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The necessity of good works

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“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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.” (James 2:14–17 NRSV)

In my last few posts, I highlighted a few important concepts found in the epistle to the church at Ephesus. We discover there two important teachings: We say “Yes!” to God’s amazing grace (1) by showing forth our praise of Christ, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our time & talents, our prayers, our offerings – our whole selves – to Christ’s service, and (2) by walking before God in holiness and righteousness all our days – that is, by living lives of virtue.[1] We also discovered that we only learn what virtue is through imitating the exemplars we discover in a community of character, which is why a parish must be such a community in order to be authentically the Church. In this post, I turn to a very tough question for us to consider. Where do you stand in all this? Are you saying “Yes!” to God with your life? Or, as James put it in the text on which I focus in this post (James 2:1-17), “Will your faith save you?”

I imagine many of us respond to this question raised by James with an almost reflexive “Yes!” After all, this touches upon a core doctrine: our salvation is through faith alone. Indeed, sola fidei, “by faith alone” was the great slogan of the Reformation, and you’ll find it enshrined in the eleventh of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the back of the Book of Common Prayer: “we are justified by faith alone.” Yet in his letter – sent in the manner of a modern day encyclical from the first Pope himself to all Christians – James asks us a rather urgent and quite personal question: “Beloved brothers and sisters, will your faith save you?”

Perhaps the question makes you squirm. Many folks – especially Episcopalians like myself – get nervous whenever they hear language about “being saved.” For many, it’s the kind of language often used at churches we fled because its meaning is too often distorted and used to manipulate people. But it’s an especially important question for a parish to reflect upon together because the Church exists solely for Christ’s mission of inviting others into the gift we’ve received. But we can’t lead others onto that path if we aren’t truly on it ourselves. We are called to be a people whose lives announce the reality of God’s kingdom, a people whose lives individually and collectively are holy. Does that describe your life? If your life is not what you would call holy, is it least growing in holiness, growing each day in virtue?

One of the keys to understanding James in his first chapter, where he describes a man looking at his face in a mirror. He compares Scripture to a mirror, reflecting back to us the truth about ourselves revealed in Christ. He imagines two men gazing intently into a mirror, observing the truth about themselves that the mirror reveals. One “goes away and immediately forgets what kind of man he was” (1.24). The other looks into the mirror of Scripture and discovers the “perfect law of liberty” and is transformed by that good news, never forgetting who he is and whose he is, and is blessed as a result.

Do you look each day into that mirror God has provided? Or do you merely see the mirror as an object, a piece of furniture, but never really gaze into it, trusting its truth? And for those who do at least take the risk of gazing deeply into the mirror of Scripture, when you do so, what do you see? Does it change the way you live or not?

James confronts us with a tough question: “Brethren, my beloved brethren, will your faith save you?” Or is it merely the dead faith that says Jesus is Lord and then forgets what that means? For we find two kinds of people among the baptized: those who claim Christ’s name and follow, and those who claim Christ’s name but then effectively shatter the Cross, by showing that it makes no difference in the way they live their lives. Look into the mirror, dear friends: which of these faces do you see?

James helps us answer this question with his brilliant phrase, “the perfect law of liberty.” Law and liberty aren’t often found together in a single clause except as opposing concepts. But James tells us that they are in fact inseparable. Liberty, as you know, is a reference to the perfect freedom that is made possible when we say “Yes!” to God – we are liberated from the things that entrap us in the ways of self-destruction. But that amazing grace becomes law to us when we have the saving faith in which Jesus is Master of every aspect of our lives. When we have the faith that saves, we experience the grace of Jesus as command. We can do no other than obey the one we love.

The way we know we have that saving faith is that our response to grace is a life that “sheds love abroad.”[2] We begin to see our time, talents, and money as gifts given by God that we use to build up our community of character so that God’s love pours out like a river, washing in it all those who yearn to be cleansed, to be made free. We take seriously our Lord’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Those who shatter the cross make a mockery of this royal law by living as though we get to choose whom we will or won’t count as neighbors. Our political opponents? Not our neighbors. Rowdy children in church? Not our neighbors. Those who challenge the habits and values that make us comfortable with our lives? Not our neighbors. James tells of two men who come to church. One is wealthy, while the other is poor. The wealthy man is seated preferentially, while the poor man is treated with disrespect. James names this the sin of partiality. The law of liberty demands that we love all our neighbors and respond to their needs without distinctions. When we embody the faith that saves, our love pours out on everyone, just as – and because – Christ’s love has poured out on us.

The dead faith of the shattered cross chooses who it will love as neighbors and who it will not. James cites two important examples. First, the dead faith sees the naked and hungry – the lonely – and offers warm wishes to them, but fails to respond immediately with their time and talents – with real action. Second, as he develops more fully in chapter 3, the dead faith wields an acid tongue that divides the church into friend or foe.

As the song goes, they will know we are Christians by our love. James makes it clear that they will know that our faith is empty by the lines that we draw in the sand. James says to each of us, “will your faith save you?” If yours is not already that saving faith but only that barren faith of the shattered cross, I urge you to go to the altar of God soon and pray that the Holy Spirit will write on your heart the royal and perfect law of liberty that transforms lives. And if you know God’s law is already written your heart, go, and give thanks to God for such amazing grace.

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[1] The allusion is to the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979

[2] A favorite phrase of John Wesley

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