Summary: A faith that doesn’t show itself in word and deed is dead.
Pentecost 17 B
James 2:1-5; 8-10; 14-18
A woman called her doctor one morning, complaining that her husband had a snoring problem that kept her awake all night. She asked him if there was anything he could do to help out.
"Well,” he said, “there is an operation I can perform that will cure your husband, but it is really rather expensive. It will cost $10,000 down, and payments of $450 for 24 months."
"Oh my!" the woman exclaimed, "That sounds like leasing a new sports car!"
"Hmm," the doctor murmured, "I guess I was a bit too obvious, huh?"
Some things are rather obvious and can’t be hidden, some things like faith. Perhaps you can recall what happened when the Jewish leaders saw "the boldness of Peter and John" in the days following Pentecost. At first the leaders were confounded by the confidence with which these men carried themselves because they figured them to be "uneducated and untrained." But then they realized who Peter and John really were. They recognized that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
That’s because a saving faith in Christ Jesus, can’t go unnoticed. It stands out for all to see. It shows itself in its expressions of care, in its deeds of love, in its works of affection; which might well explain why James writes as he does in our text, that “faith without works is dead.” It’s not really faith at all.
Some people say that James and Paul are at odds with each other when Paul writes that “8…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast.” But their concerns were different. Paul was writing to Christians who were being influenced to believe that they could “work out” their own salvation, when in truth Christ has already worked out our salvation as a gift of grace on the cross that is received by faith. James wouldn’t disagree with Paul about this at all, but he would go on to add that such a saving faith gives itself away. In fact it can’t help it.
You see, James was dealing with a different set of circumstances. He was dealing with people who were developing a rather inactive faith, a superficial kind of Christianity; a people who were being told that they could have a faith in Christ that need not impact their way of life, what they would do, how they would live.
But there is no such thing. By nature saving faith can’t sit still. It must do what is good; so that even someone like Martin Luther, who focused his entire ministry on stamping out the idea that our human works can somehow save us, was willing to express it in his preface to the Romans. “Oh, it is a living, active, energetic, mighty thing, this faith, so that it is impossible that it should not work what is good without intermission. It does not even ask whether good works are to be done, but before one asks it has done them, and is ever doing. But he who does not do such works is a man without faith…” Works do not save, but saving faith will always give evidence of itself and its connection with Christ – in the same way an apple tree distinguishes itself from another – by its fruit.
And this begs the question today, “Is it obvious to folks around you as to why you behave the way that you do? Is it readily apparent to others that you too are someone who "spends a bit of time with Jesus?”?
Clearly, that’s what James wanted his people to consider as he tells a scenario that is likely playing out in many of the congregations to which he is writing. In contemporary terms the story goes like this: A man pulls up to church in a jag. He’s wearing fine clothes, with an heirloom ring on his finger. Immediately after him comes another. It’s more than obvious that he does his shopping at Good Will and Dumpster Dan’s. The usher greets the rich guy with a warm handshake, takes him to the front to introduce him to the pastor, and seats him in the finest seat in the house. But when he sees the other fella, he comments to his neighbor, “Well, hell must have frozen over after all.” Then he goes over to the man and says, “Here. You sit right here in the back next to me where I can keep a good eye on you!”
It hurts doesn’t it? It hurts because while it may be a little exaggerated, it comes pretty close to the truth, and with terrible consequences.
In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days he read the Gospels and seriously considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, there were people who refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned, “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” Prejudice not only betrayed Jesus but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior. And that’s what troubled James more than anything else.