Faith That Flowers
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We’re talking about the nature of faith this morning. You’ll recall two weeks ago we said that this is one of the three major themes that runs through the letter of James. The nature of faith is one. The nature of God is two. The meaning of faith in our day-to-day lives is three – what is the way of wisdom in terms of what we do and say as we go through our days? Faith is one of those words that can become so familiar that we might start to lose our grasp on its depth of meaning. This can happen to a lot of words that have clothed the deepest and most meaningful parts of what God is about, what the kingdom of God is about. You’ve heard me say the same thing about words like redemption or salvation or hope.
One of my favourite writers/theologians is Frederick Beuchner. He wrote once about a friend of his who told him that he felt that Christian thought is a dead language, one that he would no more use overtly than he would speak Latin. Here’s how Beuchner responded to this:
“I suppose he is right, more right than wrong anyway. If the language that clothes Christianity is not dead, it is at least, for many, dying; and what is really surprising, I suppose, is that it has lasted as long as it has.
Take any English word, even the most commonplace, and try repeating it twenty times in a row—umbrella, let us say, umbrella, umbrella, umbrella—and by the time we have finished, umbrella will not be a word anymore. It will be a noise only, an absurdity, stripped of all meaning. And when we take even the greatest and most meaningful words that the Christian faith has and repeat them over and over again for some two thousand years, much the same thing happens. There was a time when such words as faith, sin, redemption, and atonement had great depth of meaning, great reality; but through centuries of handling and mishandling, they have tended to become such empty banalities that just the mention of them is apt to turn people's minds off like a switch.
But I keep on using them. I keep plugging away at the same old words. I keep on speaking the language of the Christian faith because, although the words themselves may well be mostly dead, the longer I use them, the more convinced I become that the realities that the words point to are very real and un-dead, and because I do not happen to know any other language that for me points to these realities so well.”
- The reality toward which this word points is very real. The word can get thrown around, used flippantly even. “All you need is faith.” “You gotta have faith.”
These three things remain – faith, hope, and love. James wants us to take faith so seriously that it invades every aspect of our lives.
When I told a group here at Blythwood some weeks ago that we would be looking at the book of James, somebody replied “Oh oh!” “Faith without works is dead” declares James in this diatribe. This is really what this section and the sections that follow from here on in are. Forceful speech which speaks against something. Here James is speaking against the idea that faith is not an event. That faith is not something that happens. He is affirming rather forcefully that faith is a verb in the same way love is a verb. Does not this go against what Paul says in Galatians 2:16? “…yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Doesn’t this show that the Bible is full of contradictions? Consider what Paul is writing about to the people of Galatia. The question there is “Do Gentile converts need to follow the law of the Torah in order to be saved?” (“Saved” is another one of those Christian words that we need to look at and we’ll spend some time on that a little later). James is writing to a group of Jewish followers of Christ and he wants them to know that faith looks like something.
Faith is an event and it’s based on the grace and love and mercy and faithfulness of God in whom there is no shadow due to change and James is urging us to a fullness of response in faith. Which looks like something. There’s a line from “My Fair Lady” where Eliza Doolittle sings to her would-be suitor Freddy “Don’t talk of stars burning above, if you’re in love, show me!”
We want to come to a deeper understanding of faith. We’ve spoken of faith as trust, as fidelity, as devotion – single-hearted, single-minded “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master… so our eyes look to the Lord our God…” devotion. Faith as trust in God’s goodness and love and care and throwing ourself into God’s arms and care the same way as a small child I threw myself into my father’s arms as he stood in the pool saying “Jump in, I’ve got you.” He did. God does. Faith as trust in the goodness of God. We need to be able to talk about this because we want to be serious about being disciples and making disciples and the first gospel most people will read is us. The opportunities we are given to speak of faith are very often going to come about because of what people are seeing of faith in us.
And so we’ve also spoken of visible tangible acts starting with the words that come out of our mouths, and if the words coming out of our mouths are not reflective of the goodness of the Father of lights from whom comes every good and perfect gift then it’s all blah blah blah.
True faith is shown. It’s not just something we claim with our lips.
This can be difficult for Protestants. The Reformation brought about the five solas and of course you can get them on a t-shirt. We need to ask though what do they mean? What does sola scriptura mean? Does is mean that all I need is me and my Bible and Jesus and I’m good? What does sola fide mean? What is faith?
Let’s take this question seriously. James was a serious man. James takes faith seriously – seriously enough to condemn it when it is false, dead, worthless. Faith looks like something and this isn’t a new idea. This isn’t a controversial idea. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me “Lord Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven..” Jesus said, “…whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Paul wrote of the “obedience of faith in Romans 1:5. He wrote in 1 Cor 13:2 “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” John writes in 1 John 4:20 “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love god whom they have not seen.”
