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Text: James 1: 17 – 27
So, Jim Bakker, you remember the televangelist from the 80s? He said that God cannot hear your prayers through masks. He’s also selling Collidal Silver supplements as a cure-all for COVID, because apparently the virus is just like a werewolf.
I’m going to be honest in saying that I am just bewildered by how small the God of fundamentalists seems to be. That a surgical nurse can hear a surgeon through a mask, that the Starbucks barista can hear my overly complicated coffee order through a mask, but the God who heard the cry of Jonah from the belly of the whale and was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the blazing furnace can’t hear you through a mask, and your spiritual connection to Her is weakened by a vaccine.
Everyone seems to be saying, “Well, it’s about trusting God to keep us safe from the virus,” but that God apparently can’t hear you through a mask.
And it isn’t just about masks. It’s about thinking that anything we do can separate us from God. That God wants to reach out to us, but if we don’t follow these rules, do these things, or conversely avoid doing these things, then He just can’t. He’s omnipotent, but can’t save LGBTQ+ people, or people who go to the wrong church, or you if you wear a mask. God apparently can’t connect with us unless the conditions are exactly right; the Holy Spirit can’t break through.
Do we have so little faith in God?
The Epistle of James is my favourite book in the New Testament; and it gives us an opportunity to do a deep dive into exactly what it means to “have faith.”
The United Church is a Protestant church, and as such we nominally affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone; meaning, there is nothing you can do to earn God’s love. There is nothing you can do to earn salvation. They only thing you can do is accept that love through your faith, and that is how you are “justified” before God. Not by works, not by following all the rules of the Law, but by your faith.
Martin Luther put forth this doctrine in response to the practice during his time of selling indulgences; the idea that you could buy forgiveness for your sins from a priest; the money was actually being raised to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the one that’s there now and the Pope lives in and has Michelangelo’s Pieta in it. Luther saw it as exploitative, and it was, so he said that, according to the letters of St. Paul, we are justified not by works but by faith. The only thing you had to do to be saved was believe that you were saved.
But the letter of James has this famous verse in it: “Faith, by itself, without works, is dead.” (2:17) It is scripture, so what do we do with it? It’s challenging, but in a different way.
Luther had this to say about the Epistle of James:
“I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable . . . It does not expound human doctrines, but lays much emphasis on God’s law. Yet, to give my own opinion without prejudice to that of anyone else, I do not hold it I to be of apostolic authorship . . .
“[It] only drives you to the law and its works . . . [the author] calls the law a law of freedom, although St. Paul calls it a law of slavery, wrath, death, and sin. . . .
“In sum: [the author] wished to guard against those who depended on faith without going on to works, but . . . had neither the spirit nor the thought nor the eloquence equal to the task. [The author] does violence to scripture, and so contradicts Paul and all Scripture. [The author] tries to accomplish by emphasizing law what the apostles bring about by attracting [people] to love.”
— Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude
So, James has become somewhat of a battleground over the centuries between Protestants and Catholics. For Catholics, works—particularly confession and repentance—are still needed. The problem is, when Paul talks about works, when James talks about works, and when Luther talks about works, they all mean different things. Likewise, Paul, James, and Luther all mean different things by “faith.” And that’s what I want to dive into: What does faith mean? How can just faith save us?
The Epistle of James and the writings of Paul emerges in a context when Christianity was rapidly growing out from its Jewish roots, spreading to Greek and other Gentile communities. The question emerged, do Gentile converts need to follow all the Jewish rules? Specifically, do we need to follow the ones about dietary restrictions and circumcision? And Paul knew that if the answer was “yes,” not a lot of people would want to become Christian.
So, for Paul, when he says, “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” (Romans 3:28) works to Paul means things like not eating pork and getting circumcised. Faith means following Jesus, being “faithful” to Jesus and to God. Well, of course, in that, we are saved by faith and not by works.
When we say there’s nothing you have to do to be a part of the church community, no standard of behaviour you have to follow, I’m not going to evaluate you and give you a token that lets you come forward for communion, we’re saying the same thing Paul is saying. When I say that there is nothing you can be or not be and nothing you can do or not do to put yourself outside the love of God—not love someone of the same gender, not do drugs, not be poor—I am saying the same thing Paul is saying. I literally use his words from Romans 8 in the words of assurance.
When Martin Luther quoted Paul’s words and used them in his argument against the Roman Catholic Church, works meant to him the buying of indulgences, using money to buy forgiveness; faith meant asking God for forgiveness in your own heart, and making the appropriate changes in your life. Well, of course, in that, we are saved by faith and not by works. I don’t charge anything for those words I say, we don’t ask membership dues to be a part of church, and if there’s something we do feel guilt or shame over, no amount of money is going to buy our way out of it. We need to make changes in our lives.
