Summary: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then our actions as disciples, when they reflect the faith we have, should be worth far more.
I signed up for Instagram this week. I’m still learning how to use it, but here’s the purpose as shared on the Instagram website: “Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever. We're building Instagram to allow you to experience moments in your friends' lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through photos.”
Instagram is only five years old. It was launched in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and his friend, Mike Krieger. Those two parlayed an initial $500,000 investment into $1 billion when they sold Instagram to Facebook in 2012. Today, there are over 300 million users who are “more connected through photos.”
“A world more connected through photos.” That’s an interesting purpose, especially when we consider the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” A picture can be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it can be worth ten thousand words. Other times, it cannot be worth the paper it’s printed on…or, should we say the computer it’s posted on. We can try to tell someone of the beauty of our trip to the beach, but if we have a photo as we describe the peacefulness of a pink and orange sunset, the story comes alive. Words carry great meaning, and can describe an event vividly, but put those words to picture and the whole experience changes. We live in a world where both words and pictures are necessary.
Words and pictures. Our words are enhanced, enforced, infused with life when accompanied by a picture. That’s exactly the argument the Apostle James is making in our text today. James very boldly tells us that our faith in Christ is to be more than words.
The book of James is a pastoral letter addressing the attitudes and actions of the early church in Jerusalem. James was the leader of that great church, and it was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 believers at the time. James, who was either the brother of Jesus (most likely) or the brother of the Apostle John (less likely) felt an enormous responsibility for the spiritual growth of the disciples in Jerusalem. This letter was written to encourage Christians who were suffering because of their faith in Christ, and it was circulated throughout the ancient near east where the church was growing quickly.
The letter was almost not included in the canon of Scripture because it focuses so much on “works.” There was argument over the text because it seemed to disagree with the writings of the Apostle Paul, who argued that salvation comes not by works, but by faith. James’ writing does seem, on first reading, to contradict Paul's emphasis in the letter to the Romans of salvation by faith alone. On a deeper reading, though, James’ letter is simply a protest against hypocrisy.
James is clarifying faith in Christ is a transforming faith, and that salvation by faith results in a new person, or as Paul would say, a new creation. James is not opposing Paul's teaching. He’s complementing it! The two teachings are the essence of a full Christian faith—redemption and a changed life. James is acknowledging that faith and actions are two sides of the discipleship coin. One side is faith and the other is actions. Faith always leads to action, or it is no faith. As our faith grows, so grow our actions. Actions grow out of faith. Faith grows as a result of our actions. Or, to use the Instagram analogy—faith is our words, but our actions become the picture through which we show the world our faith. Our actions are worth a thousand words.
The new movie, The Walk, came out last Friday. The movie tells the true story of French high wire artist Phillipe Petit, and of his walk on a tight rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Long before Petit attempted that feat, another Frenchman had already crossed the great Niagara Falls on a tightrope. His name was Charles Blondin. Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on several occasions. On one occasion, he was holding a press conference before his walk, and he turned to his large audience, which included numerous reporters from various newspapers, and he asked them, “How many believe I can walk across this tightrope over the Falls pushing a wheelbarrow?”
People cheered loudly. They were sure Blondin could do it.
Then he asked, “How many believe I can push a wheelbarrow across the tightrope with a man sitting in it?”
Again, there was a loud response.
Blondin then pointed to one of the most enthusiastic men in the audience, and said, “Okay, you get into the wheelbarrow.” The man made a hasty exit.