Monday, September 3, 2018
Yesterday, in a Sunday school class about the labor movement, we read James 5:1-9, in which the author warns rich people that their "gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire." (Too bad that doesn't make it into the lectionary, huh?) During the discussion, someone asked a fundamental question about Christian theology: what about God's grace? She had a good point. What about God's grace? If we believe in God's grace, if we believe in judgment but also cling to God's mercy, what does a passage like James 5 mean for rich Christians like me and most of the people reading this blog?
Maybe the answer comes from a careful reading of the whole letter. In yesterday's epistle lesson from James 1, the author told us, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." This Sunday, in James 2, we will hear the author say, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you...? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." Those two snippets make every Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed muscle in my body start to twitch. Except that that's not the whole story, and therein lies the opportunity for 21st-century discipleship.
Words matter, and, in a 21st-century, post-Christian context, I hear James pushing words and our understanding of them to their limits in a way that invites their renewal. What is religion? The word James uses is "threskeia," which connotes the physical, mechanical, external qualities of worship. It is "religion" in the outward sense. What a powerful opportunity for the contemporary church to distinguish between the going-through-the-motions mindset that so often fills spiritually empty, numerically declining churches and the real, vital, relational, transformational activity of vibrant communities of faith! James is careful with his words. He is not suggesting that the Christian faith is merely helping widows and orphans. He is calling into question those who think that following Jesus means simply showing up for the ritual every week.
This distinction between real, genuine "religion" and empty, false practice is also at the heart of James 2. Can faith save you? That depends on what we mean by "faith." If faith is merely saying "I believe" or reciting the creed or showing up and claiming to be a Christian, the answer is no. But that's not the "faith" that disciples of Jesus, including the apostle Paul, have in mind. The faith we are called to have is the faith that Jesus has shown us--the kind of faith that carries us through hardship, torture, and death into resurrection life. We are to put our whole trust and confidence in God's promise to love and care for us always. And that kind of faith is transformative. That kind of faith isn't dead. That kind of faith takes hold of one's life and shapes it.
James had a problem with the church he saw. This was a church that welcomed the rich but ignored the poor. It was a church where the wealthy sat in the good seats, ate their fill, and received the respect of the community while the poor were brushed aside and sent out without enough food or clothing to be sustained. That is a church that believes with its lips but not with its heart. One cannot have faith in the One who in Jesus Christ has reversed the world, flipping poor to rich, dark to light, and dead to life, and ignore the needs around them. If we believe that God has won a victory over sin in Jesus Christ, we must live into that victory on a daily basis. The victory isn't contingent upon our participation in it. That's salvation through works, which isn't Christian and isn't what James is writing about. The victory is God's work, and those who believe in it are transformed by it into participants in it. In short, there is no such thing as a works-less faith.
Isn't that good news for today's church? I don't know anyone who has time to waste at church. As I've said several times, even I have better things to do on a Sunday morning than show up merely for the sake of showing up. What we do--our "religion"--must be a participation in the death-to-life work that God is doing all around us. That's why we go to church. That's why we show up. That's why we follow Jesus. And that's why people will still give up their lives to follow him...if truly following him is what we are inviting them to.