May 22, 2011

Show It If You Know It

How many of you have ever received some sort of a gift or had something in your life that you were otherwise excited about?  A few months ago Noah was given a new bed frame in the shape of a boat complete with portholes and a bow-shaped toy box.  It’s pretty cool.  He knew it was coming.  He had seen it in its various stages of construction and even got to help screw it together when it arrived.  He was really excited about it.  For the next couple of months, every time anyone came over to the house, Noah was insistent on taking them upstairs to show them his “bo-bed.”  He had something new in his life and he did everything he could to make sure that people knew about it.

A few weeks ago, when we were driving around picking up some of the plants we ultimately put in our garden, we bought some strawberry plants on a whim.  Lisa potted them since we couldn’t decide on a good place in the yard and they eventually ended up on our back deck.  Noah didn’t really pay much attention to them until he discovered that they had “bea-ies” on them that he could both pick and eat.  Once again, every person that came into the house was ushered out the back door and shown the “bea-ies.”  In fact, anyone who came anywhere near the vicinity of the house when he was outside was herded over to see them.  And if you were really special you got to eat one as well.  For three meals a day he wanted to check and see if we had any “bea-ies” ready for picking.  As a result, we never got to eat more than about one strawberry a day, but he had a blast doing it.

When we have things in our lives about which we are excited, we want people to know about them.  This is just a fact of life.  You can tell what people are excited about just by talking to them.  If they are passionate about it, it is going to come up in the conversation.  If you watch them you’ll be able to observe them spending time doing if frequently.  Any time I have a conversation with Susan Newman I can rest assured that it is going to come back to gardening or landscaping at some point.  I see her up here at least once a week doing something with the landscaping around the church.  I suspect that if I drove by her house, I’d find her outside working in the yard more often than not.  Our neighbor back through the woods is passionate about music.  If you walk outside on a reasonably nice day, you’ll hear him practicing by himself or with his band.  Someone made the mistake of asking me a question about a point in my sermon the other day and got a short dissertation in response.  I could keep going here but you get my point.  We have a natural response to exciting things in our lives.  This response is to let others know about it so they can share in our joy.  The reverse, however, is also true.  Things about which we do not particularly care or about which we are ashamed will not make a very public showing in our lives. People are generally only going to know about us what we allow them to see.  Thus, if we want people to really know who we are, we need to find ways to make clear our passions.  If we want people to know it, we’ve got to show it.

This week we come to the third stop on our journey through the book of James.  We have so far heard about the three components of real religion and learned that the religion that stays wisely obeys.  We have also worked through James’ clear warning against showing favoritism toward certain groups of people.  Such behavior brings dishonor to everyone involved.  Now, those are both important themes in the book of James, but in terms of broader renown, James is perhaps best known for the passage we are going to look at this morning.  It was primarily this passage of Scripture that led to the great reformer Martin Luther wishing James wasn’t part of the Bible.  It is this part of the book which has led many to conclude that Paul and James are irredeemably conflicted in their approach to salvation.  Paul argues for salvation by faith alone while James contends that faith without works is dead.  Yet, when we really take time to examine the two theological giants in their proper contexts, what we discover is that there is no conflict at all.  In fact, some things Paul says in other places point in the direction James takes things.  All James does here is to argue that Christians should be as excited about demonstrating the faith they claim to have as they are about their new car or new outfit or new video game.  Without such a demonstration there’s no way for anyone to know we have it.  It’s almost like we’re hiding it.  And if we’re hiding it, it’s fair to ask if we even really have it.  Indeed, if we want people to know it, we’ve got to show it.

With all of that said, let’s turn to the text itself.  Grab your Bibles and open them to James 2.  We’ll pick up at v. 14.  What I want to do this morning is to take a few minutes to unpack these verses with you and then we’ll apply what we’ve learned as we commission our missionaries for the tasks ahead of them.  They want people to know it and we are going to send them to show it.  Let’s start here: In this particular Christian subculture one of the rites of passage is walking the aisle.  If I were to go down to VCU’s campus and ask around about what “walking the aisle” means I would get a lot of strange looks.  And people would wonder why I’m asking them about going to the grocery store.  But here, everyone pretty much knows what I’m talking about.  Walking the aisle is what you do when the Holy Spirit moves in your heart, calls you to follow Jesus, and you respond to this call.  Everybody knows you’ve responded because you are up out of your seat and making your way to the front of the room so that they can all see what you’ve done.  The next step, of course, is baptism.  These two actions are the primary ways that people know that you are a follower of Christ.  I’ve spent my entire life short a very few years in this kind of a church subculture so I can speak to it.  It is a good thing for people to demonstrate in a public way like this that they have given their lives to Christ.  If you’re not willing to be public about it, you probably haven’t really done it.  But, because these two things, particularly walking the aisle, have taken on the status of rites of passage, there is a temptation to participate in them because they are culturally expected even if nothing has happened in the heart.  What happens in this kind of a situation is that someone gives lip service to faith, but leaves and doesn’t change anything about his lifestyle.  The thought is that he’s gotten his “fire insurance” and can go about life as he pleases.  It is this kind of a situation to which James is speaking here when says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can [that] faith save you?”

