This is the third sermon in our Lenten series “Body by Jesus,” in which we are using the book of James to learn how we can conform our bodies to the body of Christ. So far we’ve talked about having Big Ears and Broken Hearts. Today, we’ll learn about Greased Elbows.
SCRIPTURE – James 2:14-18 – 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Body by Jesus: Greased Elbows
March 8, 2015
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. There was a group of nurses who worked there I called “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. At least once a week she would ask me, “Kory, do you know Jesus Christ?” And I’d fumble around for some deflective answer like, “No, is he a patient here?”
I had a lot of fun teasing them about their faith, but there was a part of me that admired them, because they were able to believe in something I couldn’t. They had this thing, this faith, that seemed wonderful, that really made a difference in their lives, 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, instead it made 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. He didn’t appreciate my comedic sensibilities.
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. 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 wasn’t afraid to confront me about my lack of belief, 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 I saw in 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 the question James encourages us to ponder as we seek during Lent to rebuild our bodies in a way that honors God and emulates the example of Jesus. So far James has told us we need to have big ears to listen better and broken hearts that enter into another person’s pain. Today, James says we need to get our hands dirty, to put our elbow grease to work in living out our faith.
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 him. According to James, true faith is something we show with our hands, not our mouths. This idea got James into 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. 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. Paul says faith, James says works.
So who’s right? Well, 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. 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 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.
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 elbow grease. 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. Or, 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 with the tattoos and the piercings, 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 you don’t like. 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 says, “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 put your elbow grease to work. 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? Use your elbow grease. I recommend following the advice of St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”