[Second in series: “James’ Facebook Page”]
Today James is posting some controversial stuff on his Facebook page…First he talks about being judgmental and showing favoritism to some people over others. Then he sticks his nose into the “faith vs. works” debate. My guess is that he’s going to get a lot of comments on his Facebook page this week.
This morning I want to deal with the two issues I just mentioned in reverse order. First, let’s talk about faith vs. works; then we’ll see what that has to do with issue of favoritism. There is a relationship between these two issues and I think it will be plainer if we get the “works righteousness” issue out of the way.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV) God offers us our salvation as a free gift of his grace…In fact, there is an apt acronym for this: G-R-A-C-E = “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” Everything we read in Scripture about our salvation leads to this same conclusion – Nothing we can ever do will be good enough to earn God’s grace. Now James, Jesus own brother, comes along and seems to contradict Paul by throwing in this idea of doing good deeds as part of our faith. This apparent contradiction and the way in which we interpret it has muddied the waters of religion for centuries. John Wesley did his best to help us get past this and see what it might really mean for us as Christians living in the world. While many Christians see faith and works as two aspects of Christian living that are opposed to each other, John Wesley had a different interpretation. Wesley taught that faith and good works are united in God’s love. God expressed love for us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We express our response to God’s love through our good deeds, particularly toward those in need. For Wesley, faith and works represent the core of the Christian life – a holistic understanding of life addressing both personal and social aspects. What Wesley taught and what James seems to be saying is that – Yes, we receive our salvation as a free gift from God without regard to our worthiness to receive it. However, the flip side of that coin is that we are then expected to behave differently because we have accepted this great gift.
In the contemporary church, being a Christian is often presented as a technique for happiness and prosperity, a helpful way of getting what we want. In James, Christians suffer because they follow Jesus; they are challenged and inconvenienced. In much of the church throughout the ages, salvation is something that you believe or feel. In James, salvation is when you walk and talk like Jesus; James seeks a practical, congregational response to the One who commanded, “Follow Me.”
When you examine Paul’s writings throughout his life you will notice that he too calls his readers to respond by acting more like Jesus. He may tell the Ephesians that salvation comes through faith alone and not because of good deeds, but he teaches that we must also transform our lives and behave differently because of our salvation. Listen to this phrase from one of Paul’s most famous writings: “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2b) Even Paul says that faith is not enough if we do not love and we do not love if we do not care for one another as Jesus commanded.
Which brings back to James, who writes: “My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith?” Before we leave this topic I want to be very clear – This IS NOT a proclamation of a “works righteousness” doctrine. We teach and accept without doubt that our salvation is accomplished only through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Nothing we can ever do is able to earn us our place in heaven. Salvation is offered to everyone as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus. That’s it…Period. What we are saying is that transformation is the result of our salvation. When we accept God’s gift and place our faith in Jesus, then we are expected to change the way in which we live. It is this expectation that leads us to do the good works that allow our faith to live and grow and make a difference in the world. Without this transformation our faith will surely wilt and whither and become lifeless. If we allow this to happen we risk losing our faith and our connection God and ultimately our hearts become hardened. So, now that we understand this concept, let’s go back to the first issue we raised…
James’ caution about being judgmental and showing favoritism to some people over others. If we understand that what we do – good works – has an impact on our salvation, then we can better understand why this topic is so important to James. When we show favoritism in the church, we violate everything that Jesus taught. Did he not tell us, “Go and do likewise,” when he told us of the Good Samaritan? Did Jesus not say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”? And surely we remember his words in John’s gospel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” Jesus was very egalitarian and his teachings condemn any behavior that looked like favoritism. Discrimination and prejudice are words that may ring more true in our vocabulary. What James says is this:
“My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others.” In other words, the proof that you are truly saved, that you have really accepted Jesus as the Savior and perfecter of your life, then the way you treat other people will reflect that.
It is not by your works that you earn your faith; rather, it is by your faith that you demonstrate God’s love through the things you do every day. I believe that this message is consistent from Jesus through Paul and through James…True faith in Jesus Christ is practical faith in action. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.