“Keeping Faith Alive”

James 2:1-7, 14-18
Dr. William C. Poe
September 5, 2021 

One of the most popular movie genres these days is the dystopian thriller. Life is threatened by a runaway comet, a giant tsunami, a zombie apocalypse, a worldwide pandemic, or a combination of disasters. Usually, a large number of mostly anonymous people perish, and the protagonists, for whom we have come to care, either win the day or sacrifice themselves to save everyone else. 

Our passage from the Letter of James has had me thinking about dystopian scenarios. 

What if our congregation were set in a culture that was dedicated to the eventual death of the Christian faith — not by physical persecution, necessarily, but by more patient, and perhaps more subtle means? What if no new church buildings were permitted? What if we were prevented from printing any Christian literature, including Bibles? What if two ministers could not even speak to one another on the street without a permit, and congregations could not hold Sunday School for children under 18? What if being a Christian meant you couldn’t be a teacher in the public schools or hold any professional position? What if being a Christian meant your children had little chance of receiving any higher education? What if some Christians so twisted and mangled the teachings of Jesus that they were actively doing and supporting non-Christian teachings and actions? 

Even though the church’s influence in our society has been waning in recent years, what if it were projected to be gone in a couple of generations? 

Well, for at least some, this situation would raise a prior question – whether or not to be a Christian! But that’s not the question I’m headed for. I want to ask a different question. If all our usual means of communication were closed to us, would we survive as a Christian community or would we wither and die? How would we go about proclaiming the gospel? How would we testify to God’s love in Jesus Christ? 

Those questions may sound academic, but in some parts of the world-wide Church (and some would say, even right here), these are real issues. Can the Christian faith survive, and perhaps even thrive, under adverse circumstances? 

The Letter of James is actually a “no-holds-barred” sermon in letter form. It was relevant to the people who first heard it, and it is relevant to us today. However, this book of the Bible has often been ignored or misinterpreted. Sooner or later, you will run into someone who will tell you that James and the Apostle Paul are in direct conflict and that James says we are saved by our works, and Paul says we are saved by our faith. 

The truth is that the differences between James and Paul are largely differences in emphasis and vocabulary. Both James and Paul believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone. Both James and Paul say that good works — the works of love — are essential to the Christian life. Paul emphasizes God’s grace and teaches that it is through faith that we receive God’s gift of new life. James stresses what the reception of this gift is intended to do in changing the way we live. 

The debate sometimes centers around the question of “what part God plays” in our salvation and “what part we play,” if any. On the one hand, there is the view that we are saved solely by God’s grace, a freely given gift, and all we have to do is to receive the gift. This view recognizes that we aren’t capable of saving ourselves. But this truth often gets twisted, and moves from the valid position “that by God’s grace alone we are saved, and not by works, lest anyone should boast,” to the position that says, “It doesn’t really matter what I do, so long as I believe certain theological propositions.” This twisting of the truth robs the gospel of its power and frees us only for a “Jekyll & Hyde” split between our Sunday words about the love of God and our weekday attitudes and actions. It is a convenient lie: it stresses the content of the faith without any form. James says that it’s like seeing an injustice done or seeing someone in need and saying that you’re sending “thoughts and prayers.” While I would never seek to discount the power of positive thoughts and fervent prayers, if you don’t follow them up by finding a way to meet the need that is staring you in the face or seeking to right the injustice, then, as James says, “[your] faith without works is dead.” 

On the other side is the view that we somehow have to earn our salvation. This view holds that we can win God over by our good works, by “works righteousness.” The problem with this position is all the different works that people believe will do the trick. In some cases, the list is mostly negative: don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t dance, don’t whatever. In other cases, good works may mean nothing more than observing certain rituals. 

For example, let’s say you decide that the good work necessary for salvation is faithful attendance at a weekly service of worship, which, in itself, is a good thing. In that service, you hear the words, “God is love,” “Love one another as I have loved you,” and 

“But if you have the world’s goods and see others in need, yet you close your hearts against them, how does God’s love abide in you?” (1 John 3:17) You pray a prayer of personal confession, seeking God’s mercy for yourself, and you receive the good news: “You are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” 

But, since you have decided that the important good work is simply being in attendance at the service, you may fail to see any connection at all between the words you hear and your attitudes and actions. This view, too, is a convenient lie, because it stresses the form of the faith without the content. 

So, both of these views bring us to the same place — avoiding the implications of servant discipleship. Yet, at the same time, both views contain important truth. We are saved freely by God’s grace. No amount of even the best, most love-motivated acts of human caring can earn that free gift for us. We can’t put God in our debt. On the other hand, being a disciple of Christ means learning from Jesus and living according to the example of his active love for all people. It means giving form to the content of the faith. This is what James is talking about when he says: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” 

Why is faith without works dead? Well, one reason might be that, if we don’t live according to what we say we believe, then we probably don’t really believe it! 

So, how do we bring this important Scriptural insight down to where we are today? Well, this congregation is doing important work to put its beliefs into action through Meals on Wheels, the Caring Place, Brookwood in Georgetown, Backpack Buddies, Presbyterian Disaster Relief, and many, many more. Monetary gifts and gifts of time and actual work are also given. Many of us see the faces of need, and it’s not a far-off thing, but right here. 

Scripture calls us to care for the most vulnerable, whether it’s the residents of the local subsidized housing project, or the homeless man who has been sleeping on the church’s porch, or the unvaccinated children in our Sunday School. We can try to ignore that call, or rationalize it away, but it remains. 

One of our Presbyterian faith statements says it this way: 

We believe God sends us 

to risk our own peace and comfort 

in compassion for our neighbors. . . . 

In the end, the Lord will judge all persons 

by the simple, unremembered acts of kindness 

they did or failed to do 

for the least of their sisters and brothers. 

James has it right: faith without works is dead. We are called to live out our faith in such a way that the works of love which are done through us point unerringly to the God who in Jesus Christ never stops loving us. This is the God who has acted to save us, not just for life eternal, but for this life, too. 

And that’s the kind of love we are called to live in the world. Without it, our faith is empty, and may be the most effective witness against our faith. With it, our inheritance begins now, and life on this earth moves toward what God has always intended for all God’s children — life abundant, life eternal. 

About Dr. William C. Poe