Faith or Works? Actually Both!
Message for September 9, 2018
Based on James 2: 1-10, 14-17
Our New Testament reading today is again from the letter of James. This is the second of 5 weeks of readings from James, and interestingly, the only time in the entire 3 year cycle of readings, aka “the lectionary” that we read from James. So, I thought it might be interesting to learn a little something about the James who wrote this letter. And the best description I found was on a British Anglican website. Now, if this kind of history bores you, then this is the time in the sermon you may wish to take a wee nap!
James of Jerusalem is also known as James the lesser, to differentiate him from the other apostle James, the brother of John–the fishermen sons of Zebedee. This James, the brother of Jesus, was for many years the leader of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem, and is generally supposed to be the author of the Epistle of James, although the Epistle itself does not state this explicitly. He is mentioned in various places throughout the New Testament: briefly in Matthew’s gospel in connection with Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (13:55); in John’s gospel we read that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him (7:2-5), and from this, and from references in early Christian writers, it is inferred that James was not a disciple of the Lord until after the Resurrection. In the Book of Acts we read that Peter, about to leave Jerusalem after escaping from Herod, and he leaves a message for James and the apostles (12:17). It is also recorded in Acts that when a council meets at Jerusalem to consider what Jewish laws Gentile Christians should be required to keep, James formulates the final consensus (15:13-21).
Outside the New Testament, James is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, who calls him “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ,” and reports that he was much respected even by the Pharisees for his piety and strict observance of the Law, but that his enemies took advantage of an interval between Roman governors in 62 AD to have him put to death. His death is also reported by the second-century Christian writer Hegesippus.
This is the James, whose ossuary was reportedly discovered in 2002. The box was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
(T)he inscription in Aramaic, (said) “James (Jacob), son of Joseph, brother of Jesus (Joshua).”…. In ancient times, in particular between 20 BC and AD 70, the Jews were accustomed to leave a corpse in a tomb for a few months until only the skeleton was left, and then place the bones in a stone box called an ossuary as a permanent receptacle. Experts, examining the box, and considering the language used on the box, the style of carving the box and forming the letters, the growth of algae and mosses on the surface of the box, and so on, date the box as about AD 63, and definitely before AD 70. It is not clear exactly what is meant by calling James the “brother of Jesus.” Hebrew and its near relative (language) Aramaic have no word for “cousin,” and use “brother” not only for brothers, half-brothers, and step-brothers, but also for first cousins. Three theories about the relation of James to Jesus have been popular:
1. Some Protestants (not all) have held James was the son of Mary and Joseph, younger than Jesus.
2. Some Christians, especially in the East, have held that Joseph was a widower when he married Mary, and that James was his son by his former wife.
3. Some Christians, especially in the West, have held that James was a nephew of Mary or of Joseph and hence reckoned a cousin of Jesus.1
So, there you go, probably everything and maybe even more than you wanted to know about James the Lesser, brother of Jesus. Now, let’s return to the letter, as we find it in today’s Bible. My Oxford Annotated Bible said that this letter of James most likely originated as a sermon given by James written prior to his death in the early 60’s BC , and later it was further added to and expounded upon by another leader of James’ church community, and then sent around the larger Christian communities as a letter of instruction and support.2 James’ community was a small group of Jews in Jerusalem who were trying to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus in the midst of the larger Jewish community who denounced and reviled Jesus as Messiah. The Jewish community lived in the midst of the larger Greek and Roman communities, and all were under Roman governance and rule. So, to belong to James’ synagogue would most definitely be like being a member of a very small, and not well liked, minority group, within an oppressed community! The pressures, the ostracizing, the oppression would have been awful. It would have been really hard to be a Christian in those times, talk about bucking the mainstream! The writer of the letter, who for ease of use I’ll call James, reminds his parishioners of their higher calling, to not just to give lip service the Law, but to actually live by it. And he gives very pointed examples. Scholars suggest that the examples he cites were possibly from real events that were happening in the Jerusalem church, otherwise why would he mention them? The writings in this entire letter are very specific, highly moralistic and remind the parishioners that essentially the best expression of their faith in Christ is to live it. How? By putting their faith into action in every day ways. We heard in last week’s reading from James: “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (1.22NRSV) We also heard an exhortation on being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, and the need to bridle angry tongues “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.” (1.26 NLT) So then, what is worthwhile religion for James? “ Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (1.27 NLT) This letter of James’ is really is a letter of instruction for Christian communities. Clearly for James faith is discipleship, “walking the talk”. This is what James’ letter is all about, lessons on being a disciple of Christ. For Anglicans, discipleship is the second mark of Mission: to teach, baptize and nurture new believers, and indeed all believers! The 5 Marks of Mission are the guiding principles of the World wide Anglican Church, and are the framework for the Mission and Ministry Plan each Church in our Diocese has developed! We will be having a special vestry meeting soon to adopt this plan as a way forward for each of our congregations.
So, we heard how some in James’ congregation are showing favouritism to the richer people who walk through the doors of their synagogue over the ones who are not so ‘well heeled’. James tells his people to not be deceived, because “this discrimination shows that your judgments are guided by evil motives” (2:4) and if you favour the rich over the poor just because they’re rich, “you are committing a sin, you are guilty of breaking the law” (2: 9). Doesn’t pull any punches does he? So here’s a question for you—just answer it for yourself. Who would you be more impressed with if they came into the doors of the church; someone who is smartly dressed and appears financially well off—someone who looks as if they might well be able to help-out and support the church, or someone who looks rather down and out, and makes you wonder if they were coming to church just to get out of the weather? How would you respond to them, would you react differently to each of them?
James has some very profound words for us: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2: 14-18)
For James, actions speak louder than words. Faith means acting on what you believe; not just for individual faith, but for an entire faith community to act together. Faith for James is active, it is very much a verb. Over the years, much has been made of these few verses from James, particularly the “Can faith save you?” line, as this seems to go completely
against Paul’s teaching of being ‘justified by faith, not by adherence to the law’ a teaching Paul goes to great length to explain in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. To be “justified” to God means we are “made acceptable” to God is one translation (CEV) or another way of saying it is that we are made ‘right’ with God (NLT).
Here are Paul’s words to the Galatians from the New Living Translation: 16 Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” (2:16 NLT) These teachings by Paul over the years have become a foundational statement of faith known as “Justification by faith alone”. Essentially meaning you can’t work your way into God’s favour, living by the letter of the law. Just obeying all the rules, or doing the “right” things doesn’t get you to heaven. It is our faith, or belief in Jesus that makes us right with God.
At first look, it seems that James and Paul are at opposite ends of the spectrum here. But delve just a little deeper; what is the principle, the intention that is guiding what you are doing? If you’re doing all the right things to earn brownie points with God, well, both Paul and James say that just won’t cut it. But, if your faith in Christ’s teaching and the love of God within your heart are motivating your desire to do the will of God, to live the ways of Jesus, and that’s why you’re doing all the ‘right’ things, well, that’s not only being justified by faith, but that is your faith guiding your works. That’s a living faith, living your life centered in Christ, on Christ and with Christ.
That is discipleship, a desire to deepen our relationship and understanding of Jesus’ ways, living our lives in the ways of Christ and helping others to find that way too. It is our Christian calling, each and every one of us, and together as a Church Community. Amen.
The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope
1 http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/275.html accessed Sept. 1.15
2 The Oxford Annotated Bible, opening commentary for the Letter of James. P. 386 New Testament