What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area right after high school, I worked afternoons at a doctor’s office in Springfield, Va. This was the height of my pre-Christian days, so I didn’t have much use in my life for religion. But there wase a group of nurses who worked there that I really liked. I called them “The God Squad” because they were all so religious and not afraid to tell you so. There was Burma and Regina, but Janice, she was the ringleader; she would really get them going.
I’d say, “Hey everyone, the coffee is ready.”
She’d shout, “Praise the Lord, the coffee’s ready!”
“OK, you get the decaf today.”
If our computer network went down, they’d have a laying on of hands on my computer. I had a lot of fun teasing them about their faith, but there was an unspoken part of me that admired them, because they were able to believe in something I couldn’t. They had something, this faith, that seemed wonderful, and I secretly longed for the same thing. I often thought about asking Janice more seriously about her faith.
Until one day on the drive home from work. In the D.C. area, because of the high volume of traffic, they have special lanes called High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes, or HOV lanes. They were like express lanes, but they were right next to the regular lanes without any barrier separating them. You had to have at least three people in your car to use the HOV lanes. This was supposed to promote carpooling, but all it did was make it very tempting for people to sneak into the HOV lanes. These lanes were so coveted that people would put blow-up dolls in their car to make it look like they had three people in there. The fines for illegally using the HOV lanes were steep; I couldn’t believe I had to pay $75! The policeman who pulled me over asked me why there weren’t three people in my car, and I told him my blow-up dolls had sprung a leak. I guess he didn’t find that too funny.
Anyway, I was on the way home one night – in the regular lanes – when I saw a car with one person in it come flying up the HOV lane. And I thought to myself, “Who would have the nerve to use the HOV lane illegally?” This was after my ticket, by the way. And I couldn’t believe it when I saw the driver of the car was Janice! She zoomed by me, smiling, probably singing along to some Bill Gaither song. And as she passed me and I caught a glimpse of her “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker, I was infuriated! Here’s a lady who claimed to be a Christian, who used God’s name in sentences more than surfers use “dude,” and she was blatantly breaking the law! Christians weren’t supposed to break the law. They were supposed to use the regular lanes and always say “thank you” and return the $20 bill that fell out of your pocket. After that I had no desire to talk to Janice about God.
You know, that’s the number one complaint I hear about Christians. We’re hypocrites. I had someone once tell me, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him with their lifestyle. That’s what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” That’s what I found unbelievable about Janice’s actions. Now, granted, in hindsight I was probably too judgmental of Janice. We all make mistakes, don’t we? And forgiveness is a crucial part of our belief. But Janice made me wonder, “Aren’t Christians called to a higher standard? Does our belief have any consequences for our actions?” That’s what James is helping us explore this morning.
You know, we’re lucky to even have these words from James. If it were up to Martin Luther, James would have been cut out of the Bible. Luther’s complaint was that James contradicted Paul’s teachings. You see, Paul taught that there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation. That is a gift God has given to us. There’s no quota to reach of helping old ladies across the street, because there’s nothing we can do to get us on God’s good side. Through Christ, we’re already there. As Paul says in Romans, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
Luther said that the letter of James was “full of straw” because James is saying that faith without works is a dead faith. Luther charged that James drives us back to the law, that we have perform certain actions in order to be reckoned as righteous by God. And that teaching directly contradicts Paul’s idea that the righteous will live by their faith in God, and not their works.
So who’s right? They both are. Paul has a clear understanding of the Good News: Christ died on the cross so that we all are made righteous by God through our faith in Jesus. There’s no amount of good deeds we can do to earn that. It’s a gift from God. But James makes an important point about the danger of faith without works, and it’s one to which we’re all susceptible. I call it head faith. Head faith is an intellectual assent to a certain set of doctrines and Christian teachings without any corresponding change in one’s actions. Head faith is simply a cerebral belief, and that leads us to presume that simply knowing the right truth or holding the right position is enough to make us righteous.
James calls head faith a dead faith. He says faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. You probably know people who can do a good job of faking a live faith. I was waiting to get my hair cut one day and struck up a conversation with another person waiting. When people find out I’m a pastor they usually react in one of two ways. They either suddenly find the tops of their shoes incredibly interesting, or they do their Clark-Kent-in-a-phone-booth routine and turn into…Super Religious Person! “Let me tell you how faithful I am!” This lady responded that way. She was flipping through a travel magazine and she turned to me and said, “You know, God spoke to me and told me my fiancé and I should go to Hawaii for our honeymoon.” And I thought, “Really? What if God told you to go to Pittsburgh?”
I know what she was trying to do; she was trying to show me how faithful she was. But I wanted to say to her, “My vote on your salvation doesn’t count, but do you want to impress me? Go to church every Sunday. Say ‘hello’ to the grocery store clerk and tell her to ‘have a nice day’ when you leave. You want to impress me? Teach your children to respect people who are different from them. Go out of your way to do something nice for someone. Give up something you want so someone else can have something they need. Don’t tell me how faithful you are; show me.” I couldn’t help thinking of the time when Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person has it? James asks his imaginary adversary to “show me your faith without deeds,” but that’s the point! You can’t show a faith without deeds, because there’s nothing to show. Head faith without hands and feet action is not suffering, is not weak, it’s dead.
But we have already been shown that God can make the dead live. Through Christ, we know that we have life and have it abundantly. We know that God loves us and believes in us. Look at our lives; are we not blessed? When we look at the enormous faith God has in us, how can we keep from acting? To acknowledge that we believe that Jesus is the Christ and our Lord and Savior is more than just a decision made above the neck; it’s a decision that comes from the heart. And if it comes from the heart, we are no longer the same person. We have been changed. The proof of the reality of a person’s faith is a changed life that works to change the lives of others.
The ironic thing is that a lot of times, this process works backwards. Instead of coming to faith and then taking action, it is our taking action that leads us to deeper faith. I was on a mission trip to North Carolina a few years ago, working on a house that had been flooded by a recent hurricane. A few youth and I were assigned to clean out the pool, which had been filled to the top with floodwaters and creepy-crawlies and sticks that looked liked snakes and made ministers scream like little girls. The youth and I emptied the pool, gave it a good scrubbing, and began to fill it again with fresh, clean, sparkling water. And one of my particularly ornery junior high youth came over and said, “I guess that’s what God does, huh?” What? “He takes the yucky stuff out of us and makes us clean.” A junior high kid. Action is often the way to deeper faith.
I know we are all at different places in our faith journey. I’m glad you all are here today, and I hope our time together in worship is meaningful for you. But there’s only so much that I can tell you. A scholar once wrote, “Faith is more caught than taught.” As we continue to wrestle with the intellectual aspects of faith, it is the experiential component, the living out of what we believe, that brings the most insight to us. Getting involved in the life of the church and putting your faith into action will have a greater impact on your faith than any sermon you hear or any book you read, except for the Bible. It will bring your faith alive.
So how can you tell a good Christian? By the fish emblem they have on their car? By how well the speak God language? St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel everywhere. If necessary, use words.”