Summary: Faith and works are not mutually exclusive - only two sides of the same coin.
James 2 vv 14-26
Don’t just sit there. Do something!
My dearest Sally,
I love you more than anything else in the whole world. I would climb the highest mountain just to be with you. I would walk across the hottest desert just to be with you. I would swim the deepest ocean just to be with you. Nothing can separate us and our love. Your beloved Michael.
P.S. See you Saturday night if it does not rain.
Do you ever feel that your Christian faith is a bit like Michael’s love for Sally? You can talk a good talk but does your walk match up? You can think big things but are you failing to do the small things that would really help people around you? Are you singing the greatest worship songs to God but somehow failing to connect with the truths they proclaim? Believe me, today’s talk is for you. And in case you are wondering: Yes, it is as much for me as it is for you.
Don’t just sit there – do something! That’s the title that Andrew has given this portion of James that we are looking at today. And that is exactly the response that James was seeking from his intended audience. He was speaking to a community of Christians, mostly of Jewish origin who were delighted to have thrown off the cultural burdens and baggage that had been imposed on them by the Jewish religious elite. There were endless rituals where the deep meaning God had originally intended had been obscured by tradition and hypocrisy.
Christians, in contrast, were free. They knew that what saved them wasn’t carrying out rituals and sacrifices. No, they were saved by faith in God’s Son Jesus. They were forgiven by accepting Jesus’ death on the cross as payment for their sins.
Yet some of them were beginning to over-use the payment Jesus had made. Sure, they were Christians. But they certainly did not live lives that would be honouring to God. Unlike many of their Jewish neighbours who were trying to live by impossible rules in an attempt to please God.
James wrote this letter to speak into the lives of Christians who acted as if the grace of God was a cheap commodity that they could call upon whenever and as often they sinned. James wanted to see Christians living lives that honoured God in every way because he felt that was the appropriate response to the relationship they had with God.
It’s in this context that we should look at James chapter 2 verses 14 onwards. James asks us, “What good is it, my fellow Christians, if a man claims to have faith but does not act on his faith?”
To answer his question, James picks up a thread that Dave McDougall discussed with us just last Sunday. Dave urged us to have eye surgery so that we could look at people without favouritism. Our eye surgery would allow us to look at a rich man and a poor man who came to our church and make no distinction between them in how we treated them.
In the passage we are looking at this week, let’s look at the man on whom James focuses his attention. He’s a poor man visiting our church, probably a Christian as well but clearly suffering from a bad hangover from the current stock price meltdown. He has no clothes apart from the smelly ones he has on. And he’s hungry because he has no food.
How do you think James would expect us to act towards this man? Well, if his expectation of us is as low as the expectation he has of the Christians around him, he would mimic us as we waved farewell to our poor brother at the door. We’d be saying “Have a nice day, brother. See you back in church next Sunday.” And then we would turn around and walk away. Which is sort of the modern equivalent of what James accuses his audience of doing: they share the traditional Jewish greeting “Keep warm and well fed” but they do nothing about his physical needs.
James is unequivocal about this sort of behaviour. In verse 17 he says, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead. Workless faith is worthless faith. Or to cast it in its opposite form, the genuine expression of true faith is Christian action.
Obviously, not everybody agreed with him. James records one of the dissenting voices in verse 18: “You have faith, I have deeds.” In other words, I don’t need your faith because I do good things and those good things will stand me in good stead when I meet God.
I grew up in New Delhi, India. I went to a Catholic boy’s school which was right in the centre of the city. Near the school was a very large gurudwara, or temple for Sikhs. Every single day, turbaned Sikh men, accompanied by women in traditional dress, would feed every person who came to the gurudwara at lunch time. They still do. You don’t have to be a Sikh to get a full plate of food. You don’t have to pay a penny. In a city with a lot of poverty, it is a fantastic gift. Some people would look at Christians and question their faith when there seemed to be no similar deeds on offer.