Sermon: Faith that is alive

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
9 September 2018

James 2:1-10, 14-17

We are in our second week of reading through the Letter attributed to Jesus’ brother, James the Righteous, leader of the church in Jerusalem. Remember last week, when we saw academics from the University of Nottingham describe Martin Luther’s abhorrence of this letter? Today we come to my favourite part of the letter, and the part that I think, more than any other, made Martin Luther fume: ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’

Martin Luther is the pre-eminent Reformed theologian of salvation by grace alone, through faith. We are saved, Luther said, not by any works that we may or may not do, but purely and simply by the grace of God which we receive through faith. We need to remember the context within which Luther was theologising; he was responding to Pope Leo X’s 1517 campaign to sell indulgences in order to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. ‘Indulgences’ were sold on the basis that they reduced the amount of time that people spent in Purgatory after death. They were a con, sold by con artists, even if those con artists were priests, monks, and friars. So it is understandable that Luther was wary of any parts of the Biblical canon that seemed to challenge the purity of sola fide, ‘by faith alone,’ or sola gratia, ‘by grace alone’.

In addition, as you read through this letter, you might notice a surprising absence of Jesus. In the very first verse James describes himself as, ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1) and in today’s reading he asks, ‘My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?’ (James 2:1). But that is it! There are no other mentions of Jesus Christ, and certainly no mention of his crucifixion and resurrection. James does make other mentions of ‘the Lord’ throughout his letter, but it is unclear whether he means the Lord Jesus Christ or the Lord God the Father. For Martin Luther, the value of books of the Bible was what they revealed of the good news of Jesus Christ, and James’ letter could have been written by a Jew who simply revered Jesus as a teacher of wisdom.

Given that, it is no wonder that Luther described this letter in one place as a strawy one. But in other places Luther acclaimed it, saying ‘I praise James and hold it to be a good writing because it does not propose human teachings but drives God’s law hard.’ In some of his 95 theses Luther sounds very Jamesian. Luther’s 43rd thesis said that ‘Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences’ and thesis 45 said that ‘Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath’.[1] I can imagine James saying a loud ‘Amen’ to both of those.

James may not often mention Jesus, but he certainly knew what Jesus preached. In the section of the letter that we hear today James writes: ‘Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’ His readers are reminded of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus proclaims: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 5:3). When James writes: ‘You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ we remember Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). James is writing to a community of people who know Jesus’ teachings and agree with them; where they are falling short is living them out.

John Wesley, in his notes on this passage, writes that in his letter James is ‘enforcing Christian practice’. Wesley’s interpretation is that James’ emphasis on works does not contradict Paul’s emphasis on faith, because James is referring to situations in which people are neglecting Christian practice ‘under the pretence of faith’. Wesley says, ‘St. Paul had taught that “a man is justified by faith without the works of the law.” This some began already to wrest to their own destruction. Wherefore St. James, purposely repeating the same phrases, testimonies, and examples which St. Paul had used, refutes not the doctrine of St. Paul, but the error of those who abused it. There is, therefore, no contradiction between the apostles: they both delivered the truth of God, but in a different manner, as having to do with different kinds of men.’

Which different kind of men, and women, are we? Do we need to be reminded that we are saved only by the grace of God, and not by our own righteousness, in which case we need to listen to the Apostle Paul? Or do we need to be reminded that the way in which we treat others shows the truth of our salvation, in which case we need to listen to the Apostle James? I suspect at various times we are both kinds of Christians, and that we need to be reminded of the wisdom of both Paul and James, both Luther and Wesley. It is always both-and, never either-or.

Given that today is a James and Wesley Sunday, let us think about ways in which we can ensure that our faith is alive. In today’s reading James describes two ways in which the life in our faith can be identified.

The gospels are rife with examples of Jesus’ care for the poor and for those whom society considered outsiders. Because we have this example of Christ’s to follow, Christians are different from other people in our attitude to money. While the world differentiates between rich and poor – we know that rich and poor alike are created by God. While the world condemns the poor for being poor, and praises the rich for being rich – we know that it’s actually better to have a healthy relationship with God than great riches. Other people can know whether or not we’re Christian by our attitudes to the poor and the rich – by our care for the one and our lack of flattery for the other.

