Scripture: James 2:14-26
Earlier this week, I came upon a social media post that criticized the Christian church. The author talked about the number of people, buildings, and dollars that belong to the church, and he called it, “quite an impressive empire on planet earth.” But then he went on to ask what this Christian empire has actually accomplished. He said that we haven’t made a dent in the suffering that plagues our planet. And then he said that organized Christianity has corrupted the message of Jesus. Now, I did a little digging, and I discovered that the author of the post is a humanist who writes about leaving behind organized religion. So he clearly has an agenda. But I have to admit that I think there’s some truth behind what he’s saying.
We Christians have been walking the planet for two thousand years. And I’d like to think that the world is ultimately a better place because we’re here. But the truth is, there’s often a disconnect between what we say we believe and how we act. We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and promise to serve him as our Lord. But that doesn’t always translate into living lives that are patterned after him. According to one scholar, “There’s something deep inside humans that leads them to presume that knowing the right truth or holding the right position is enough to make them righteous.” In other words, sometimes we get so focused on talking the talk, that we fail to walk the walk. And when that happens, we sell our faith short. When that happens, our faith is incomplete.
And that’s what James is talking about in our Scripture passage today. He asks the question, “What good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it?” And then he describes how absurd it would be if we said to two naked and hungry people, “Good luck to you! Stay warm and have a nice meal!” but then we didn’t actually do anything to help them stay warm or find something to eat. You see, James is urging Christians to stop that disconnect between what we say we believe and how we act. If we SAY we’re followers of Jesus, then we should actually DO the things that Jesus taught us to do. Faith is dead, James says, when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
But I think we have to be careful about how we talk about that faithful activity. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have this judgy voice in my head that likes to tell me all the ways I’m not doing enough. Maybe it sounds a little bit like that humanist who criticizes the church. But that voice likes to give me a guilt trip every now and then about how I’m not reading my Bible enough. Or I’m not spending enough time in prayer. Or I’m not doing enough to help others. That voice of not-enough is a powerful shame agent.
So perhaps it’s important to ask ourselves WHY we’re doing what we’re doing. What’s our motivation? Are we reading our Bible because we feel like we need to earn points with God? Are we trying to work our way into heaven by racking up time spent in prayer? Are we volunteering at the soup kitchen so that others will think we’re a good Christian? Are we doing a bunch of stuff just so we can feel like we’re doing enough?
The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, was worried about those motivations, too. He thought that James was peddling a faith in which we have to earn our salvation by following the law. What James called “faithful activity,” Luther called, “works righteousness.” He thought that James was contradicting the Apostle Paul’s teaching that we’re only saved by faith in Jesus Christ. And if that were the case, then Luther would be right. If we have to work for our salvation, we will never be good enough and we’ll never do enough.
But in the words of author Sarah Bessey, “We aren’t here to work and earn our way; we aren’t pew fodder or a cog. We aren’t here to prove how worthy we are for the saving. There isn’t anything left to earn. [God] doesn’t devour all our talents, our gifts, our mind, our love, or our energy but redeems them and brings us joy in the practice of them.”
And indeed, with all due respect to Luther, I think that redemption and joy are more of what James had in mind when he talked about faithful activity. Some scholars have pointed out that James isn’t talking about earning salvation or works of the law at all. He’s talking about works of faith. James points to Abraham and Rahab as examples–not of earning their salvation–but of demonstrating the faith that they already have. When Abraham offered up his son on the altar in Genesis 22, it was an act of faith. And James says that Abraham’s “faith was made complete by his faithful actions.” In the same way, when Rahab showed hospitality to the Israelite messengers in Joshua, chapter 2, she was demonstrating the faith that she already had. Abraham and Rahab knew redemption and joy, not because they earned it through their actions, but because they expressed their faith through action. And this connection between their faith and action made their faith whole and complete.
Unlike Luther’s “works righteousness,” I think the faithful activity James is talking about is meant to be a natural and joyful expression of our faith. It isn’t meant to be based in shame, or motivated by what others might think. And it certainly isn’t meant to be a way of earning God’s favor. After all, we’ve already received God’s grace. But our faith is made whole and complete when we joyfully put our faith into action.
Sarah Bessey reflects on making this shift in her own life. She says, “So those things we do in this life? Great. Wonderful. Good on us. But I’m learning to just go and do them simply because I love to do them and I love to do them with Immanuel [who is God-with-us]. I’m learning to let them be the natural consequences of the sacred company I keep, but those things aren’t my identity. They’re not my pathway to God, or my status updates to the Most High, my progress reports, my way of proving my gratitude. I’m co-creating with God in my life, and it all matters–from the visible to the invisible.”
So perhaps our task is to let go of the critical voices in our heads and the critical voices on social media, and focus on being co-creators with God. But of course, this will look different for each of us. The late theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote, “There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than that of Society, say, or the Super-Ego, or Self-Interest. [...] The place God calls you to,” Buechner says, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Recently I read an article about an organization called “Loose Ends.” Loose Ends matches volunteer knitters, quilters, and other crafters with projects that were left unfinished when their creator died or became disabled. The organization was founded last year when two friends finished knitting projects for others who weren’t able to complete them and then got a request for another. “They looked online, assuming they’d find a network that offered assistance.” But when they didn’t find one, they decided to create it themselves. Since they launched the program, they’ve matched more than 600 unfinished blankets, tapestries, mittens, quilts, and doilies with crafters who can complete them. One of the founders said, “The most fulfilling thing for me, so far, has been watching strangers take care of each other’ without regard for politics, religion, or other sometimes divisive identities. ‘It’s an opportunity to relate on a human level through a shared desire to bring comfort.” These folks have found the place where their deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
So what about you? Where does your deep gladness meet the world’s deep hunger? Perhaps it IS at the local soup kitchen. Or maybe it’s tutoring at a local school. Maybe it’s mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, or driving for Meals on Wheels. Perhaps you’re not able to get out and about, but you find joy in sending uplifting notes to others, or in praying for the needs of the world. In the end, I think the where and how are less important than the why. In the end, the important thing is that we’re co-creating with God as an expression of our faith and we’re finding joy in the process.
And what about the results? Should we be able to point to a list of our accomplishments and show how we’ve changed the world? Well, maybe, but not because some guy on the internet said so. Part of the work of faith is trusting that our faithful actions are enough; trusting that the God with whom we co-create is able to take what we offer and do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine. After all, Christ has already changed the world once and for all. It’s our joy to point to his faithful action as we go about our own. Amen.