What image or attributes immediately come to mind when you think about living the Christian life?
The answer, may of course, profoundly vary depending on your own denominational upbringing and previous church experiences, yet they probably include some combination of the following: personal spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading, attendance and involvement at church, sharing our faith with those around us, and perhaps, most importantly, our acts of service.
Bible reading and prayer are vitally important to a Christian’s life. They are our toolkit and handbook for living in a way that pleases God, and yet, studies have shown over and over again that missional living and providing love and compassion to the vulnerable and marginalized is really what draws people into the church. Think about it for a minute. For those of you in this congregation who did not grow up attending a local church, what first drew you to Christianity? Perhaps even to this specific church?
Many people first started attending a church not because they drove past a flashy billboard or because they were walking around the neighbourhood and noticed this interesting building one day. Most people started coming around because they were drawn in by relationships. Every year people seem to stumble upon churches even if it’s only for something like accessing the food bank or getting a pair of clean jeans, but then they end up staying when they notice that the church is full of love and warmth and truly accepts them just the way they are.
This is a similar scenario to what we discover in the book of James. James, the brother of Jesus and author of this epistle was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who had lost the soul of their faith. Sure they were very devout and regularly practiced the laws and traditions which they considered important to them, but instead of making the congregants excited, they were simply going through the motions. They were more concerned with acquiring their own wealth than in providing for the needs of poor. In general, their actions were selfish and focused only on what would give them the greatest gain. This then led to the believers being rather silent and inactive. Their faith was rather passive. Something akin to going to church and hearing a message but not letting it convict them. Doing the bare basics to keep some connection to their faith, but not pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.
This is why James presents an interesting philosophical conundrum what works better: faith without works or works without faith? In other words, what’s more important: God-talk or God-acts?
Let’s explore both of these possibilities and see what conclusion we can draw. First we will look at the idea behind faith without works. Faith is very important. The Bible repeatedly points out to us that faith is what ultimately brings us salvation, faith is a gift sent from God and given to those of us who will believe and receive it and salvation is not achieved through any actions that we do on our own merit.
I remember back when I was 19 I went through a time in my life when my soul was often filled with anxiety. Back then I believed that it was my own good deeds which would gain me entry to heaven. I had many late night talks with my roomates at my Christian university who believed otherwise. One day in desperation one of them told me to read the book of Ephesians for myself. I got to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” Reading this verse made all the weights fall off me like a ton of bricks. I no longer feared for my eternal security. I no longer worried if I was good enough for God. I knew in that moment that God loved me and accepted me unconditionally, that God truly forgave any missteps and mistakes from my past. My anxiety completely disappeared.
This is the same for James, James is not telling us in this passage that our salvation is works based. Our eternal status will stay the same whether we do good works or not. He is not leading us into an unhealthy questioning of salvation. However, James is still urging us to consider doing good to others, not because it will make God value us more, but because it will help us to mature in our faith. It will help us to become more Christlike. After all just one verse later in Ephesians 2:10 after we are given the assurance of our salvation, Paul writes, “for you are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” It is part of our Christian mission to help others, and if we are truly wanting to follow the ways of Christ then it is hardwired in our DNA to search out ways to help anyone who is hurting. Furthermore, James shows that this type of service is continual. It is not a one-off event, but it is something that all believers will joyfully return to again and again in their pursuit of pleasing God.
James uses a very concrete example in the story of a sibling who comes to the church in need of help only to be told to stay warm and well fed without any physical sustenance provided. James asks a rhetorical question: “can such a faith save him?” The answer is no. The Bible might be food to our souls, but it is not the physical daily bread that we actually require to survive. Faith without works is dead and believing without doing anything is utterly useless. We cannot get paid if we decide not to show up at work, we cannot expect to be fed if farmers just believe there will be a harvest without tending to the land, and we cannot presume that good deeds will be done just by virtue of our faith without the effort.
Now the second option that James presents to us is the possibility of works without faith. At first this does not sound like too bad of an option. After all, I am sure that we all know many people who are Atheists or Agnostics who are philanthropists, care about social causes, and are actively involved in their community. Many of these Atheists still live very moral and upright lives and many of them still hold a desire to help others and to make the world a better place. So then what is the difference between a Christian who is doing good works and an atheist who is also doing good works?
