14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 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? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
18 Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. 19 It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. 20 Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? 21 What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. 23 So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. 24 So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. 25 In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute shown to be righteous when she received the messengers as her guests and then sent them on by another road? 26 As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.
Thoughts on the passage:
One of the movies I grew up watching was called Gettysburg. It was meant as a somewhat historical retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg. At one point in the movie, a Union colonel is imploring some soldiers who are refusing to fight to join him in the battle. “We are an army out to set other men free,” he tells them as he appeals to their better natures. I share this quote with you today because Memorial Day was started, in part, after the Civil War as a way of remembering the soldiers who died in the war, who died to set other men free. Memorial Day is a day about remembering people who died, but what makes them special is not their death (after all, we all die) but how they lived.
There are several “funeral poems” that have been written that note the importance not of the dates of our birth or death, but rather what happens in the “-” in between them. What they attempt to capture is a sentiment similar to that of the significance of Memorial Day: what is important in the midst of death is how a person lived their life. In Memorial Day we honor the soldiers who died for the sake of their country. Today in worship we remember the people who serve in law enforcement who also put their lives at risk to try and make our communities safer. Their value comes from what they are doing with their lives, not just for themselves but for others as well.
Today is Becky Lippert’s last Sunday as the leader of our Praise Team. Last week we celebrated her departure and prayed over her. If we think about her time with us, what is important is not her starting date or her ending date, but all the days and all the worship serves in between. While it is amazing that she has been leading us in worship for the last twelve years, what is more amazing is the level of skill and creativity that she has brought to her position that has made those twelve years so special and so memorable. It is about what has happened in that dash that matters.
Our passage from James today is a good reminder from scripture about the importance of what we do with our lives that really counts. What James is trying to argue is that claims about our faith are meaningless if they are not also seen in how we live our lives. To use the example of our soldiers, what makes them important is not they are soldiers, but rather what that demonstrates, the willingness to put one’s life on the life in the service of their country. James wants us to remember that being a Christian is not merely measured with a confession of faith, but rather is a product not only of what we believe, but how we act.
The former priest, Brennan Manning, once wrote “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” I have seen my own reminder of this is the impressions that many of my non-Christian friends have based on their experiences with the church and with Christians. We have powerful statements of faith. We have a message of radical love and inclusion that is spoken by Jesus and yet people see the church and Christians as not living out those commands or living into those values. Instead they judge us by what we actually do, and unfortunately, too often, that means they find our faith unconvincing.
How does your life reflect your faith? How does your occupation or your activities or your practices reflect the values you believe in? James says that through our works our faith can be seen. What do our works tell us about our faith? If you are like me, you might be a little worried that our works would find us lacking.
The quote from Brennan Manning has received a lot more attention because of its inclusion in a song by the Christian group dc Talk called “What if I Stumble.” The song expresses the concerns about trying to lead a good Christian life in the midst of the pressure to not stumble and, “risk making fools of us (Christians) all.” The pressure is a real one. It is felt by clergy and it is felt by laity. Right or wrong, people use our actions to judge not just each of us as individuals but the collective groups we represent. If you do not believe me, just ask the police officers who are constantly judged (often negatively) by the actions of others who wear, and sometimes disgrace, the uniform.
Martin Luther hated the book of James. He famously wanted to even have it excluded from the Bible. He felt that the message of James, with its focus on the value of our actions was inconsistent with the Gospel, which teaches us grace. I think this is important for us to remember as we read this text. It is meant as a strong reminder of the importance of our actions, but we cannot get overwhelmed with the importance of our actions. After all, a key part of our faith is in the importance of God and the need for grace.
One of the more vocal atheists in my life was recently decrying the value of any religion. What I think he forgets is that Christianity is a religion for imperfect people. Perfect people have no need of Christ, because they have not sinned and so are not in need of grace. What is more, perfect people might not even have a need of God, since they can do everything themselves. Christianity, by contrast is a group of sinners. We are here because we know that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes, and that we need God’s grace and God’s help.
When it comes to thinking about how we live our faith, we need to remember that part of living our faith is the aspirational claims that Jesus makes to love God and love our neighbor. The other part of living our faith is living the reality that we are not perfect and that we will make mistakes and that we will need God’s grace. To me, an important part of our faith is demonstrated by how we handle failure. Do we do so with grace or with guilt?
Memorial Day is a day to remember. It is a day to remember our loved one’s and the legacy that they left with their lives. It is also a day to be challenged to do something about it. One of the traditions that I love about Memorial Day is the tradition of what we do with the flag. For the first half of the day, flags are flown at half-mast in honor of our soldiers who have died. Then at noon, the flag is raised back up, a reminder to us all that we will not let their deaths be in vain. Memorial Day is a day to ask ourselves if we are honoring their memory with our actions and what we are doing with the dash in our lives.
Questions to Ponder:
How do you see your faith reflected in your actions or your choices?
Who is someone you know who really embodies their faith and why?
What can you do with your life to honor the memory of those who have died for you?
When is a time you have needed grace in your life because your actions did not reflect your values?
God of grace and God of glory, we pray this day for all who gave their lives to make other people free. We give thanks for the blessings we enjoy as a nation and the work that is done for us to enjoy those blessings. Help us to live lives that are worth of this sacrifice and lives that reflect our faith in you. Strengthen us to be your faithful serves so that in our doing, your love might be known by all. Amen