GIVING US THE WORKS
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. James 2:1-10, 14-17. September 7, 2003.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works?
– James 2:14
Back in my student days at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I had a roommate one year in the dormitory who had a way of saying things so that they stuck with me. Many of us may know someone like that: they have a way with words, and we remember those words long after. In the case of my roommate, if someone would say that they were going to do something – you know, something challenging and difficult, Tom would often remark that “talk is cheap.” I can’t begin to remember how many times that I heard those words: “Talk’s cheap, Richard,” he would say to me. I guess I was kind of dense, for it took some time for me to understand what he meant. But after a while, I knew there was a challenge there, and possibly a sting too when the talk never got beyond being just talk.
When the letter of James in the New Testament was written, the church had a problem with cheap talk in the area of faith. People would use the language: they would say all the right things as they talked faith, and they could give great testimonies. But while they would talk faith, they did not live faith. They did not live faith. They had no good works, or what St. Paul referred to as “acts of love.” Today we might say that they talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. They simply talked faith, and talk was cheap.
One New Testament scholar thinks that this passage in the book of James was written because of a lax attitude in the church about recruiting new Christians – an attitude that so long as people would give lip service to Christian faith, nothing else need be required of them. The book of James is very specific that more is required of a Christian than just to say that he or she has faith, and to give an impressive testimony. The Christian should be able to do that, of course, but much more than that is needed. The Christian must also demonstrate faith through concrete deeds of love and mercy. So it is that in today’s lesson we read,
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? (2:15-16)
And so, James concludes, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2.17)
Now the first century is not the only time in the history of the church when this kind of cheap talk has occurred. While talk is very often dear in the church and discipleship and commitment very demanding, talk can be cheap in the church today too, just as it sometimes was in the past. For some modern Christians are also content to simply make a verbal confession of faith, without any deeds of love to go with it. All too often I have to put up my hand here and say, “Me Lord.” For I know there are times when I can talk a pretty good game, but my words of faith are not followed by deeds of faith. And I know others who admit the same thing.
And when this lack of good deeds becomes q common thing, then we may become content for our churches simply to be social clubs where we gather together, pay our dues, and tell one another how well we are doing; then we close up the doors and close down the church for another week. In the process, we lose our compassion for the hungry and the hurting, and we take no steps to address and redress their plight. In this way, we close not only the doors of our churches, but also the doors of our hearts to the lost and the last and the least and anyone in need of the lived-out love of God. And we look at the great problems facing our community and our world; and we shrug and say, “They are so big, what can we possibly do?”
This morning was our early communion service, and next month will be World Communion Sunday. Every time I receive the sacrament, I realize that there is no place for cheap talk in the Christian church; for the Lord’s Supper brings me face to face with the one who is the source of our faith, and I am reminded that for him there was no cheap talk. Every time I focus on Calvary – on the high price he paid, I am struck with just how demanding faith can be; and I realize again that my confession of faith must be accompanied by manifestations of my faith. Otherwise, I really have no faith: I have only nice words.
The business of cheap talk crops up again and again through the Bible. I have already mentioned what St. Paul said over in the book of Galatians. And as we are now reading through the book of James, we are seeing how it is quite specific on this matter. Then if we turn to 1 John 3:18, we read this: “Little children, let us love not on word or speech, but in truth and in action.” Truly the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reminds you and me that there can be no cheap talk in the gospel – there can only be faithful talk.
A teacher of mine used to say that “Christianity is basically a way of talking and a way of walking that leads to a cross.” Faithful talk, then, will often lead us to crucifixion – to that rejection that comes to those who follow Jesus. But we also know that the gospel does not end with crucifixion, For the gospel is also the message of resurrection and the coming of the Spirit. The risen Christ empowers us not only to talk faithfully, but also to live faithfully, doesn’t he? The good news is that Jesus Christ gives you and me the power to live faithfully, and to demonstrate our words of faith with works of faith – that is, with deeds of love and truth. Jesus Christ enables us to fill our lives with gracious acts of love to all people and in all situations. So then, when our lives are filled with the spirit of Jesus, then our faith is not dead at all; rather it is alive and speaks eloquently through the gracious works of love that we do. That we do. You see, God has not only given us the gift of faith: God has given us the works too.
This morning, ask God what you are being called to do as a person of faith. Allow yourself to listen and to hear and to heed God’s voice. Sometings we know in advance what it will be. Other times it may be a complete surprise. Whatever it is, how will you respond? Amen.