The book of James is not for the light-hearted. It is didactic, and kind of nagging. It challenges our smug satisfaction with an easy faith and challenges us to be better Christians. In today’s scripture reading, James chastises the early church for showing partiality to the rich over the poor. It can be subtle and unconscious, or it can be blatant. James reminds people of the great commandment that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves. How do we work out our faith alongside those who have less than we have, or with those who have more? Do we show deference or partiality to each other because of perceived wealth?
If so, then that partiality is a gateway to all sorts of compromises. That’s why the Citizen’s United Supreme Court Decision was so troubling. By calling corporations people who are protected by free speech and calling money “speech,” the decision said that partiality toward the rich is a good thing. That money will buy influence and elections. And who knows how the elected ones will pay back those donors? With partiality. Like getting rid of pesky environmental regulations, like making sure that tax cuts are always given to the rich even when it means the poor will have to pay more. Like making people pay to have the right to vote by requiring them to get a state-issued ID with their present address on it a requirement, no matter how much it costs and then to say it’s all in the name of fairness. Like taking away health care to people who need it. Like redefining middle class as people making over 250,000 a year even when the median income for a family of four is $50,000. Elections and politics are all about partiality. The world is about partiality. And if the church is really the church, it needs to not buy into that system. It must show no partiality. In the midst of this world bent on partiality, the church exists to be the antidote and the conscience of that state. That’s what we’re here to do and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Today’s scripture ends with the words, “Faith without works is dead.” That will fit nicely onto a bumper sticker. But before we adopt that as a slogan, we need to unpack what faith and works are. And the issue of partiality is all wrapped up in it.
Now, in order to know what faith meant to James and his community, we need to remember the situation in which they found themselves day in and day out.
The early church was made up of a small group of people, maybe 10 no more than 30. And most people didn’t stay long. It was too hard, the bar was set too high.
They didn’t have big buildings or brand spankin’ new parking lots.
They didn’t have elaborate Sunday School materials.
They didn’t have organs or pianos or handbells, although they did sing.
They did not have a text other than the Old Testament and their feeble memories of the teachings and sayings of Jesus.
The early church was persecuted. It was persecuted by the Roman Empire for its subversive belief that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar. It was persecuted by the other established religions, primarily Judaism for their defiance of Torah in accepting unclean and even women into their assemblies. They were even accused of cannibalism for eating the body of and blood of Jesus at their agape meals.
So the church had to meet in secret. A subversive underground movement of hope in a world built on the false god of partiality.
With all of this going against them, what bound them together was faith. The writer of Hebrews called that “The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.”
The people of the early church, the Way as they were called, had faith that the ways of the world, the politics of partiality, were not the final answer.
The faithful people of the Way realized that the world was misguided. Through their faith in Jesus, who offered a different if not radical perspective on the world, they could see through the veils and lies of the establishment.
They knew the Roman Empire would eventually fall.
They knew God’s law was to love your neighbor in spite of the evidence.
They knew that if people kept going by the laws of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we would end up with a bunch of blind people with no teeth. I think of this as I look at the horror in Libya and the bomb threats on college campuses. It is no coincidence that these acts of retribution and fear came on the anniversary of 9-11 and the reminders of the wars started in their wake.
The people of the Way knew that the way of Jesus was a way of salvation in an individual and collective sense and one could not happen without the other.
They knew that good would eventually triumph over evil and that God is the final judge of all.
They could see through the slick campaign ads by politicians, outright expecting that campaign promises would not be kept.
The people of the Way knew that money would not buy them happiness. That’s why they pooled their money together.
The people of the Way had that kind of faith. It was a faith that says, despite what everyone says, I know what is really going on here in this world and beyond. That’s what faith is about.
The problem is that it was exhausting to be a part of a church that believed what the Way believed. Many people were sick and tired of being the only ones keeping the faith.
The book of James is written to people who are tired and need some encouragement. They need to know that keeping the faith, keeping the vision, God’s vision, is all worth it.
And James’ response to the people, his encouragement was this: “Faith without works is dead.”
You cannot keep your vision for this world alive, you cannot keep your faith alive, you cannot find hope, unless you work at it. So, if you wanted a simple faith that asked little of your, then the Way was not for you. But if you were serious about transforming yourself and your world, then you were in for a bumpy and exciting ride. That’s what the Way offered.
It’s too easy to be convinced of your enemies’ perspective if you do not keep and maintain what the book of Revelation calls a “faithful Witness”. Remember, a witness is not someone who watched from the sidelines. A faithful witness is someone who sticks their necks out. Witnessing is work.
Hear this: faith is knowing, despite appearances, what it really going on.
The work is this: given what is really going on, there are things that we need to do to give us hope and to build up our community of the faithful.
Therefore, faith apart from the work of faith is dead.
Work apart from faith is doomed because it has no substance. Therefore faith and works are complimentary, the yin and yang and neither can exist without the other.
So, I submit to you that there are at least three specific works which the New Testament emphasizes as vital to the church and vital to the concept of faith and vital to the world. Without these three works, faith is dead. And we are doomed. I’m indebted to my good friend George Williamson for some of this.
First and foremost, faith is dead without the work of love.