For someone to make the claim that she has faith in God yet not back up such a declaration with a demonstration of good works is a contradiction in terms, James argues.  He asks, literally, what good is it?  The grammatically assumed answer is no good at all.  The kind of faith that gives lip service to some number of creeds or confessions but which lacks any active expressions—the kind held by many in the Western world—is simply not sufficient to save anyone.  Let’s speak the truth in love on this: walking the aisle, praying “the prayer,” getting dunked in the tank, eating the meal, and anything else along these lines are none of them individually sufficient to save us.  Even done all together, they mean nothing without evidence of their genuineness.  If we are not completely new creations such that everyone who knows us can immediately see a distinct different, then it’s worth asking whether or not anything has really happened.  Such “faith” can’t save us.  If you want people to know it, you’ve got to show it.

Much like he did in the previous passage, James follows up this introductory statement by giving an example.   He paints a picture of a scene in which a professed follower of Christ has encountered someone who is struggling to meet her basic needs for survival.  This professed Christ-follower greets her warmly, pronounces God’s blessing on her, and then walks away without another thought.  Has this done anything for her, James asks.  Hear the text itself: “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?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  In this world there are many who are hurting.  There are places of town you can drive where you will be sure to see someone on the side of the road with a sign begging for something.  We have all seen someone in this situation.  For most of us, including myself, the natural reaction is to roll the window up and keep our eyes on the road.  We don’t want to acknowledge their humanity, let alone their presence because we’ll feel put upon to do something for them.  The reason for this is that we know it’s not right for another human to be in that kind of a situation and if we don’t acknowledge their humanity we don’t have to feel guilty for not trying to fix it.  And yet, in our prayer meetings or Bible studies or even private devotions we will feel very badly for folks in this kind of a situation and will pray for God to do something about it.  “God, please provide food for the poor and shelter for the homeless,” we’ll pray.  Now, don’t hear me wrong: that’s a great prayer to pray…but not by itself.  James speaks powerfully into this kind of a situation.  For us to pray for the poor without actively doing anything to alleviate their poverty is easy, but it’s meaningless.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote: “I am often, I believe, praying for others when I should be doing things for them.  It’s so much easier to pray for a bore than to go and see him.”[1] God doesn’t have a good reason to listen to prayers like this because He’s already told us what to do.  Remember James 1:27?  Real religion is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.  Don’t ask Him to do something about it.  He’s already said that He wants you to do it.  Consider Proverbs 3:27-28 from the Message: “Never walk away from someone who deserves help; your hand is God’s hand for that person.  Don’t tell your neighbor ‘Maybe some other time’ or ‘Try me tomorrow’ when the money’s right there in your pocket.”  This is akin to asking God whether or not we should lie in a certain circumstance.  He’s already told us not to lie.  We need to be out actively being people whose lives are marked by truthfulness.  Essentially, what James is saying here is that if we are going to pray for the least, last, and lost or simply wish them well without seeking to do anything to help them ourselves, we shouldn’t waste our time or God’s.  The faith that allows that to happen can’t save anyone.  In fact, James goes so far to say that it is dead.  If we want people to know it, we’ve got to show it.

Let me dramatize the next couple of verses for you.  James next turns to an imaginary debate partner who throws out this argument: “Look, you are talking about faith and works being inseparable.  You’re saying that I have faith while you have works.  In the end we’re both saved.  They’re just different paths to the same destination.  Yours is just more active than mine.  But, I’m at church every Sunday.  I know all the right theology.  I’m no different than you.”  James lets this argument come forth and then lays down the gauntlet: Prove it.  “I’ll demonstrate my faith by what I do,” James says.  “How do you plan on demonstrating yours exactly?  By spouting off the confessions you accept as true descriptions of your belief?  Are you going to fire off Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema, for me?  Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.  Should that impress me?  Satan and his minions accept the Shema.  They are rightly terrified by the Shema.  And how much good has that done them?”  There are people in churches across this nation who like to think that because they have done all the right churchy things that they are okay with God.  They can sit back and relax.  But, if we’re not actively living out our faith each and every day, there’s simply not a good reason to think we really have it.  If we want people to know it, we’ve got to show it.

