A Sermon on James 2:1-17

Life. Social interaction and everyday life are best described as a game. There are specific rules for tipping a waiter, haggling with a car salesman, and the complexities of navigating a social dinner party are extensive. All these are codes we have invented in order to efficiently interact with one another. Those who know the rules well exceed, while those who do not are labeled as outcasts. Those who dress appropriately for a job interview get the job more often than those who show up in shorts.

We are a physical people, and by that I mean we ascertain most of our knowledge from what we see. We often make judgments about the character of an individual by what shoes he wears. And also by preferences. If a person tells me their favorite movie is Citizen Kane, I make quite a different set of judgments about them than if their favorite movie is Snakes on a Plane. But these societal games take an unfortunate toll in our lives when they are used for societal control, for systematic discrimination.

James is so angry with the congregation we read about because they have let the rules of the society determine how they treat the people who walk through the door. The Jesus movement is characterized by a societal rebellion. Woman were given roles of leadership, the sick were cared for instead of being left to die, unwanted children were being cared for, the poor and the widows were being included instead of forgotten. Then for whatever reason, James lets us know that the congregation was dishonoring the poor. We don’t know their circumstances. All we have is the image James has given us as an example. The sight of golden rings and fancy clothes cause the people to flock to his side, offering him the best pew. And in their hubbub, they tell the poor man, which they hardly have time to deal with the poor man, but manage to tell him to stand in the back, the balcony is open.

A series of judgments were quickly made about the two visitors. Their clothes sorted them into two classes, one high class and one low class. They assumed the rich man had a lot to offer the congregation, perhaps a donation to get them ahead on budget, and they assumed the poor man had nothing to offer, so he is given a place of shame, while the rich man is allowed to sit. And the rich of their community are the very ones oppressing the church, dragging them into court.

James is not concerned with why the discrimination occurred. They may have had perfectly good excuses that Sunday.  He doesn’t care, because it happened. Any time, any time the church plays favorites or shows partiality, it has abandoned Christ. God is not like that. God cares for the poor and has chosen them to receive blessing and to inherit the Kingdom. God does not operate according to the rules of society. Any form of oppression, any affirmation of the dividing lines the world has carved out is an open rebellion against the Gospel of Christ. When we presume ourselves to have the ability to separate people, giving some preferential treatment and not to others, we separate ourselves from Christ.

Though an example, it is hard from being an abstract one. It was not so long ago in the Methodist church that we charged a premium for selected pews causing the poor to gather in the less desirable seating, and not so long ago African Americans were forced to sit in the balconies out of sight. The whole history of humanity is scarred by the systematic exclusion of the Other. Otherness is what scares us, makes us uncomfortable.

Hear the gospel with fresh ears; Jesus loves across all lines, and asks us to love one another, even the people we tend to exclude. Jesus gave us 2 commands: love God and neighbor, and this church had forgotten to love neighbor and found it impossible to love God. James asks Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? Because you’re not acting like it. For James, playing favorites is just as serious of a sin as adultery, or murder. You shame the name of God. Because Jesus wasn’t like that. Jesus destroyed the walls of hostility between us, he has made the world one under his name. The love of Christ transcends class, race, gender or any other factor.

Such indiscriminate love can be seen in the life of Will Campbell. Will worked tirelessly in the Civil Rights movement, standing up for the rights of African Americans when few other people would do so. His controversial views attracted threats upon his life and hatred from others. Yet, what is truly impressive of Will’s story is that his story of loving others begins there. After many years, he became convicted by the hatred he had for his racist opponents. He intentionally sought to befriend those he had hated and opposed for so long. For him, becoming a follower of Jesus meant more than choosing the right side of an argument, it meant not choosing sides, but simply loving people. He went so far as to becoming close friends with members of the KKK, inviting hate mail from the other side he had supported. [1]

In other words, radical hospitality should not look like another social activist group. Christ’s love should cause friendships and love to occur between people the world would label as incompatible. What about this character with a gold ring and fine clothes? Are we to shun him because he is rich? Certainly not. James is saying do not discriminate period. God hates favoritism of all kinds, even the favoritism we show when we exclude the rich or we exclude people we may not agree with. Jesus demands us to love our neighbors, and that does not come with a qualifier.

At a deeper level, James then begins to dig in to why they are acting this way, and it is because their faith has become a dusty set of ideals. Currently in America, it is time for another presidential election. We find ourselves in a wonder land of idealism where idle lyricists and tactical rhetoricians battle it out on a plane of distant philosophical musings while the American public watches from the sidelines, watching speeches, posting on facebook “yes!” with a link to an article supporting your candidate and filling our yards with red or blue.

