|A disgruntled looking Martin Luther. Maybe he was reading the Epistle of James at the time.|
James 2: 14-17 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.
Down the years the Christian faith has tended to battle with the tension between faith and action.
Things came to a head during the Protestant Reformation, when a priest and theologian called Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.
These were essentially objections to the status quo in the Church and they sparked intense debate around the authority of the Church and how believers received salvation.
The great cry of the Protestant Reformation which flowed out of this was for a rediscovery of the grace of Christ – that we cannot save ourselves, but that salvation is a free gift.
‘Justification’ is a technical word for salvation, and the Reformation tag line was simple and profound: that justification was ‘by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone’.
Martin Luther (above) favoured the book of Romans, where justification is by faith in Christ alone, so you can imagine why the book of James was not one of his favourites.
As we heard last week, he called it the Epistle of Straw because it seemed to contradict the teaching of Paul and suggest that faith alone was not enough, going as far as to say that faith without action is dead (verse 17).
This is biblically where the tension between action and faith is most acute.
As James writes, if you know someone in need and you say a blessing for them whilst ignoring their physical condition, what good is that?
It makes sense – words are not going to help that person in need – only action will.
I think it’s still a topic today: every time you hear someone say, “I don’t believe in God but I try and lead a good life”, you’re hearing an unresolved tension between faith and action, often based on a misunderstanding of what faith actually is.
We tend to privatise the idea of faith, but in the bible, faith is understood as acting on your beliefs, not just talking about them.
The bible talks of ‘works’ and faith, but they don’w have to be in tension if we remember that good works do not have a role in leading to our salvation, but in demonstrating it.
Someone has wisely said that faith is invisible – you cannot see faith.
So no one know whether faith resides in you until you show it by your actions.
To the outside world then, we Christians need to show that we love God by acting on our faith as well as talking about it.
Actions, as we all know, speak louder than words, and that is what people will notice.
Let’s for a moment look at the twin challenges of separating faith and actions, in order that we might be better at keeping them together. These challenges are typified by two types of people: the good unbeliever and the (forgive me) clueless Christian.
1. The ‘good unbeliever’.
We’ve all met this person – the friend or neighbour, or family member, who appears to be a good person but doesn’t (apparently) believe in God.
So they have the actions but apparently not the faith.
Has this ever puzzled you?
Perhaps it makes you think it’s not really worth believing if you can be good without God?
There are a couple of responses: when we say that somebody is good, we often have quite a low benchmark for goodness, compared with, say, the expectation and example of Jesus.
Someone called Jesus ‘Good Teacher’ once and he came back with the comment ‘No one is good except God alone’.
I think this is helpful to near in mind philosophically.
If anyone exhibits goodness, it is either coming from within themselves, or er believe it originated in God, even if that person says they don’t believe in God.
Not believing in someone’s existence does not cause them to cease to exist.
Another point is that it’s not so difficult to love and care for your immediate friends and family - Jesus said ‘even the pagans do that’.
Instead Jesus raised the bar considerably when he encouraged his followers to love their enemies.
Of course we love our friends and family – who wouldn’t - but Jesus calls us to love the stranger, the outcast and the person who persecutes us.
It seems to me that that kind of standard is pretty much impossible without recourse to a higher Being.
In addition, people who say you can be good without God, are often unaware of the illogicality of disconnecting morality from religion.
Someone who doesn’t ‘do God’, yet holds to the fundamental equality of all human beings, believes in compassion and forgiveness and self-sacrificial love is actually holding to fundamentals of Christianity whilst perhaps ignoring the first part of the word – Christ.
In a way this separates good deeds from faith.
The entire Law, says Jesus, is summed up by ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself’, so self, others and God are inextricably linked.
Often when we see someone who appears to be good without believing in God, it is likely that they are simply unaware of God’s activity in their lives.
It may even be that their desire for charitable works is a displacement activity for a former faith in God that has become disconnected.
Have you noticed how popular charity events are amongst some people who don’t go to church?
Posters and fliers constantly remind us of the walk or run, or cycle, or swim, or sail or climb, that’s taking place for a good cause, that people have raised hundreds of pounds for?
People fill their spare time up with charity events and it’s all good stuff.
(And of course many Christians and other religious people are involved with this too).
But in all this action we need to be aware also of our inner lives.
Outer and inner harmony of faith and action is the goal.
We often see the outside of someone’s life, we say they’re good; but God sees the inside too, the life of the imagination, the life of the spirit, what we fantasize about; our fears, our day dreams – all these reveal our nature before God and sometimes we need inner healing and forgiveness, or a complete change of direction.
God is as interested in our faith as he is in our action.
2. The ‘clueless Christian’.
By this I mean someone who’s faith doesn’t actually make any difference to the way they live.
They have faith, but no actions.
This is the person who looks into a mirror and goes away and forgets what they look like (see James Chapter 1).
‘Be doers of the word’, not just hearers, says James.
So, trying to do just that, I wonder what you think of when you hear James’s portrayal of ‘the rich’?
He hasn’t really got a good word for them.
They oppress others, take people to court, are given all the best places in dinner parties and are themselves spiritually poor.
Who are these people?
We tend to use the word ‘rich’ relative to those we live amongst, and we compare ourselves with those who are a little bit better off than we are.
But in global terms, most of us are rich beyond the wildest dreams of thousands of human beings with whom we share the earth.
There’s a website (see link) that can calculate how rich you are globally – you put your annual income in and it’ll tell you what % of the population is richer than you and what % is poorer.
I don’t have an income, but I’m lucky enough to be married to an experienced teacher.
I put an experienced teacher’s salary into the calculator and I came out in the top 1% of the global rich.
I halved it and still came out in the top 2%.
Okay, it doesn’t account for the relative value of outgoings, but it makes you think.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Refugee Crisis in Europe.
If you think about countries and relative wealth, it’s surely no coincidence that thousands of refugees are now making dangerous, often life threatening journeys from the Middle East and Africa, to Europe.
This is a complex issue possibly involving economics as well as war and violence - but surely anyone who takes their family across the Mediterranean in a rickety over crowded boat searching for a new life must believe that the sea is safer than the land they’re leaving behind.
And that is a terrifying thought.
What this unfolding human displacement shows us is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots, globally, is bad for everyone.
Why should it surprise to us that the poor and desperate what to share our lifestyle?
The refugee crisis is a crisis of conscience for us all.
When the poor are 1000s of miles away, in countries I am unlikely to visit, only on my TV screen when there are no other stories to take the limelight, it’s easy to forget I am rich.
When the poor are travelling across Europe, arriving at a station in Hungary where my daughter recently went Inter-railing; when the poor are dying on train tracks the other side of the Channel right where I recently came back from a French holiday, then being one of ‘the rich’ becomes much, much more uncomfortable.
The Archbishop has put it well; you can look up his thoughts on the subject here: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5606/archbishop-of-canterbury-on-the-migrant-crisis).
It's a fair balance of belief and action of which I hope even Martin Luther would be proud.