In order to make his point even more concrete, James turns to give two more examples.  These two examples are a jarring juxtaposition of characters, but they equally make his point.  He first points to the patriarch Abraham.  Listen to this, starting in v. 20: “Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?  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.  Thus 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.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  Let me say briefly that James’ use of Abraham here seems to be in direct contradiction to Paul’s in Romans 4.  The contradiction, however, is only apparent.  I don’t have time to go into it this morning, but the two writers are looking at the same issue from two different angles.  James uses a slightly different understanding of the word “justify” than does Paul such that their points are complementary.  Abraham, James argues, was justified by his works in Genesis 22 when he obediently offered God his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.  This work rendered him justified before God because of his faith that God was going to take care of him and accomplish His purposes for him no matter what happened.  Because of his faithful works, Abraham was called God’s friend.  Abraham wanted people to know it and so he showed it.

James’ second example is jarringly different.  He next turns to Rahab, the woman who hid the two spies Joshua sent into Jericho before marching around the city.  Listen to this: “Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?”  These two are a study in contrast.  Abraham was male, wealthy, a noble herder, the father of the Israelites, and he was a faithful God-follower.  Rahab, on the other hand, was a woman, poor, a prostitute, a pagan, and was only helping out because she didn’t want God to get her.  The two could not have been more different.  And yet, Rahab was justified by her faithful works in the exact same way Abraham was.  She expressed faith in the God of Israel and then proved it by serving His cause—at great risk to hers and her family’s life by the way.  Because she showed it, people…knowed…it.

At the end of the passage, James comes back around to the idea he has been trying to communicate in a variety of ways, both direct and indirect: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”  Without any sort of behavior that would demonstrate our faith in Christ, there’s no reason to think we really have it.  If we are not trying to live out the life of Christ each day and bring ourselves with the Spirit’s help more in line with His image, there’s simply no reason to think we are really following Him.  Now, does this mean that if we miss a day here and there we need to get down on our knees and renew our commitment?  No.  We should probably get down on our knees and humbly seek forgiveness, but James isn’t talking about isolated events here.  Instead he’s talking about the person who comes to church every Sunday and does nothing else during the week that marks him off as any different from his non-Christian neighbor.  Look, if you can’t tell two people apart except that one goes to church each week, there’s not a great reason to believe that either of them are following Christ.  At the point a person has already professed acceptance of the Christian creeds, if his lifestyle does not reflect devotion to them, more church is going to do anything for him.  There’s no reason for him to waste his time coming.  He needs to make an appointment with Dr. Faith-enstein because his faith needs a shot of life.  If you want people to know it, you’ve got to show it.

Well, does this mean, then, that we all need to go to Germany or Honduras to prove we have faith in God?  Is God looking for us to prove ourselves to Him?  Not at all.  Instead, He’s calling us to live in the freedom we claim to inhabit.  We are to each do what we are able.  There is a woman in this church who cannot physically participate in many of the ministries we do, but she quietly came up here one week and organized the food pantry.  I’ll tell you: it’s never looked better.  She did what she could.  She served in proportion to her ability.  The kids in this church are limited in their participation in many of our ministries by a variety of things, but they have an ongoing mission project to make blankets for the homeless and have seen that they have gotten where they can make a difference.  They are serving in proportion to their current ability.  This is James’ point.  If you want people to know it, you’ve got to show it.  No, our works don’t all have to be public—in fact neither of the examples I’ve just given you were—but, if we are really active in this and passionate about it people won’t be able to help but know.  Such works as this demonstrate the Spirit’s presence in a person’s life.  If the Spirit is present in our lives then Paul’s fruit of the Spirit is going to show.  We are going to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good, and self-controlled.  It will be obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes that something is different about us.  If someone can’t look at your life—your checkbook, your calendar, your conversations, your free time—and know without a shadow of doubt that you are a follower of Christ there’s a problem.  In fact, no one in this world is capable of doing anything good on their own.  It matters not if we are followers of Him or not.  He is the only source of all that is good and so if we do any good it is because the Holy Spirit is working through us.  He empowers those who do not follow Him on occasion so that His purposes are accomplished, but such a lifestyle is only available to those who actually follow Him.  If you want people to know it, you’ve got to show it.  And if none of that was enough to convince you, here’s one more reason.  We are bearers of the best news in the world.  We know the solution to all the world’s problems.  We have the assurance that life doesn’t end in the cemetery.  We possess the unshakeable confidence that we are of infinitely great value.  If you can’t get excited about that, you may not really know it.  I want you to take time this week and figure out what your “bo-bed” and your “bea-ies” are.  Plug those things into Christ and use them to spread the word of the life available in Him.  Let others see what you’re excited about and share in your joy.  If you want people to know it, you’ve got to show it

[1]C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Inc./Harvest, 2003), 66.