September 6, 2015 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: James 2:1–2:18
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
James 2:1-10, 14-18
How much is enough?
This past week at the beach, our nearly-two-year-old daughter had her first really interactive experience with the ocean. She’s got a playset of little beach toys with a bucket, shovels, and sifter to play in the sand. The one item in the set she used the most, though, was a miniature, plastic watering can. Completely unbidden, she ran over to the incoming waves to fill the can up, only to head back onto dry sand to dump out all the seawater. My wife and I stood in the surf wondering if our little girl had decided to empty the ocean all by herself. How much would be enough? Well, it was about five minutes until she decided to try telling the ocean waves to “Stop!” and then giggle as they kept rolling in.
I’m a little different: my favorite “toy” during our beach vacation was the lazy river at the place where we were staying. Instead of running back and forth on the beach, all I had to do was lay in my inner tube and float around in languid loops as the current kept me going. As I drifted along under the beautiful sky, I watched the wind blow through the plants beside the river and heard the waves lapping against my raft. After a while, I lost count of how many “laps” I’d done, but I didn’t particularly care. How much would be enough? I felt like I could just float along in that lazy river for hours – as long as the weather (and my SPF 50+ sunscreen) held up.
How much is enough? Today we hear God’s word through James, Jesus’ brother and an important leader in the Jerusalem Church. In this part of his letter to early Christians, James brings up the connection between faith and works, a connection that continues to concern Christians to this day. Lutheran Christians, in particular, have historically been left wondering at the verse “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17) when Galatians 2:16 states “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” But before we dive into that apparent conflict, let’s first look at faith. Where is it found?
Is your faith in your head? It might seem like that sometimes, especially if faith is what you believe to be true, a bunch of facts and doctrines that inform your understanding of the world. Christian faith speaks to who the Triune God is and what He has done for humanity and the rest of our broken world. Is it enough to know that Jesus is God the Son and that he came into his creation to be its Savior? If you’re of the intellectual type, I can see how faith can look like it’s all in your head. But keep reading on in verse 19 where he writes, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” and you’ll see that just knowing who Jesus is isn’t the sum total of faith.
So is your faith in your heart? Faith does change your relationships, both with God and with the people around you. The faith that comes through Christ gives you a different view of God and lets you see your neighbor in love. Faith shapes how you interact with others, turning your positions from those of cold self-interest into attitudes of compassion and caring. Faith offers the assurance of a restored standing before your Creator. It supports you through hard times. It strengthens you to face the challenges of life. But if faith is just in your heart and disconnected from practical application, what’s the point of it? As James asks in verses 15-16, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
Is your faith, then, in your hands? A number of people believe that James’ message here points us to works of service as the measuring stick for your standing before God. Being Christian manifests itself in so-called “Christian living,” a manner of life that demonstrates faith through acts of kindness and care for others. Through your hands, the works that you do as a Christian both bear witness to God’s love and deliver His love to the world around you. Going to worship each week, feeding the hungry, caring for those in need: such deeds are the substance of faith that’s grounded in works.
We might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. After all, what is “faith?” If you had to describe faith to someone – especially someone who doesn’t yet know Jesus – what could you say? Instead of looking to see where your faith is found, consider from where your faith comes. Faith, Christian faith, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. God gives faith, and it’s more than something that you head, your heart, or your hands can hold. It’s not just what you and I believe about Jesus; it’s also the living and active ability to believe. Faith in Christ as Savior isn’t something that we can come to on our own, since we are born spiritually dead in sin and enemies of God. And that’s the amazing thing about faith: God, in His love for you and for me, reaches down and turns us around from our self-focused, self-glorifying, and self-destructive path to bring us back to Him. The Spirit’s gift of faith is what lets the Christian cling to God’s promises, seeing the cross as a sign of forgiveness and hope.
In the same way, the works that we hear about in James’ letter today aren’t merely things that you do on your own. If you were with us this summer as our congregation looked at our “Life Together” in Christ through Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, you heard Ephesians 2:10, “For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Good works, works like those to which James points us, are indeed acts of service which demonstrate God’s love for the people around us – but they’re not anything that we can own. Works of faith don’t say “Look at me and how great I am before God!” Instead, they proclaim “Look at how great and loving God is! He is loving you through me!” Faith naturally produces works.
When a fruit tree is fed and watered and tended, it bears fruit. That’s just what it does. In the same way, faith from God motivates your actions and your attitudes. It prompts you to walk in the works which God has prepared for you. And like the fruit tree, if you are not bearing the fruit of the Spirit who is feeding and watering and tending you, it’s a sign that something is wrong. If you take an honest look at your life, how is your faith showing itself through works?
How much is enough? Do your works need to drain the ocean in order to be right with God? Certainly not! You could never do enough good works to earn a restored relationship with God – especially if they’re not truly your works in the first place! As we heard in verse 10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” You are made right by God solely by his grace. The Christian’s confidence is Christ, and him alone. He has done all the work that would ever be needed to restore your relationship with your Creator. When Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross, he meant it. So can you just rest in your faith then, drifting along through the river of life without a thought for doing works? Again, no! Christian faith moves you to love your neighbor as yourself. Faith justifies; works serve our neighbor.
o where is your faith? In your head? In your heart? In your hands? Faith from God is in all three, binding them together to make His people whole. You and I are connected to Christ through the Spirit’s gift of faith, faith which moves us to works of service. As we gather week after week, God’s word and sacrament are at here to build us up, strengthening head, heart, and hand “in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.” We Christians are guided by what we believe into relationships that live out God’s love for us and for our neighbor as we act in caring service.
The faith that God gives, works. And that’s enough.