James is not setting up a dichotomy between faith and works here as if they were in competition with each other or it’s got to be all this way or all this way.. He’s saying that you can’t have one (faith) without the other. A claim to faith (note his use of “claim” here) alone is dead. Worthless. Good for nothing. Can such a claim save you?
What does it mean to be saved anyway? What are we talking about when we talk about being saved? The bare minimum to make it to heaven as if a profession of faith were some sort of “Get Out of Hell Free” card? There is an eternal aspect to being saved, to being delivered of course there is. There is also a regenerative aspect. There is also a morally transformative aspect to being saved, to being delivered, to being rescued. There is an “I am living in communion with the creator of the universe, with the reconciler of all things, with the Holy Spirit of truth and peace” aspect.
Saving faith is apparent. Someone has said – “If we have faith the people around us will know that we have faith in God because they will see it happen…. Faith is alive and it has its own dynamic inner force, which flows out of the relationship we have as servants of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. James is making a connection that must be made between relationship and character. We who as servants of God trust God and the Lord Jesus Christ will show our relationship inevitably in living out toward those around us what been lived into us by God’s generosity… We love others and we are made able to love others because we have first been loved ourselves. We forgive trespasses because we have been forgiven. The proof and the sure evidence that our faith is alive… is in this simple sharing of the good and generous gift we have received.”
Part of the diatribe style is using ridiculous hypothetical scenarios to prove a point. It is hoped we see this as a ridiculous hypothetical scenario. Here’s verses 15 and 17 - 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.
What is the good of that? I have no idea. Like a lot of people of my generation, I watched Seinfeld. I still do. I read an article once talking about Seinfeld contributing to the “meanification” of society. They’re all slightly sociopathic. There’s one episode where Jerry has this emotional breakthrough. Telling everyone how much he loves them. He ends up asking Elaine to marry him. He sits down with George and urges his friend to get everything off his chest. All of, as George puts it, his darkest fears, everything he’s capable of. Jerry looks on with increasing horror as George shares. When George finished, Jerry gets up off the couch, backing away slowly, and says “Yikes…Good luck with all that… “ George asks “Where are you going? I thought I could count on you for a little compassion!” Jerry replies “I think you scared me straight!” (YouTube “I love you George, but good luck with all that)
Crazy right? It’s never about “I love you George, but good luck with all that.”
Living faith lives to be shown. “You believe that God is one? You do well!” Sarcastic clap from James (I told you – salty!) Even the demons believe and shudder (even the demons have the sense to tremble before God). Talk about working out our salvation in fear and trembling!
Never despairing though. Trusting in the one on whom all of this talk of faith and deeds is based, beloved sisters and brothers. Always remembering the legacy that is ours, you 12 tribes of the dispersion and you who have been grafted into the olive tree like a wild branch (that’s us). Let us remember our legacy. Let us never forget those who have gone before. “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works and faith was brought to completion by the works.” (21-22) James is not talking about justification in terms of our right standing before God which has been brought about by Jesus and our faith, trust, fidelity, devotion to Christ. He’s talking about how Abraham’s faith was on full display. Rahab’s trust in the God of Israel resulted in action. James is saying that this faith must never be divorced from what it looks like in our lives. Look at what it looked like in Abraham’s life and how it was brought to completion or fruition.
This is what we want yes? For the love of God to be made complete in us? To be fruit-bearing trees? Faith and deeds are not something to set up against one another, they’re two things that go together like – name any two things you like that go well together. James is calling for a unity of the two.
We know what happens when there’s disunity between the two. We know what happens in our own lives. We know what happens to the Kingdom’s cause when the faith hope and love which we profess are in no way borne out in our actions. The damage that can be done.
While we are in many ways speaking in a broad way about faith and endeavouring to know more deeply the implications of faith in Christ, James reminds us here in this passage about the everyday practicality of what we do and what we say. There are people in the community to which he is writing in need of food and clothing. There are people in our community in need of food and clothing and shelter. Let us pray that God will show us what it looks like to see to, to care for, to seek the welfare of widows and orphans in their distress – as a church, as individuals. Let us also look to those around us in our immediate circles. Who is in need of an outside visit? A warm voice on the phone? Who is in the need of the opposite of “Good luck with all that…”?
May God make the answers clear to us, and give us hearts of courage and love to act on those answers. May this call for the unification of faith and deeds by Jesus’ brother be heard and acted on by all of us.