Love is not something that just happens. Real love takes work. Ask anyone in a marriage. Ask anyone with a struggling family member. It takes honesty, struggle, patience and time. That’s work. It’s joyful work, but it is work nonetheless.
The favorite word for love in the New Testament is Agape. This kind of love is uniquely part of the Christian context. No other Greek document uses the term agape more extensively than the New Testament. Three fourths of the references to Agape are about church members loving each other. That is work. Agape, the work of love means loving those who are not part of your family or even economic, racial or spiritual background. It means accepting people who are different and showing no partiality.
Loving in the way that James and most of the New Testament views it means loving to the extent of overcoming differences, breaking down barriers, dealing with disappointments and frustrations, and also finding a sense of community, a sense of hope, a sense of presence one with another, as sense of love and support which gives you the strength to face whatever the world throws at you.
But make no doubt about it. It is work. And it is what makes your faith real. Your faith without this work is dead.
The second kind of work without which faith is dead is the work on behalf of the suffering people of the world. Jesus Christ, wherever he went, sought out the suffering, the outcast, the persecuted, the diseased. He embraced them and ministered to them. He did not give them meaningless platitudes. He healed them and invited them to join in his ministry.
Today’s scripture reads, “What does it profit if one has faith but not works?...If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warm and filled.” Without attending to their bodily needs, how does that help anybody? Faith by itself, if it does no work is dead.”
Another way to say this is “Don’t tell me I’ve got a friend in Jesus without showing me first that I’ve got a friend in you.”
If we are to be truly faithful people, we need to alleviate suffering far away and here at home. For faith by itself if it ignores the suffering of the world of it is says “that’s someone else’s problem,” that kind of faith is dead.
The third kind of work without which faith is dead is the work of keeping the vision alive.
I’m not talking about mission statement on the front of the bulletin. I’m talking about a vision which sustains us in the knowledge that God’s ways are diametrically opposed to the ways of the world. And God’s vision for us is to not be conformed to this world, but as Paul says in Romans 12:2, be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is the vision that helps us to maintain the faithful witness with patient endurance.
This is the vision that keeps us asking the right questions and never settles for business as usual.
“Write the vision on the wall and make it plain so everyone who sees us may run” says the prophet Habbakuk (2:2)
The vision is what keeps you going and sustained. IT is what keeps you intellectually stimulated. And you cannot keep that vision alive without study, reflection, conversation and community. And friends, that is work. That means taking advantage of classes. It means engaging people in discussions about what real faith is. It means remaining open to learning new things about God and your relationship to God and God’s community.
Everything in this day and age says that the ways of generosity, selflessness , compassion, openness, and ultimately the joyousness which the people of the Way experience is utter foolishness. The way of the world is a way of partiality of the rich over the poor and there is no other way. But we are not so cynical to believe that is the only way. We follow the one who points us to a better way.
And pointing to that way against the tide is work. And without that work our faith is dead.
Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms in Georgia said “Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence. That’s not faith. That’s foolishness. Faith is life lived in scorn of the consequences.”
James says that we are to not show partiality to the rich over the poor. But God does show partiality to the ones who live a faithful life. And faith without the work of faith is dead. And faith with the work of faith gives life and gives it abundantly. Abundance is what the Bible calls the fruits of our labors and it is almost never tied to money. Put your focus there, and you will be rich indeed. And God will be partial to you.
I’d like to close with a story about Clarence Jordan.
(This comes from a 1988 sermon by George Williamson)
Clarence and three other folks founded Koinonia Farm in south Georgia in 1943. They wanted to demonstrate some new agricultural methods by which poor farmers could make it, not have to migrate to the cities where things were only worse. And they wanted white and black people working and living together as a witness against segregation, for reconciliation. This, of course, was a scandal in south Georgia in 1943. There was pressure. Pressure became outright persecution. Farm buildings were fired upon, the roadside fruit stand was burned, an economic boycott kept them from buying and selling in Americus. Koinonia folks were in and out of court on trumped-up charges.
Things were tough. Money was almost gone. The end was in sight. In desperation, Clarence turned to his brother, a successful lawyer in a nearby town who would later become a state senator. He pleaded for his brother’s legal representation. But his brother knew full well that he’s likely lose his practice if he represented Koinonia. Clarence finally challenged him:
“Brother, you and I walked down the aisle as kids—at the same time, in the same Baptist church—and said ‘yes’ when the preacher asked if we wanted to give our hearts to Jesus and follow him in baptism.”
His brother replied, “I know, Clarence; I want to follow Jesus too, but only up to a point.”
“Might that point be the foot of the cross?” Clarence asked. “Brother,” he continued, “I think you need to go back to that little church and clarify exactly what you said yes to. You tell them what you meant to say was that you admire Jesus, not that you want to follow him.”
James tells us that faith without works is dead. And it is true. If we have faith, but we do not do the work of love, the work of relieving suffering in this world, and the work of keeping the vision alive, then our faith is pretty hollow. The good news is that we have come this far by faith. The good news is that this faithful bunch of followers of the Way, the early church, changed the whole world. The good news is that we have inherited their faith. And God shows partiality to this kind of working faith.