That, at least, is the theory. In practice, our attitudes to the rich and the poor of this world are often not all that different from the attitudes of the rest of society. Our society places enormous importance on appearance, and on praising and rewarding the rich, while ignoring the poor or blaming them for their poverty. Members of the church can get sucked into this mindset; as James’ letter shows that’s been happening since the church was first born. The first way we can show the life in our faith is by welcoming everyone and not discriminating between people because of their socio-economic status.

The second way in which we can demonstrate the vitality of our faith is through our use of money. Have you ever thought how strange it is that every Sunday, in the middle of our service of worship, we take out our wallets or purses, put money in a collection bowl, and then offer it to God with a prayer? When you think about it, it is a very strange thing to do. The church is unlike most other organizations in the way we deal with money. No one needs to pay upfront to belong to the church; there are no annual membership fees. We don’t put coins in a bowl as we enter the church, before the service begins, as happens in many other community groups. Instead, we are invited to give an unspecified amount, known only to us and to God, right in the middle of our service of worship. This is so unusual that it can catch casual visitors, people attending for baptisms, for example, by surprise, and they either scurry for money or try to ignore the whole thing. To those not used to it, taking up a collection during a service, dealing with something as practical as money in the middle of a spiritual event, can seem unseemly. But there is definite method in our madness.

As James reminds his readers, being a Christian isn’t simply a matter of mind and spirit. It’s not just about what we believe or about how we worship; it’s also about how we behave, how we live out our faith in action. And that includes how we deal with our money. Budgets are moral documents. What we spend our money on shows what is important to us. Having an offering of money in the very middle of a service reminds us that how we deal with our money is a theological issue.

Remember, in this letter James is not arguing that works without faith is sufficient; he’s arguing that if belief in Jesus does not lead to action in the world, then it is not actually faith. Just as favouritism is contrary to the example of Christ, so spiritual words without physical deeds are contrary to the example of Christ who fed both the spiritually and the physically hungry and healed both the spiritually and the physically sick. Coming to church and worshipping God, while withholding what we have to share from those in need, is not Christianity. By caring for all those whom God has created, by poor and rich sharing with each other, we demonstrate our love for God.

There is another reason for us to use our money to care for the poor. Sharing and giving doesn’t just benefit those who receive; it’s a sign of life in those who give. Remember the difference between a culture of scarcity and a culture of abundance that I mentioned several weeks ago? Robert Schnase, in his book The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations writes: ‘Vibrant, fruitful congregations practice Extravagant Generosity… they thrive with the joy of abundance rather than starve with a fear of scarcity. It’s not about the Church’s need for money, but rather the Christian’s need to give.’ There have been many psychological studies that have found that giving literally makes people happier than receiving. Ross Gittins, who is an economist and thus someone who is fairly hard-headed when it comes to money, writes that:

[Psychologist Elizabeth] Dunn has done various experiments that show giving gifts to people or making donations to charity makes people happier than spending money on themselves. Studies of people’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging showed that when people chose to give money to a local food bank this caused activity in the part of their brain typically associated with receiving rewards.[2]

When I first read Gittins’ article I found it so fascinating that I went to check out the study he quotes, in which:

Researchers approached individuals on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus, handed them a $5 or $20 bill, and then randomly assigned them to spend the money on themselves or on others by the end of the day. When participants were contacted that evening, individuals who had been assigned to spend their windfall on others were happier than those who had been assigned to spend the money on themselves. The benefits of prosocial spending appear to be cross-cultural. Over 600 students attending universities in Canada and in the East African nation of Uganda were randomly assigned to reflect on a time they had spent money on themselves or on others Participants felt significantly happier when they reflected on a time they had spent money on others, and this effect emerged consistently across these vastly different cultural contexts—even though the specific ways in which participants spent their money varied dramatically between cultures.[3]

So, while James is telling his readers to use their money to demonstrate that their faith is alive, his readers might have found as an interesting side effect that they were happier because of it.

May God be with us as we seek to follow the example of His Son, living as those who believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, and offering what we have with extravagant generosity. Amen.

[1] European Reformation Sourcebook, 2.10.

[2] Ross Gittins, ‘How spending money can make you much happier’ Sydney Morning Herald, December 21, 2011.

[3] Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson, ‘Research Dialogue: If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right,’ Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 115–125.

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