The latest New Zealand water safety advert about life jackets I think is very much like James argument about faith and works in the passage we had read out to us today…
The advert is designed to counter a false understanding about life jackets. That if you’ve got one in the boat with you, you’ll be OK. But the add asks ‘ what good does it do you if you just say you’ve got one on-board with you, if it do not take action and put it on you ? Will it save you?James is countering a false teaching that you can claim to have a saving faith in God and not have it change how you live. You can confess faith in God and not show the compassion of God. What good is it to claim to have faith if it doesn’t result in faith deeds? Can such a faith save you?
My friend Nick was a police officer, and he tells the story of going to a manufacturer’s demonstration for bullet proof vests. The officers were shown the science behind the vest, shown video of it being tested, shown testimony of police men whose lives had been saved by wearing the vest, they tried them on to see that they were wearable…and then they were taken to a shooting range and physically shown the vest stopping a bullet. I think they even got to shot off a few rounds at the vests. Then the person running the demonstration asked them if they believed the vest could stop a bullet? And they said yes, yes they did… The manufacturer then asked them again if they really believed it could stop a bullet were they convinced. Yes they were all convinced… he then asked who was going first who was going to be first to put on the vest on walk down the range and take a bullet. Nick said there was stone silence, no one moved, no one volunteered. Their faith had to go beyond the theoretical into the practical.
James tells a different story to illustrate this point, challenging the same issue he has focused on all the way through letter so far. Imagine if one of us comes to church, dressed in rags, cloths that are full of holes, ill-fitting and in need of a wash… and it’s not that they were a Punk rockers from way back… its winter and they are freezing in their thin threadbare garments. You can simply tell that they haven’t had a good meal, or any meal for that matter for a while, they are gaunt, and under nourished. After the service, as you are putting on your coat and heading home to a cooked lunch, you greet them with a God bless you, go in peace, have a good life… but they go away cold and hungry what good is it? Faith has to go beyond the theoretical into the practical, real living faith goes beyond the confession to compassion, or as James brutally puts it Faith without works is dead.
And that’s challenging stuff; it really gets down to the core of our Christian faith doesn’t it? It’s so challenging that this passage has been seen as one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament. Historically people have seen James as contradicting Paul’s assertion that we are justified by faith, apart from the law: That we are made right with God by faith alone not by our works. Does James say you can earn your salvation by good works? Historically it is the passage that caused Martin Luther to want to write the book of James out of the scriptures, writing it off as an epistle of straw. Something you couldn’t use to build the church. In my own life I find it challenging as well as I wonder if my faith causes me to be loving and compassionate or am I finding myself simply squeezed into the selfish consumer lifestyle so prevalent in our society, maybe just with a bit of Jesus sprinkles on top. You know how plain white bread used to get transformed into party food by having hundreds and thousands on top.
Firstly I need to affirm that we are saved by the grace of God. By the loving action of God in Jesus Christ, and putting our trust and faith in what Christ has done for us on the cross. A couple of weeks ago we looked at James teaching on temptation and we say in chapter 1 verse 17-18 that James tells us that even good gift comes from God, that it is God who chose to give us birth through the word of truth. Just like Paul James believes that it is because of Christ and what Christ has done for us that we are put right with God. But James does not stop there he goes on to say that God is at work in us to bring that new life to maturity and fullness as well. To make us the first fruit of all creation, that is why we can count it all joy as we face all kinds of trial because God is able to use it to make our faith mature. A living faith grows and bears fruit, has a harvest.
The nature of the New Testament epistles are that they are occasional, written to a particular context. One of the background factors for Paul is he is writing to a predominantly gentile audience and part of the back ground to this is that he has had to wrestle with a faction within the church who say to be followers of Jesus you must keep the Jewish Law… Be circumcised, offer sacrifices and Paul is writing to correct that. In Acts 15 James at the council of Jerusalem affirms that gentiles do not need to be circumcised to be Christian. But he also affirms that there is an ethical side to faith in Christ: They do need to care for the poor, avoid food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. What James is writing about seems to be another false understanding of faith. His audience is predominantly Jewish and as we saw with the idea of favouritism last week and in James encouragement that true religion is to show compassion and not to be polluted by this world, they maybe had gone the other way and thrown the baby out with the bath water. Done away with any ethical teaching…That it was simply all about holding to a certain doctrine or belief.
