We’re in week two of our series on the book of James, called Friendship with God. The premise of the series is this: Jesus isn’t just out to make believers, he’s out to make people who are actually friends with God.
James pushes us to ask this question: what if our concept of faith is too shallow? What if we’re setting our sights too low? What if there is so much more– not more that God wants from us, but more that God wants for us.
Maybe some of us have too shallow an understanding of faith. You know, the way that faith is preached in a lot of churches, a demon could be saved. “Do you believe that Jesus is God’s Son and that he died on a cross to save humanity from its sin?” “Ok! You’re in”
Demons have perfect theology. But they’re enemies of God. You know people can have perfect theology and be enemies of God too. James says more or less this exact thing later in chapter 2. “You there’s one God. Well good for you. Even the demons believe that!”
So Christian belief has to be more than a head knowledge.
I wonder what words you associate with the word “faith.” Perhaps words like “belief” and “trust” come to mind. But if you didn’t have those words, how would you describe faith?
I learned from Nicky Gumbel, the pioneer of the Alpha course, that for a missionary named John Paton, this wasn’t a hypothetical. He was a missionary in the mid 1800s to some islands called the New Hebrides, west of Fiji in the South Pacific Ocean. He wanted to translate the Gospel of John into the native language, but he quickly discovered that they had no word for faith, belief, or trust.
One day, John Paton was sitting in his chair when an indigenous person walked up to him. John Paton took his feet off the floor and leaned back in his chair. “What am I doing now?” he said. The man replied with a word that means “to lean your whole weight upon.” So that became the expression that he used to translate “faith”.
James wants us to have that type of faith. Leaning our whole weight upon God. Katie and used to live in a community in Catonsville called Academy Heights. It’s 400-some townhouses that are more or less identical. Every house in academy heights was made with a wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Lots of people want a more open floor plan these days, so they want to knock out the wall between the kitchen and dining room.
Well, what’s the first question you need to ask when you’re thinking about knocking out a wall? You need to ask “Is it load bearing?” As it turns out, in this case, they aren’t, so lots of people have been knocking down those walls.
It’s a lot like what has happened to Christianity in America in the last 20 years or so. Too many people have had Christianity in their lives in a way that isn’t load bearing, and so they’re just decided to get rid of it. And when they’ve done so, they’ve noticed that nothing really changes. It’s like a wall that doesn’t bear any weight, so it can just be knocked out.
James teaches us that we need a load-bearing faith. James believes that having Jesus in our lives should make a difference. That’s why we get bombshells from James, “faith without actions is dead.”
James helps us to understand what faith really should be. Later on in chapter 2, he uses the example of Abraham. To the Jewish people, Abraham is the great example of faith and faithfulness. He’s the great patriarch of the faith. But James says, in effect, he is called a friend of God because his faith made him faithful. Ridiculously faithful. When God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar, he was seconds away from doing it before God stopped him. Abraham was obedient, and because of that, he was called a friend of God.
I said it last week and I’ll say it again. Obedience is the sole marker of friendship with God. If you aim for the type of faith that allows you to escape judgement by the skin of your teeth, you probably won’t actually attain it. Because faith that keeps one foot out the door isn’t really faith.
But if you aim for friendship with God, then you’ll get faithfulness, where your faith has been raised up and raised up until you’re faithful. When your beliefs change your actions, then you really believe.
Obedience and faith are two sides of the same coin. Do you believe in Jesus? If you do, then you’re going to obey his teaching. If you don’t, well, then it’s probably not going to be a priority.
Well, what was Jesus’ teaching? What did he command? James called it the “royal law”– because it’s the law of King Jesus. It’s also called the Great Commandment.
Someone came up to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” … [And Jesus said to him] “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This is what James called the royal law. The law of love– love for God and love for neighbor. And it is everything that God asks of us. That’s it. Jesus’ teaching and the rest of scripture are basically just teaching us what love really is.
So James is gonna school us. He’s going to take some real-world situations and hold them up to the royal law.
First, he brings up the example of showing favoritism in church based on someone’s appearance or based on how useful they seem like they might be to you. Someone comes into church with really nice clothes and you welcome them warmly, and sit them with the people that you know will take care of them. But then someone else comes in who looks like they might have slept on the streets, and you try to keep them unseen. You don’t want to be bothered with them. That’s not being loving, James says– that’s evil. He says “But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker”
And besides, James says, that poor person probably has more faith than you do. They know that they have no one to depend on but God. People who aren’t poor tend to think they’re more in control.