When James, however, says that we are justified by works and not by faith alone, faith means going to church or synagogue, saying all the prayers, saying you believe in God and in Jesus; works means actually going out and doing the things that faith demands, following all the other commandments, the ones that say “love your neighbour” and “care for the poor and the refugee.” And, in that, of course we are justified not by our “faith” but by our works. They will know we are Christians not by our words, but by our love.
When we say it isn’t enough to come to church, it isn’t enough to wear a cross around your neck, it isn’t enough to give however much to the collection plate, that we have to actually live the love we talk about here, we are saying the same thing James is saying.
Notice something there? It’s as if when Paul and Luther talk about “works,” they mean the same thing James means by “faith,” and when they talk about “faith,” they mean the same thing James means by “works.”
James is an interesting piece of the New Testament. Except for the very beginning , it doesn’t really talk about Jesus. Some scholars think it might have been a Jewish sermon kicking around that someone tacked on the name of one of Jesus’ followers to. Which James it’s referring to—and there are three in the New Testament—is a matter of debate, but generally it’s thought to have been James, the son of Joseph, one of Jesus’ own brothers. But the letter cares deeply about a particularly Christian debate—whether it’s belief alone or are there specific things we have to do to be Christian. To most Jews of the time, that wouldn’t have been a question; you have to follow the Law of Moses. The argument was about interpretation of the Law.
What James calls “true religion” however isn’t correct prayers, isn’t ritual sacrifice, isn’t circumcision. It is “every generous act of giving.” It is “to care for the widows and orphans in their distress.” It is “doing” the word and not just hearing it—being the seed that fell on good soil, to use Jesus’ metaphor.
To quote another reformer, aside from Luther, I quite like what John Calvin said about this passage:
“The doer here is not the same as in Romans 2:13, who satisfied the law of God and fulfilled it in every part, but the doer is he who from the heart embraces God’s word and testifies by his life that he really believes, according to the saying of Christ, “Blessed are they who hear God’s word and keep it,” (Luke 11:28;) for he shows by the fruits what that implanting is, before mentioned. We must further observe, that faith with all its works is included by James, yea, faith especially, as it is the chief work which God requires from us. The import of the whole is, that we ought to labour that the word of the Lord should strike root in us, so that it may afterwards fructify.”
—From Calvin’s Commentary on the New Testament
Faith is the chief work which God asks of us. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? What does it mean to be faithful except for that?
It is easy enough, when the doing becomes too hard, to retreat into the thinking and say, “Well, my intentions are good. I don’t wish harm on others, I wish them well; I wish I could help more but it would be too difficult,” as if wishing to help and actually helping are the same thing of equal value.
It isn’t enough to simply not hate; we must also love deeply and fully. It isn’t enough to not reject; we must go out into the streets and invite when the master sends us. It is not enough to simply wish well; we must reach out with loving arms to help. It is not enough to simply believe in the love of God through Jesus Christ; we have to be that love in the world.
The letter of James is my favourite part of the New Testament because it leads us to a bigger view of faith, instead of a small one that rests on simple “belief.” It opens up to an expansive faith that is not content to sit still, that responds with empathy and compassion to the suffering of the world; a faith that is not built to re-inforce our sense of superiority to others, but instead humbles us and reminds us of our interconnection with all of God’s creation.
That is the only faith that justifies. That is the only faith that saves.
To briefly turn our attention to the Gospel story, what Jesus is calling out in the Pharisees is that they have faith not in God, but in rules and laws. And that’s what Luther objected to in the idea of faith vs. Works. And is that any different than faith not in God but in doctrines, ideas about God, but not God Herself? Which is what James objects to.
Religion is not about rituals and it isn’t about going to church; religio referred to paying proper homage to the gods in Roman society. Threskia in Greek refers to the worship of God. In the context of the Hebrew Bible; the people believed that to properly worship God was to sacrifice your best livestock to an idol or a statue of your god, and that to some degree persisted even into the classical era. But our God said, “Do not make graven images,” because the proper object of worship is not an idol, but the image of God in our neighbour, as all human beings are made in His image.
To allow suffering and oppression is as to allow the idol to be defiled and defaced. Hence, James says, religion that is “pure and undefiled” is to care for the widows and orphans, who are a metaphor for everyone who is underprivileged in society. For us, it is the poor, the addict, the refugee, the outcast.
Faith, Jesus tells us, is not about belief, which is only honouring God with words, not with our very life. Faith is not about believing that God exists, that Jesus is the only Son of God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, etc. Faith is about orienting your very life around what that belief means. Believing in the things Jesus stood for. That is the faith which justifies us before Jesus Christ, our judge and our hope. That is the faith which saves and transforms us for the better, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.