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Sermon based on James 2:1-17
Throughout the book of James we see how one of the early leaders of the church skillfully went about the work of confronting, diagnosing and dealing with problems that had turned up in congregations committed to his care. The letter of James is often a stumbling block for many Christians because it insists on faith and works. Works is defined as those actions that demonstrate Christian love. Too often we read James’ remarks as faith versus works rather than faith and works. The early church struggled a great deal with this tension, especially among those who had roots in Judaism. It was to those Jewish Christians that James was writing. Often their tension around faith and works was based upon the teachings of another early leader of the Church, the apostle Paul. Paul’s words that confused some in the early church were the following:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
These verses from Ephesians are known to teach what is known as justification by faith alone. The word justification means, “acquitting” or “making right.” When we say to each other “we are justified” this means that our relationship with God consists of grace and forgiveness. What God does for us through offering his son Jesus Christ on the cross for us, is grace and is received by simple faith and trust alone. This theological doctrine of justification by faith was central to the theology of Martin Luther and is the basis upon which the Protestant Reformation began. Luther himself once said concerning justification, “this is the article, by which the church stands or falls. Numerous books, articles and essays have been written on the theological doctrine of justification over the years. I think the best way to describe justification was offered by one theologian the late Paul Tillich in a sermon entitled, “You Are Accepted.” In this sermon he preached the following, “Just accept the fact you are accepted,” Tillich said, “accepted by a power that is greater than you.”
The stumbling block for Christians raised here in the book of James is the question of whether or not we are saved by grace through faith alone, or do we also need works, those acts that demonstrate Christian love? While theologians have argued this point for centuries and centuries, James does not argue here for good works as a requirement for faith. Nor does he say that good works are more important than faith. Rather he insists there are two kinds of faith we are called upon to practice in our daily lives.
A very simple way to present what James is trying to teach in this passage concerning these types of faith is to describe two types of plants people often own. One plant is alive and the other plant is artificial. The artificial plant is a very low maintenance plant with only occasional dusting required. It never blooms and never gives any sign of life, even though it is a healthy looking green. The living plant on the other hand shows all the signs of life. It needs water and sometimes the leaves bloom. Other times the leaves turn brown and must be trimmed. At a quick glance of these plants, people may not be able to tell which one is living and which one is artificial. If we look closer however, we begin to tell which plant is the living one. As Christians we often resemble these two plants. Some of us are alive and growing in our faith. Others only give the appearance they are alive and growing in faith. Like those early followers of Christ that James makes reference to in our passage, some followers today are also “coasting” in their commitment of following Jesus Christ as Lord. There are Christians who are “pew sitters” and there are Christians who are “players.” Which one are we? At times followers practice what the late theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.” Those who believe in cheap grace believe that the Christian faith is all about “professing” our faith and nothing more. This belief is incorrect because the Christian faith is a living faith, a faith where we must also put our faith into action and not just talk about our faith.
Speaking of putting faith into action, there was a story told from General Stonewall Jackson’s famous valley campaign. Jackson’s army found itself on one side of a river when it needed to be on the other side. After telling his engineers to plan and build a bridge so the army could cross, he called his wagon master in to tell him that it was urgent the wagon train cross the river as soon as possible. The wagon master started gathering all the logs, rocks and fence rails he could find and built a bridge. Long before evening came, the wagon master told General Jackson that all the wagons and artillery had crossed over the river. General Jackson asked where were the engineers and what were they doing. The wagon master replied that they were in their tent still discussing their plans to build a bridge!
In relationship to our lives as Christians, not only should we say we are Christian; we also must show we are Christians by the way in which we act and live out our lives. That in essence is what James is teaching us. Christianity is not just talk! Christianity is also action! People will know us as Christians when we practice a living faith. To practice a living faith, James points out to us clearly that there are no favorites in the Kingdom of God. James is very clear that we are not to hold our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as a sign of personal favoritism. In addition we are not to show favoritism toward others. Yet in our society, we tend to cater to those who are wealthy, who dress well or look more attractive than others do. James begins the opening verses in this second chapter by telling us that we are to treat the rich, well dressed Christian with the gold rings just as well as we do the Christian in shabby clothing. As James writes for us:
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
A living faith is one that welcomes equally the poor and the rich, the black and the white, the educated and the uneducated, the well dressed and the not so well dressed. While we might downplay this type of behavior among us, James is quick to say that whoever breaks the law at one point is guilty of breaking the entire law. Living faith is not concerned with our differences among each other rather living faith is concerned about the individual. Jesus never discriminated because of someone’s race, sex, financial status or appearance. Jesus was comfortable in the presence of fishermen or tax collectors. He was at ease with men and women, the rich and the poor. Jesus knew that every person has value in life. He never discriminated against someone just because of their past. We too must demonstrate love in all our actions. A living faith is a growing faith.
While I was in high school and college, I use to always enjoy driving from Charlotte to our beach house in Cherry Grove. Along the route I would often pass many farmer markets along the way. Eventually I reached an age where I was not so concerned about how fast I could drive down to the beach and I finally began to stop occasionally at some of these farmer markets. At some of these stops I would often purchase one of my favorite fruits, peaches. As I think of those markets, I can vividly recall the peach orchards often seen in the background. We all know that peaches grow from the branches inside of the tree and eventually sprout out. In the same way, we as Christians ought to produce good works because on the inside God has nurtured us and allowed us to grow in our faith. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and when we seek forgiveness for things we have done in our lives, we move from darkness into the light. Our hearts have been changed from inside us and we naturally have a desire to produce good works. Just as a tree is meant to produce fruit we as Christians have that desire to produce good works. Good works for the Christian comes in a variety of ways. Developing Christian character, ministering to the needs of others and praying for others are all examples that show a living faith producing good works.
As we leave this morning to begin another week, let us go with the assurance we will venture out of our sanctuary demonstrating a living faith that produces good things and praise and glory to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
June 10, 2017