2021-09-05 the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Everyone has aches and pains, right? When you’re little, you have “growing pains” - those dull aches that tell you you are getting taller. When you’re older, you’ve got pain in everything else in varying degrees telling you that you’ve grown too old! But who, may I ask, when you’re feeling rough and writhing in pain walks over to the medicine cabinet, opens it up, looks at the bottle of Tylenol or Advil and says “I really believe this medicine will help me!”, breathes a big sigh of relief, then closes the cabinet and walks away. Anybody ever do that? Probably not, right? Why? Because you’d be a total dunce, number one. And number two, because you actually have to take the medicine to feel better – belief is always accompanied by action or else it’s useless. It’s like having a state of the art nuclear submarine – with screen door in the side! It’s ridiculous!
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them,”Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14-16). This is the wisdom of St. James the Just. He was the Bishop of Jerusalem and he lived a very strict spiritual life. He prayed every day in the Temple so much that he was teased about being “Camel-Kneed!” He was a very devout believer and followed the Law of Moses even better than most of the hardcore Jewish believers. Unfortunately, St. James was executed at the prompting of the Jewish council called the Sanhedrin, by being thrown from the temple walls and then being bludgeoned to death. We remember St. James on October 23rd in the church calendar.
But it is his letter that we have before us today. It’s really more of a sermon than it is a letter. As usual, there was something not right in the church and St. James wrote to try and fix the problem. This letter is addressed to the pockets of Christian believers that were scattered throughout the ancient world. But what was the problem? What was the dilemma worthy of writing a letter? Basically, it was what scientists call “deadbeat Christianity” – people who want to reap all the rewards with no effort or responsibility on their part. They treat God like a cow, gladly taking the milk and meat and fertilizer of forgiveness, life and salvation but refusing to do the actions that accompany the gifts. Our beloved Martin Luther especially objected to St. James’ letter. He called it “an epistle of straw” because it didn’t line up with his battle against the legalism of Rome. And as such, Lutherans have been accused of preaching a “cheap grace” ever since. We really like the cow and the benefits, just don’t ask us to milk it, kill it or shovel up after it!
I honestly believe that the unintended outcome of Luther’s belittling of St. James’ letter is that many Lutheran congregations have come to resemble the people that St. James originally wrote his letter to! That is to say, that perhaps many of us believe with our minds that God is gracious and rich in mercy, will forgive us when we sin and do wrong, confess that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that Baptism now saves us, but they don’t give a rat’s posterior about their neighbour or living as God wants us to live. Somehow our understanding of salvation has come to resemble a “faith without works.”
It might be the explanation for why our pews seem to be rather scarce Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. It might explain why many church budgets are lacking or in the red all the while the church members drive fancy new trucks and cars around. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” St. James bluntly asks all who would hear his words. The short, cold answer is “nope.” There is no way that “that faith” can or will save the person. Because that faith is dead. The faith that saves on the other hand is a complete faith, not just believing with the mind or confessing with the tongue, but the whole person trusting in the Living God. This means that our faith and our relationship with God are dynamic and living. Our justification is alive. Our faith grows and changes us and our actions, or it dies. It’s as simple as that. Faith alone, that is a lonely, static faith, does not save.
St. James speaks specifically about the church members judging others and giving preferential treatment to them. That is, when rich people came into the Liturgy on Sunday, they were given the really nice and cushy seats. But if poor people came in, they were told to stand over there in the corner or be seated in a place somewhere low on the totem pole. They were guilty of allowing worldly statuses into the church. This is crazy but still takes place even today. Instead of seeing each other as we ought to: as poor, miserable sinners equally redeemed by God’s grace, we see money or poverty, we see nice clothes or shabby ones, we see vaccinated or un-vaccinated! This was a major problem when St. James wrote his letter. Yet here we are, some 2000ish years later and we are still filled with the same vile thoughts towards one another based on worldly matters. This letter is a call to repentance.
A family showed up to the only available campsite left in the campground. Once the Suburban parked, immediately the four children burst out and began feverishly unloading their camping gear and setting up their tent. The boys rushed off and got the kindling and the firewood while the girls and their mother setup the camp stove and cooking utensils. “Never in all my days have I seen such teamwork!” the camper in the nearby site shouted. The father grinned back. “I have a system.” He said. “Nobody goes to the bathroom until the camp is setup!”
This funny little story is the wrong way of understanding works in the Christian life. It’s a very Roman Catholic way of looking at things. “I have to do all this stuff before I can go to the bathroom. I have to do all this stuff before God will give.” This is what Luther was fighting against. However, we should instead see faith and works in a harmony like that of breathing. Faith is taking the Gospel in; works is taking the Gospel out. You can’t have one without the other and if you do, there’s a problem of dire consequence. Once again, I come back to the great prophet - Jonny Cash. We’ve got to “walk the line” with faith and works! We need to desperately and eagerly with the help of God’s Spirit seek a faith that is rich and living and overflowing with good works of every kind. Not because God needs them, but because our neighbour does.
God has given us the cow and all its benefits: the milk, the meat, the fertilizer. This is the cross and resurrection of Christ and the forgiveness, life and salvation He brings. And He invites us do the good works that go with the gifts – not to earn it, as it has already been given to us, but rather that in doing the works of Salvation, we would continue to grow in grace and help our neighbour in any way that we can. This is precisely what St. James means when he writes “I will show you my faith by my works.” And faith that is overflowing with good works comes from being filled with the richness of God’s grace. Thanks and praise be to our God who fills us with His grace that we may work out our own salvation (Phil 2:12). Amen!