James 2:1-10, 14-17
Proper 18, Year B
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you?”
I was doing a little web surfing the other day and stumbled upon a blog where people were posting the most absurd religious beliefs they’ve ever heard. The first one I read was this: “that an invisible man impregnated a virgin with himself.” Apparently, our Sunday school teachers don’t quite have their facts straight. Absurd belief #2 was a belief in “body thetans,” which, if you’re unfamiliar with finer points of Scientology, are spiritual scraps from millions of years ago from when the galactic overlord Xenu ordered the slave races destroyed inside of a volcano. But honestly, neither one of these take the cake. The most absurd post was from a blogger that called himself “shadowsmurf1979” – and according to shady smurf, “the whole concept of having faith is absurd.” Now, think about that for a second – the whole concept of having faith is absurd. Is that really how things are – some people have faith, and others don’t?
You see, there’s something that smelly smurf doesn’t seem to understand. When it comes to faith, everyone has it. I hate when people tell me that they could never have faith, that faith is just too hard. This idea – that some people have faith, and that others don’t – is really popular. But it’s simply not true. Everyone has faith.
For example, I believe that we’re here because of a personal, loving Creator and that there is a real purpose behind our existence. And of course, I know a lot of people who believe that we’re here by random chance – that there’s no greater meaning, no grand design. But here’s the catch – both are faith perspectives, both are built on systems of belief. Everyone has faith. No exceptions.
Now, stay with me for a bit, because we need to go a bit deeper. Not only does everyone have faith, but how we act is tied to that faith. In other words, we all make decisions every day about what’s important and about how to treat people. And these decisions, how we behave, always come from our deepest beliefs about the world. In other words, all people – religious or not – act on the basis of what they believe is true about why we’re here. And so when it comes to how we live, we’re not talking about faith or no faith, belief or no belief. We’re talking about faith in what? Belief in what? Everyone has faith. And so the question isn’t whether we have faith or not. The question is – what have we put our faith in?
And that’s the question that James demands that we wrestle with in today’s epistle. “My brothers and sisters,” he asks – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” You see, James lived in a world where social class was really important – where it was expected that people with wealth, power, and influence would be treated with a certain dignity. And lower class people, it was widely believed, just didn’t deserve the same respect – they just didn’t have the same dignity. Plain and simple, that’s just what James’ world believed. And apparently, James’ community – people who claimed to believe in Jesus – drank the kool-aid. In James’ community, the rich were treated like kings and the poor were treated like paupers. And so James has to ask – this community that claims to believe in Jesus – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe?” Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
But behind this question is an even deeper one – do you even understand what faith is? I hate to say this, but today’s church often makes the same mistake that James’ church did – we reduce faith to a series of statements that can either be “accepted” or “rejected.” But that just isn’t what faith is. Accepting something as true may be a prerequisite to faith, but if we want to experience biblical faith, we just have to go deeper. Because faith, whether we’re religious or not, is what shapes our lives. That’s all James is asking – what’s shaping your life? Faith in Jesus Christ? Or faith in something else?
You see, we can say we believe in anything we want. But just because we say that something’s true, doesn’t mean we believe it. That’s why faith without works is dead. Not because God requires them both – but because faith and works cannot be separated. Remember, we make decisions every day about how to live, and these decisions are tied to the deepest beliefs we hold about the world and our purpose. All people – whether they’re religious or not – are shaped by their faith. And so it’s not a question of whether we have faith or not. The question is – what have we put our faith in?
For the record, I don’t think James’ community was bad or hypocritical or even that different from our own community. I just think that like all of us – myself included – James’ community hadn’t fully allowed the Gospel to penetrate their hearts. For example, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: “for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, can you hear what Paul is saying – the King of all Creation emptied himself and was treated like a pauper so that we – paupers that we really are – might live with God for eternity as Kings. And isn’t that the Gospel? That God became poor so that we might become rich? Because if that’s really true, it’s not enough to accept the Gospel. Because accepting the Gospel will never change our lives. But believing it, allowing the truth that in Christ we are Kings, that in Christ we are richer than we could ever imagine – allowing that truth to penetrate our hearts – that has the power to change our life. That has the power to change our world.
Faith and works can’t be separated. And so if we really believe that in Christ God emptied himself for us, will we not pour out our lives in love for one another? And if we really believe that in Christ each one of us is a King, could we ever justify treating anyone as less than a king? That’s all James wanted to know – “with your acts of favoritism, you do really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
And so here’s our homework for the week. Pay attention to how you live and ask yourself – what does my life tell me about what I believe? For example, you discover that there’s a grudge that you refuse to let go of, ask yourself – do I really believe that forgiving others is the best way to live? Or if you find that there’s just “no time” to devote to your relationship with God, ask yourself – do I really believe that spending time with God in prayer is worthwhile?
I’m not saying that we’re bad or that we’re hypocrites. I’m saying that we’re Kings and it’s just that this amazing reality hasn’t penetrated our hearts yet. And so for this week, pay attention and be honest with yourself and with God about what you really believe. Because the truth is – and the good news is God already knows this – but some of the beliefs that shape our lives are absurd. To believe that we should usually get our way, or that we have to look out for number one, or that there’s nothing beyond what we can see or touch or feel – this is just as absurd as believing in the galactic overlord Xenu.
In the life of faith, we can always go deeper. After all, Christianity isn’t about accepting Jesus Christ. Christianity is about embracing Jesus Christ. Everyone has faith. And so the question isn’t whether we have faith or not. The question is – what have we put our faith in?