We see this all the time when we go to the Dominican Republic on mission trips. One time, some years ago, a team member was lifting something heavy over her head when she felt a muscle pull in her neck. In agony she fell to the ground, sobbing. Being an American, affluent by Dominican standards, her first thought was for Ibuprofen. Pastor Mercedes from the Dominican Republic thought otherwise. She knelt down and began to pray fervently for the girl to be healed. The American mission team member said, suddenly the pain just vanished. And at the moment the pain vanished, Pastor Mercedes switched from praying in Spanish to praying in English and began to praise God, “Thank you Jesus! You did it! I felt it! You did it!”
This is the thing about missions like this. We’re so well off here, relatively speaking. I’m not trying to make light of American poverty. It’s very serious. But even those of us that struggle have access to a social safety net that many of the folks there could only dream of. And so we go there thinking, “I’m going to help these poor people.” But what we find is that that we need them. We need each other.
This is basically what James is saying– “you think the wealthy person has something you need, because they have money,” but really the poor have something that you need– real faith… faith that expresses itself in action.
The next scenario that James talks about is something we can all understand– “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?
You say to someone who’s naked “stay warm!” You say to someone who doesn’t have food, “Have a nice meal!” Come on that’s funny. That’s good preaching right there, James.
He makes the point, though. Warm sentiments like “stay warm” and “hope you get some good food” seem nice. But being nice and being polite is not the same thing as being loving. So we ask ourselves the question, what would be the loving thing to do? Well– to give them clothes! To give them food!
There is a difference between empty sentiments and prayer though. Warm words ring empty. But faith-filled prayer can move mountains. And operating in the power of the Holy Spirit is the way of Jesus.
Take a look at the way that Jesus cared for people in our Gospel reading. Jesus encounters someone who isn’t a Jew who begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. The girl doesn’t need food. She doesn’t need clothes. She doesn’t even need a psychiatrist. She needs the demon cast out. Jesus is hesitant, because his gifts belong to Israel first. Besides, in other places Jesus warns that casting a demon out without filling the void it leaves is going to cause greater problems for the person. And Gentiles were usually idol worshippers, which would be bad news for then. But Jesus discerns her faith in Israel’s God by her persistence. And so he meets her need, even though she’s not the core of his mission.
The way that Jesus loved that woman was by meeting her spiritual needs and the spiritual needs of her daughter.
Then Jesus gets this man brought to him who is deaf and cannot speak and they beg him to pray for him. The loving thing to do was to pray for him, so that’s what Jesus does. And he doesn’t say, “I’ll pray for you when I get home.” He stops what he’s doing, and he prays for the man.
Whenever we come across a person in need, there is discernment required. Sometimes the discernment is really easy, because it’s just a matter of obedience. Jesus says “give to everyone who asks of you.” If this person is asking for something of me, I ask myself, “can I give it?” Hopefully if I can give, then I will give. Whenever we’re in the city, Katie and I try to bring food– we stock up on church bagels for the week. I’ve never met a person that was upset to get a church bagel.
If we have what they need, we don’t pray about that. I don’t pray about whether to should be obedient or not. I pray for help to be obedient. It should take the Holy Spirit hitting us with a spiritual brick for us to think it’s wrong to help someone meet their basic needs.
But sometimes, we don’t have what people need. And so then we discern by the Spirit what we might do. So many people get ignored. Christians don’t ignore people, because ignoring people isn’t loving.
In Matthew 25, Jesus describes what the scene will be like when he comes as the judge. He says he’ll separate the people right and left as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. And to those on his right he’ll say
“Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
When we turn our eyes away from those in need, we turn our eyes from Jesus. We haven’t loved our neighbor.
James says, “In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom.” You don’t have 613 commandments to obey. You have one: the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. But don’t think that you won’t be held accountable for how you’ve loved. Jesus, James, and the New Testament are crystal clear: you will be. We will each stand before King Jesus and give an account for how we have loved.
If that’s the case, then we need a lot of love to give. I’ve got good news. I know someone who gives more love than you can possibly imagine. Love that’s meant to be given away. His name is Jesus. And when we lean all our weight on him, he fills us with his love. We really can’t do it on our own. But if we receive God’s love… if God pours love into my heart by the holy spirit, then the love would overflow into faithful action. Sincere, compassionate, faith-filled prayers and generous acts, rather than empty words.