James 2:14-18 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 9, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Epistle reading from James 2:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
A young man comes up to you and says, “I’m a great football player.” When you ask him what position he plays on the team, he replies, “Oh, I never actually play football.” What would you think of him? A woman approaches you and says, “I’m a physician.” When you ask her, “What is your area of expertise?” she replies, “Oh, I’ve never given medical care to anyone.” What would you think of her? I’d think they are both quite strange. Why would you claim to be something without having the appropriate actions that support your being that something? If you are a football player, that assumes you actually get on the field and play football. If you are a physician, that assumes you have been trained and actually give medical care to people. So it follows that if you are a Christian your life will demonstrate that you follow the way of Christ, which is love.
You and I can say pretty much anything about ourselves. We can claim to be famous or popular. We can say we are good at sports, or great at math, or superb at cooking. But until we back up our claims with actions, what we say is pretty much a bunch of hot air. If you go around telling everyone you are a great cook and can’t even make a piece of toast that is edible, people are going to figure out really fast that you are a big hypocrite. People are not stupid. If your words and actions are not consistent with each other, people will figure that out sooner rather than later. They will catch on to your lies and your hypocrisy, your saying one thing and living another. This is especially true for us as Christians, believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Do your words and your actions both demonstrate to people who you are as a believer in Christ? Or are you like that football player who never steps on the field or that doctor who never treats a patient? Do you say, “I’m a Christian,” yet fail to back it up with action? If so, what kind of Christian are you? Too many of us fall into the category of Sunday morning Christians. This means that we speak and act like a Christian on Sundays, especially at church. But the rest of the week, no one would even recognize us as a Christians because our actions and words don’t fit with our Sunday claim, “I believe in Jesus as my Savior.” And you know as well as I do that people very quickly pick up on our inconsistencies, on our hypocrisy. “I heard that she goes to that Lutheran Church. Wonder if they know what kind of life she leads when she isn’t there. She swears as much as I do. She’s cut-throat in her business dealings. She’d just as soon walk all over a co-worker to get what she wants.”
“What is the benefit, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Is that faith able to save him?” Is it really faith to begin with? True faith, trust in the Lord Jesus as Savior from sin and death, saves, no question. But only true faith saves and not a fruitless thing that one may call faith. But we can’t see faith itself. We can’t see trust in a person’s heart. Yet, faith by its very nature makes its presence known by a proper confession and by natural works. This is precisely what our Lord Jesus tells us about faith in Matthew 7, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Mat 7:16 -20 ESV)
James gives us a practical example. A person claims, “I have faith.” If this is true, then works of faith, works that come from, flow from faith (fruits!) will follow. But what happens. There is a brother or sister who is “poorly clothed,” as the English Standard Version translates it. Really, this person is naked, poorly clothed indeed! This brother or sisters is naked and without daily food. The person who claims, “I have faith,” responds to this hungry, naked individual, “Go in peace, be warm and be filled,” and then walks away. Paraphrasing St. James, “What good is that? What’s the point of speaking words, however pious they might sound? Words don’t help here! This person needs clothes and food, not your well-wishes! The only faith you have is a dead faith, a useless faith. So what’s the point of even having that kind of faith?”
There is no point to possessing a dead faith. Speaking the words, “I believe in God the Father . . . and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit,” mean nothing if the faith in your heart is not living and active. This confession ends up being mere ritual rather than a part of who you are as a baptized child of God. Football players actually play football. Physicians actually treat patients. Christians believe in the heart and confess with the lips that Jesus is Lord and Savior and then they live the way of Christ, the way of love. As Martin Luther wrote in his Preface to Romans, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times . . . O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly.”
Apple trees produce apples. Tomato plants produce tomatoes. Corn stalks grow corn. Saving faith in Jesus produces works of love toward God and toward our neighbors. It’s just what faith does as it clings to its Lord and Savior. And it is our Lord and Savior who spoke these words to us in the Upper Room, prior to His arrest and crucifixion, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. . . . By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. . . . These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:5-13 ESV)
Jesus laid down His life for you, His friends. He gave up His life on the tree of the cross so that, through the gift of faith in Him as your only Lord and Savior, He has made you into a fruitful and fruit-filled tree of love. Jesus loved you and gave up His life for you in order to pay for all your sins, for your lack of love toward God and to other people. Having won your forgiveness for your lack of love, He has given you a living, active faith in Him that knows, confesses, and does love.
We tend to think of love as an emotion. But perhaps we ought to think more in terms of “doing” love to someone, rather than feeling it. Jesus not only felt love toward sinners, but He did love toward us. While we were still sinners, Jesus laid down His life for us on the cross to win our forgiveness and our salvation. The faith in Christ which we receive as a gift from God fills us not only with the forgiveness of Christ, but also the love of Christ that we are enabled to put into action. We can not only say we have faith, but also show our faith in action by doing love to our neighbors. As they old song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
How then can we show our faith in Christ active in love? By doing the very things faith empowers and compels us to do—to show mercy. If someone is hungry, give them food. If they thirst, give them drink. If they are a stranger, welcome them without rendering biased judgment. If they are naked, clothe them. Visit the sick, the lonely, the orphans, and the widows. Control your tongue. Keep yourself unstained from the world. Show no partiality. Look at others as those for whom Christ died and rose again to forgive and to save. Look at them with the compassion and mercy of Christ and do for them what He has done for us all—love them without strings attached, love them unconditionally. Learn from the Parable of Good Samaritan that anyone to whom you can show mercy and love is your neighbor. And then do it.
With God-given faith in Jesus Christ, be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Let the fruits of your faith blossom and grow and flourish in the precious name of Jesus so that you are not only saying “I believe” but also doing what comes naturally to the one who has faith. Love your neighbors. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36) In this way, people will see your faith even as they see your good works, the fruits of faith, and they will give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16) God grant that our faith in Christ always be active in love as we show His mercy to others. Amen.