What good is it? from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
1Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18But 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. 19You believe that God is one, you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder. 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. 24YOu see that a person is justified by works and not faith alone. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
This sermon could go in two directions. On the one hand, this could be a sermon where I show that scripture is in conversation with itself on some issues. On the other hand, this could be a sermon that directs the church to action.
I confessed last Sunday that I love the book of James less than the other books of the New Testament. This passage today is why I struggle with James. The Presbyterian tradition, in which I firmly fall, rejects outright the idea that we sinners could "earn" our salvation, or that we could bargain our way into heaven by being on our best behavior. Elsewhere in the Bible we are told that our salvation comes from the faithfulness of Jesus who bore our sins on the cross. It's not in our power to save ourselves, we are saved by grace through faith.
And yet, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?"
This passage here, this is why I struggle with James. This letter seems to be at odds with my understanding of how God works. It emphasizes action over belief.
And so this sermon could, on the one hand, give us the chance to think about the ways that the Bible challenges to grow in faith by making us wrestle with apparent contradictions. We could all nod thoughtfully along, and by the end of it come to a more complete understanding of the God who is revealed in scripture.
On the other hand, this sermon could confront us with everything that needs to be done, and push us into action, working on behalf of the LORD. We could dive into serving others, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, offering costly sacrifices, and working with unexpected partners to bring down the regimes which stand in the way of God’s promises.
One hand and the other, caught between two sermon directions. The first would be interesting, maybe, but it wouldn’t fully grab this passage from James. It would be preaching about the bible without actually preaching what’s in the bible. The second seems to engage the text, but it wouldn’t reflect the community of faith to whom I am called. It would point to the Truth, but it wouldn’t be true to who we are.
Our congregation tends to have a very thoughtful spirituality. We tend to approach our relationship to God through study, by exercising the minds that we have been given. Now there's nothing wrong with that way of approaching God. It's one of a variety of spiritual styles that communities of faith have. For a congregation with such a rich history of educators as leaders, a thoughtful spirituality is an expression of the faith we share.
It is also a super good fit for this nerdy preacher.
That fit between our congregation's spiritual style and my own gives me a certain amount of perspective as well. The weaknesses in my own spiritual life may show up in similar ways in the life of our community. The strength is that we almost always think before we act. The weakness is that maybe we don't always get around to the acting part. Sometimes our faith gets bogged down in our minds and doesn't find its way into the rest of our body.
Faith is more than an idea we entertain for an hour on Sundays and then set aside when something more entertaining comes along. If faith is just an intellectual exercise, then it's just a philosopher's game, and has no life in it. James is right to pounce on this kind of "faith," because "...it is indeed no faith, for when dead, it does not properly retain the name." In our community, faith is most at home in our minds, but the way we understand God has to inform the way we serve God, otherwise, what good is it?
This passage here is why I struggle with James. I’m a big fan of Romans, which heavily emphasizes that we are justified by faith, and “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” James seems to be at odds with this message, asserting that “a person is justified by works and not faith alone. But I think James is pushing back against the temptation to stop at saying we have faith and to not risk putting it into practice. We tend to trust our affirmation of faith more than the transformative love of God. ”When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means… by faith we are counted as righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to show that he who professes that he has faith must prove the reality of his faith by his works.” The same God who sent his Son to us in the flesh probably meant for our faith to have an impact on what we do with our bodies. “Faith [is] brought to completion by the works.”
Our faith, and the thoughtful way we express it, is completed by what we do because of it. Our works are intentional, reflecting our own deep experience of God’s transformative love. Our works allow us to engage with a world that is full of questions and to help those who cross our path find peace. Our faith leads to a more profound praise that addresses the variety of ways that God intervenes in the world. We put our energy into serving the LORD in good, appropriate, and beautiful ways, and we are always looking for the Spirit to blow where it chooses, so that we can follow Jesus more fully.
Let our affirmation of faith be more than recitation, let it be testimony. Let our affirmation of faith be the kind of testimony that shows what God has done through us. Let our affirmation of faith be testimony that by our works shows the world our faith. "Religion is a matter of practice, of obedience to God's will.” Let our affirmation of faith lead us into our practice of faith.
I struggle with James because, ultimately, he is not wrong. James reminds me that all the faith in the world doesn't do much good unless it finds its expression in my actions. James reminds me that a real faith must be lived, not merely affirmed. James reminds me that the transformative love of God will change both my thoughts and my actions.
This sermon could have gone two ways, on the one hand it could have been a tour through the times scripture is in conversation with itself, a learned lecture to expand our minds. On the other hand, it could have been a call to action, pushing us into the world to ram into all the uncountable symptoms of our sinful world.
But what good is it a sermon is merely an essay read aloud, when instead we be transformed by the ways God intervenes in the world. What good is it if a sermon doesn’t speak to those to whom it is given, when instead we can enact the Word we know to be true.
If we have faith, then we will live it. If we faith Jesus, then we will follow him, no matter where he leads us.