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Faith or Works?

 Faith or Works? Actually Both! 

Based on James 2: 1-10, 14-17  Message for September 5.20     

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 you may wish to skip down a few paragraphs!

James of Jerusalem is also known as James the lesser, to differentiate him from the other apostle James, the brother of John—one of 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 accepted as the author of the Letter of James, although the nowhere in the letter does it 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, when he is ready to leave Jerusalem after escaping from Herod, 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.

This is the James, whose ossuary—a special box containing his bones-- was reportedly discovered in 2002, you might remember when that story hit the news. 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).".... 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, so, 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, called the brother of Jesus.

Now, let’s turn to James’ letter. My Oxford Annotated Bible said that this letter of James most likely originated as a sermon given by James written prior to his death and later it was added to and further developed 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 already 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—bucking two mainstreams in this situation! James’ letter reminds his community 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 members 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:  “ 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? Chapter one, verse 27:  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.”  (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. 

And, today 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 beat around the bush, does he?  Well, let’s ask ourselves, 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 like they were down on their luck, and makes you wonder if they were coming to church just to get out of the weather?   Be honest, who would you be more impressed to welcome; how would you respond to them, would you react differently to each of them?

James has some very profound words for us: “14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? 17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (2: 14-18 NLT)

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 be in complete contrast to 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: “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.  And that too, is discipleship, a desire to deepen our relationship and understanding of Jesus’ ways, living our lives in the ways of Christ by doing the works of Christ, and helping others to find their way to Christ too. 

And that my friends, is our Christian calling, each of us as individuals, and as we working together as a Church community, a community of Christ.  Amen.

Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector.   The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] accessed Sept. 1.15

[2] The Oxford Annotated Bible opening commentary for the Letter of James. (Oxford University Press: New York, NY. 2001)   386 New Testament