James contained “nothing but straw.” The reason for Martin Luther’s disdain is that the Letter of James ran counter to Luther’s understanding of “justification by faith alone,” which Luther derived from the writings of Paul.
Luther tended to ignore the Letter of James because of the final verses of today’s second reading: James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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.”
These verses have no place within Martin Luther’s paradigm because, for Luther, faith alone was enough to be justified before God. In Luther’s day, his critique made sense given the Church’s embarrassing history of selling salvation in order to enrich the Church’s coffers. One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was bringing the believer into direct relationship with God, without the Church as intermediary. Because the Church had appointed itself the adjudicator of what constituted “works,” Luther built his paradigm to exclude such “works.” And this paradigm has withstood the test of time.
So for the last five hundred years, the dichotomy between faith and works has been a perennial issue within and among the various expressions of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. But from my point of view – and remember, I really like the Letter of James – this dichotomy that separates faith from works is an artificial construction.
The fundamental argument has always centered around whether you can earn salvation or whether salvation is a symptom of faith. But this is the wrong set of premises to start with. We need to take a step back and start earlier in the process. We need to start with God, not with ourselves. We believe that God is the Faithful One, the One in whom we can place our trust. Holy Scripture is full to bursting with passages proclaiming God’s faithfulness, God’s steadfastness. The book of Psalms returns to this refrain several times: “For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds” (57:10). In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (3:3-4a).
Because God’s very nature is faithful, one of the gifts God showers upon us is the gift of faith. This faith is available to everyone, everywhere, at every time, in every circumstance. This faith is not something we generate within ourselves as a function of will power or thought experiments. This faith is our recognition of God’s great faithfulness working in our lives. Therefore, our faith is not really ours at all, but a participation in God’s faithfulness, in God’s constant and continual creative energy, which sustains all things.
When we view faith not as a commodity or as a quantity, but as the inviting force that compels our participation in God’s mission, then faith flows naturally into “works.” Works is a shorthand description of all the myriad ways God calls us to live out our faith. God yearns for us to live out our faith both in our actions and in our being, that is, in the ways we choose to inhabit this world.
Our faith might compel us to sit in silence in the morning listening for the movement of Holy Spirit. Our faith might compel us to stand against injustice or to advocate for the eradication of poverty. Our faith might compel us to step outside our comfort zones and expand our understandings of God’s children who look or act or believe differently than we do. Our faith might compel us to open the Bible and drink in the wisdom of Jesus’ words.
However our faith manifests in our works, such works are always the natural consequence of God’s faithfulness reigning in our lives. Our works do not earn us any points in the ledger of salvation because that ledger does not exist. Our works are simply the byproduct of our participation in the faithfulness of God. When James says faith without works is dead, it is his stark and no-nonsense way of indicting his audience for paying lip service to God’s faithfulness, but never participating in it.
Now, Martin Luther was not wrong in insisting on the primacy of faith, nor did he forbid his followers from doing acts of mercy and charity. Again, his argument against so-called “works righteousness” was about the commodification of works. Indeed, Luther and James agree, I think, about the faithfulness of God activating our lives of faith. For truly, the first of our works is saying “Yes” to a faithful relationship with God. We are only capable of saying “Yes” to God because God first said “Yes” to us. And this divine “Yes” is underwritten by that unshakeable trust of our God, whose steadfast love is as high as the heavens and whose faithfulness extends to the clouds.