Remember back to elementary school, the speeches for class president are, how do we say, a bit far-fetched? Little Billy wanted to deliver a dynamite speech the humble promises of adding additional coke machines and turning the hall ways into one giant swimming pool. That would get the crowd of kids really going. But he didn’t, and told his mom there was “no way” he could deliver on those promises. So his mom helped him write a speech. And you know what? Billy lost. He lost because his friends had come up with much wilder promises than a simple swimming pool. His friends promised extra days off, extended recesses, giving the kids decision making power in the school.

When I listen to the political debates and read the passionately written articles that come out, I cant help but think back to the elementary school presidential race. Making far-fetched promises that are beyond anyone’s power to live up to. At the end of the day, election time only takes a few months and we, the public, judge a politician on how they perform, what they actually do in office. We want their idealistic speeches to match up with their actions. James is doing nothing more than holding the church up to the same standards. Becoming a Christian, taking the vows of baptism and publically declaring Christ as Lord is the church’s form of a campaign speech. We publically make promises of the ways in which we will conduct ourselves when we are members of God’s family. James knows this, and he is aware of the demand of such a claim, of the heavy cost it requires.

What the church had done was try to separate 2 things that were never meant to be apart. Their faith was detached from a practical application and became an idealism, a lofty set of ideas that were worthy of gathering together to honor, but not worth acting upon. So the norms of the world kicked in, they did what came naturally to them and found themselves discriminating against the poor. James lets us know this faith is dead. Their faith was an empty set of ideals, with no practical application.

For James, Faith means more than belief. Faith requires an inherent, lively trust. Imagine the faith that a soldier has for her superior officer. It would be foolishness to say that a soldier believes her superior officer to exist. That much is obvious. A soldier’s faith is a trust where they place their very lives into the hands of the officer, trusting the orders they receive and the decisions that are made to be the proper ones.

James says “faith without works is dead” because such an earnest faith, an honest trust and commitment would have to be lived out. A soldier would find himself in mortal danger quickly if his faith was not accompanied with actual actions to follow those orders. Thus, for faith to be evident to others, it has to be made external and visible. God created us as creatures with senses, we are in a physical, fleshy world.

God sent us his Son in the flesh, because we are a people who need to see, touch, hear, taste and smell. We believe in the word made flesh. Made real. He gave us the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper because we need signs to point us to the divine truths. We need to see in order to believe and we need to see in order to understand. Is it that crazy of an idea for James to say that we need visible actions in order for our faith to take root? Its not. It’s a very Christian idea. Religion is caring for widows and the poor because our actions become the Gospel lived out, that’s what people see. We are called to make our faith fleshy. It needs to be a complete part of us.

Faith without works is literally dead. It didn’t take. It has been placed like a seed, but was never activated. The faith we have is a gift from the Holy Spirit, when we first started to acknowledge Christ as our savior, it was the Holy Spirit opening our hearts and giving us the eyes to see the truth. Faith is a cure to the soul, an antidote to sin, a life-changing release from the chains of death. Does that sound like something that would lead one to be idle? Is that something we can ignore?

Salvation surely comes from faith alone, but the story doesn’t end there, it cannot end there. Otherwise, what would faith be for? It is more than a Monopoly get out of Jail free card. James says what good is faith at all, if it doesn’t bring change and transformation. What good is it? When God created us, he determined that we would work alongside the Spirit. John Wesley put it this way: “God works, therefore you can work.” God works and by his mercy sets us free from our own selfishness, and allows us to be able to do good. But he also says “God works, therefore you must work.” [2]
The love that is implanted into our hearts entreats us to go on and outwards in service to him. Our works freely flow from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, in our love for God, works spring forth.

What would it mean for the church to reclaim such a serious understanding of faith? Nowadays, our faith often serves as simply a preference, we add “Methodist” as another adjective to describe who we are, after listing what movies we like. Faith must be reclaimed as a deep, life-defining conviction that is the gift of God, which enables us to do good on this earth. Faith is the only way we can love without discrimination. Without acting out our faith, we can never open the door, but without faith at all there is not a door even to open, we are locked up.

This would be an understanding of faith that makes no sense without a fleshy, real substance. Such a faith is dangerous to the world, foolish even. There one finds people who love across boundaries of class, religion and race, willfully ignorant of social customs, who are constantly opening doors rather than building walls. Far from being idealistic, this is the simple truth Christ lived out while on this earth, and he calls us to do the same. I believe we have this faith, I believe that we can, and we must learn to love like God.

1. Dan Clendnen, “Playing Favorites: What Will Campbell Learned.”
2. John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation.”

2 thoughts on “Fleshy Faith

  1. I enjoyed reading this sermon Ben, And I understand, and completely agree with it’s meaning. Thank you for these words from James.