That to James is not faith. In fact he says what is different between you and the demons or evil spirits. They just like you, says James, believe that God is one. That was the Jewish confession the shema from Deuteronomy 5. ‘ Hear O Israel the Lord you God is one God’, that was to be nailed to the door of every Jewish household. For the Christian to believe that God is one or that there is one God is an affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ, which would have differentiated them from Judaism. In fact he then has a real go at his opponents by saying that even the demons act their belief in God causes them to shudder. They are filled with fear. Some commentators wonder if this isn’t a reference to deliverance ministry and James is saying that the demons flee at the name of Jesus what do you do?
Both Paul and James believe that real genuine faith results in loving action. In Galatians 5;6 Paul finishes a discussion about salvation and the law by saying that being circumcised or not in accordance to the law has no value it is only faith in Jesus Christ. Then he goes on to say, ‘The only thing that counts is faith being expressed in love’. Last week we saw James talking about the royal law, the fact that Jesus had summed up the whole law in the two commandments love the lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself, and in this passage he is saying that this royal law should be a natural outworking in our lives. In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus says ‘not every one who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of God, but if you do this for these little ones you do it for me… To have faith in Jesus, to put your trust in the compassion of Jesus is to show that compassion to others. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said “by your fruit you will know them”, and here James says well without fruit I guess we can see that the tree is dead. It is not that our works earn us God’s favour or we must do them to please God but they come out of the love we have known, the mercy we have received, in Christ.
Then James gives two examples from the Old Testament of people of faith and shows how that faith was demonstrated in their deeds: Abraham and Rahab. In choosing these two, James, includes all his listeners, men and women, Jew and Gentile, esteemed patriarch who had believed and trusted God for all his life, and the prostitute who comes to believe in God.
It is easy in the Abraham example to think that James is associating Abraham’s offering his son Isaac on the altar as the reason he was declared righteous. But the quote from scripture here ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to his as righteousness’ come from genesis 15 not the story of the offering Isaac in Genesis 18. In Genesis 15God makes a covenant with Abraham, saying he will have a son even in his old age. Abraham’s faith was that he believed in the promise of God even before Isaac was born and then was prepared to live trusting God to keep his covenant faithfulness, even to the point that he was willing to offer his son Isaac up as an offering. Jews consider this act as the last great test of Abraham’s faith.
Likewise Rahab the prostitute who is counted as one of Jesus and thus James ancestors in Matthew gospel is seen as an example of faith. She believed the message of the spies who came to Jericho that Israel’s God was the true God, and because of that she was willing to show hospitality to the Israelite spies and protected them from death and helped them escape. She is then saved from being killed in Jericho and welcomed into the family of Israel.
How do we apply all this to our lives today?
I think it is easy to fall into one of two traps.
The trap of legalism and feel that you must do good things to earn God’s favour, if that is how you feel and think, it is good to hear again the words of James who calls the gospel ‘the law that brings freedom’. God loves you, God sent his son Jesus Christ into this world for you, and invites you to come to him and be made new, to find love and wholeness in knowing and serving him, it is a free gift. A gift to be shared in loving other people out of the abundance of what God has done for us.
The second trap is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’ to simply see faith in Christ as a confession of belief in a set of facts or a system or a family or cultural tradition. Maybe even to go forward at an altar call or be confirmed without realising that it is a costly call to follow Christ. It is not simply a get out of jail free card to be squirreled away under the board till you need it. But an invitation to a life following and imitating Christ. Cheap grace is grace without the cross… Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the faith that James was talking about ‘costly grace’, for him it was a go to jail card. He learned the joy of following Jesus by loving and caring for others, including his captures, in a Nazi prison.
Lastly it is a call to action. Maybe it’s as simple as taking the life jacket off the hanger and putting it on… Faith is knowing the grace and the love of God in Jesus Christ and showing the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ by caring for the least and the lost…is not about Pleasant Pious Platitudes and cosy confessions and creeds, It is more about Practical provision for the poor and care and compassion for those who need consolation. Seeing the needs around us and going and meeting those needs trusting in God to take care of us and to provide what is needed. Our faith calls us out into our community city and world with the love and compassion of Jesus to be about meeting real needs in Christ.