The difference stems from the place of motivation. For a Christian, the motivation comes from wanting to extend the peace, justice and mercy of Jesus and ultimately to express their faith through works. An atheist might also be driven by many good factors – a desire to right injustice, a desire to end oppression, or a wish to bring peace and harmony, but ultimately their motives only get them so far. For an atheist, the most important thing is this world. Any good deeds are done to make life on this earth more bearable and tolerable. For a Christian, our values are eternal. We do things because we want them to have a Kingdom Impact.
At first it can be easy to look at this picture as an either-or dichotomy. Either we are faith based or we are works based. Either we are more concerned with personal piety or with communal commitment. And we definitely can point to many denominations which hold a preference of one over the other. Sadly, these preferences have sometimes led to misunderstandings. There are many people today who do not hold a high regard of the Evangelical church believing that their sole objective is simply to convert people and to maintain that there is only one way into heaven. There are also sadly some Evangelicals who look down on social justice minded churches believing them to be more enmeshed with the ways of the world than with the Gospel of Christ. Unfortunately, choosing one option as more vital and meaningful over the other only leads to further division and harm. James’s answer lies not in making a choice or even meeting somewhere down the middle in a compromise, but rather in bringing faith and work together hand in hand and lifting both up as equally important in Gospel work.
For James, the height of Christ’s love stems from having an active and living faith. Mere theology alone might be fascinating for some who wish to be scholars and students of religion, but without that practical piece can become cold, sterile and unfeeling. Mere good works alone might be of interest to people who are given to activism and advocacy, but can also lead to burn-out, anger and even depression when one realizes that it is impossible to correct all wrongs. James suggests that there is a third option – that faith and works are inseparable and that by combining the two, Christians will be able to have a truly energizing mission. The Greek work that is used in this combination is “Sunergeo” which to me sounds like synergy a word that the dictionary describes as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more agents producing a far greater effect than the sum of their separate effects.” On their own either faith or works would be very good things, but together they are powerful. For James, belief is not merely given through intellect or conviction, but through action and love.
What does a living faith look like in our time? Where do you see signs of hope springing up around you?
I see hope in the new job I started out of St. Thomas. I now work for a Christian charity which helps homeless and at-risk people transition from shelters to affordable housing. Wrapping around our clients in love and offering support, we are able to help many people find their own purpose and value. Where once they were not accepted and perhaps did not even feel loved, today they are experiencing new grace, freedom, and community. We look beyond their past – beyond their addictions, mental wellness issues, or even their criminal offenses and we seek to pierce their hearts with connection and confidence. Are all of our clients Christian? No, many of them are not. Will all of our clients become Christian? Probably not. We share our faith, but we do not force our faith. However, my only hope is that even if the individuals we support never decide to align with any type of spiritual practices, that they will discover there is something unique about a Christian who loves because they have first been loved by God.
I saw this same hope when I was working as a student chaplain in inner-city Saskatoon. The chaplains I worked with and myself tried to see beyond the gangs, drugs, and violence and to treat the person with the dignity of a beloved child of God. Many of my patients told me at first that they were not Christian and had no interest in religion and just wanted to be left alone, but when they discovered that Spiritual care was more than just proselytizing some of them were happy just to have someone to talk and share with. They left the hospital smiling and thanking us for having invested in their stay. Perhaps it got some of them to think about the faith of their childhood. Perhaps some might make that journey back to the church one day. But for now that’s not the point. For now, they have left knowing that to be a Christian means to give and receive love.
This was the same type of living faith I saw this past Tuesday when I attended a drop-in church on the steps of Central United Church in Downtown Windsor. A group of people whom society would probably deem as rag-tags and misfits discovered that they really do fit into the grand scheme of God’s plan and it was in a homeless man offering the minister hospitality in the form of a half-smoked cigarette that I truly saw the face of Christ.
It’s true that our upbringings, our temperaments, our own interests and values may drive us more towards faith or more towards work, but Christ’s life wants to draw us to the throne of love. God’s compassion wants to draw us to the character of God. God’s grace wants to draw us towards God’s generosity. God is loving, accepting, and committed to each one of us and it becomes our joy to be loving, accepting, and committed to those that we will meet this week. Our faith works not because we always do the right actions or say the right things, but because we give the Holy Spirit permission to work through us. This week, I pray that we will be mindful of those who are in need of love, those who are in need of a home, and those who are in need of encouragement. For when we offer hospitality to those whom society views as undeserving, we actually are giving directly back to Christ. May it be so. Amen.