SCRIPTURE – James 2:14-18
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.
Body Building: Dirty Hands
March 14, 2010
Do you remember Madge from the old Palmolive commercials? A lady would come into the beauty salon for a manicure, and Madge would first put the woman’s hands in some strange green liquid. Then, when the lady would ask Madge what she uses to keeps her hands so clean and soft, she’d say “You’re soaking in it!”
Clean and soft hands are the marks of a well-kept life. After all, we all know what’s next to godliness: cleanliness. Our society is obsessive about being clean, not only for the value of being germ-free, but so that we’re not associated with the opposite of clean. Webster’s defines “dirty” as “soiled, vile, contemptible, undesirable and unpleasant.” No one would want to be described by any of those words, would they? Even in Jesus’ time, there were dozens of purification rituals so that a person would not be “unclean.” To be unclean was to be an outsider, to be barred from entry into the temple. No one wants to be thought of as unclean. And yet again, for our Body Building routine this Lent, James wants us to take the opposite approach to most makeovers. Instead of getting manicures and soaking our hands in Palmolive, James says we have to get them dirty. In fact, the dirtier our hands are the more that says about the functionality of our faith.
I remember an uncle of mine who was a mechanic used to tease me because he said I had “soft hands.” His hands were always rough and stained with grease. You knew when he came home at night that he’d been working hard by the look of his hands. I was a journalist at the time, so I wasn’t doing a lot of heavy lifting. My hands didn’t have calluses, they didn’t have dirt under the fingernails, there was no sign that my hands had been used for anything other than some vigorous typing.
One time he was teaching me to change the oil in my car. He explained where the oil plug was, and told me to crawl under the car and loosen the plug. And I said, “Under THERE?!?” When I climbed back out, he said, “Let me see your hands.” So I stuck out my grimy, greasy, oiled-covered hands. He looked at them and smiled and said, “That’s more like it! Now I can tell you’ve done some work.”
Work, or deeds, is an important concept to James. He preaches against the person who professes belief in Christ but then avoids situations where they might get their hands dirty serving the Lord. According to James, true faith is something we show with our hands, not just our mouths.
This idea got James into a lot of trouble down through the centuries. In fact, the great reformer Martin Luther wanted to cut James right out of the Bible. He said it was a “right strawy epistle” because it seemed to contradict Paul’s teaching that we are saved through our faith alone. 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 checklist of good deeds we have to complete. 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 charged that James drives us back to the law, that he claims we have to perform certain actions in order to be called righteous before 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 and James are arguing two sides of the same coin. Paul is arguing against the belief that we can somehow earn our way into Heaven. I once knew a contractor back in Indiana who was notorious for dumping waste into the local stream that ran by his housing development. Years later, he opened up a small golf course next to the subdivision, and he let local pastors play for free. Do you think he was trying to make good with the Creator for polluting the creation? I don’t know if it worked, but I played a lot of free golf…to help this man absolve himself, of course. That’s what Paul is warning about, trying to buy our way into Heaven through good deeds.
But James makes an important point about the danger of the flipside of that equation: a faith without works. 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, even if those beliefs are not lived out by our hands.
James calls head faith a dead faith. The Greek word he uses for “dead” is “nekros,” the same word used to describe a corpse. James is saying you can dress head faith up, put it in fancy clothes, make it look alive, but inside it’s still dead. It may look and sound like true faith, but inside there is no life. A faith that is not lived out is like a present that is meticulously and exquisitely wrapped, but never given away.
What James is arguing for here is not that we are saved by deeds. We are saved by our faith in Christ. But a true faith, a faith that has been received as a gift from God, can never be kept silent. That kind of faith is so life-changing that it compels us to respond out of gratitude with faith-based action. Billy Graham says it this way: “There is no conflict between faith and works. In the Christian life they go together like inhaling and exhaling. Faith is taking the gospel in; works is taking the gospel out.”
James is saying that if you claim to have faith, if you tell everyone how faithful you are, if you show up in all the right places and say all the right things, and yet don’t live out that faith in how you live and serve and treat others, then your faith is not real faith. “Show me your faith without deeds,” James says. That’s the point! How can you show a faith without deeds? There’s nothing to show. As Jesus said in Matthew 7, “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.”
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, Pastor, 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 Buffalo?” 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, “Look, Lady, 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.”
That’s what James calls us to do: Get in there and get our hands dirty. Don’t set your faith up on a shelf, taking it down only on Sunday morning and the occasional crisis. Put it on and put it to use. God’s gift to us is the knowledge that we have been reconciled to him through Jesus Christ, that we have been saved from our sins. That gift is so exhilarating, so liberating, that it should fill us to overflowing with gratitude, and that gratitude should spill out from us toward others.
Living out your faith means being willing to do the dirty work of service. As always, Jesus leads the way for us here. In John’s gospel, as the disciples are gathering in the upper room for the Last Supper, Jesus wanted to leave them one lasting lesson about the importance of living out their faith. Did he preach a sermon to them? Did he give them a theological lecture? No. Instead, he bends down and, one by one, takes their feet, dirty and smelly from the day’s walk, and he washes them clean. He doesn’t just tell them what they need to do. They have asked him repeatedly what it means to follow him. He is basically saying to them, “You’re soaking in it! As I have done for you, so you must do for others.”
What has Jesus done for us? He hasn’t washed our feet; he’s washed our souls. He’s given us the gift of forgiveness and mercy and eternal life. When we serve others, when we get our hands dirty, we’re not only providing a service, we’re providing a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where everyone’s hands are dirty from helping others. We can’t all do everything, but each of us can do something. If you don’t know where to start, let me know. We’ll find someplace you can get your hands dirty. James says, “I will show you my faith by what I do.”
What are you going to do this week to make a difference in someone’s life? What are you going to do to show them that the kingdom of God looks different – more loving, more hopeful, more generous – than this world? The next person you meet may be the one person who needs to see faith in action the most. So what do you do? I recommend following the advice of St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”