9/9/18: A Community of Character, James 2:1-10, 14-17
A Community of Character
Fifth in the series: Practicing Community
First Lesson: Psalm 146
Second Lesson: James 2:1-10, 14-17
Rev. Scott Dickison
Starting last week and for the next week or two, we’ll be continuing this study of community by looking at the letter of James. Over these last few weeks we’ve been looking at specific “practices” of community, actions or habits or traits that define authentic Christians community. But this morning we’re going to take a close look at a passage that’s often cited but just as often misunderstood when talking about “action” in Christian faith.
And as we noted last week, James has a way of honing in on some real bumpersticker-worthy zingers that can’t help but draw our attention, and perhaps his biggest comes at the end of our passage for today: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you?…So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
And this is the one verse from James that’s grabbed our attention through the history of the church—or at least the last 500 years of it, since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door and ushered in the period of reformation that in some ways is still playing out, arguing for the centrality of “justification through faith” (something we’ve all heard and know we’re supposed to believe but in truth even some pastors struggle to define) and making “works righteousness” the dirtiest of theological words and deeds.
And Luther may have been right, and we do need to question whether God is really asking us to earn our way into God’s good graces. But one gets the feeling we’ve been drawn to this one verse in James about faith without works being dead that we can debate and argue it on the 30,000 ft level so we won’t have to confront the much more difficult verses that come before it, which have to do with what’s happening here on the ground, in that ancient congregation and every congregation since, which is this: how we struggle to live out some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings—specifically the ones that require us to really think and act differently from the world around us. The ones that cut against the grain and, if we take them seriously, should cause us to reassess certain things. The ones that may actually cost us something. And the teaching of Jesus that this group of ancient Christians seem to be struggling with is the one that says the poor truly are blessed—that they truly are closest to God’s heart.
Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?
Someone’s been reading the Sermon on the Mount! Blessed are the poor in spirit,Jesus tells the crowd gathered there in Matthew, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Or perhaps even more, the version Luke gives us which is more direct, more on the ground:Blessed are you who are poor, for your’s is the kingdom of God.
We all know this teaching, we’ve read it a thousand times and heard it preached from. And we know that it’s not the only place in gospels where Jesus lifts up the poor as being specially blessed. And not just the gospels, but the whole of scripture attest to the truth that there’s a special place in God’s heart for the poor. In the Catholic social teaching this is call God’s “preferential option for the poor,” that God’s first concern is for the poor and vulnerable of the world. And so—the teaching goes—if the poor are closest to God’s heart then if we want to be close to God’s heart we need to be close to the poor. Dorothy Day, the great 20th century social activist and spiritual guide and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said to “live the Gospel is to stay close to the poor.” The poor, we’re told time and time again, have special access to the truth of the gospel that we who are not poor will miss.
Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries out in East Los Angeles—the country’s largest gang-rehabilitation organization—whom I’ve quoted before, writes about “A homie named Cruz [who] spent his last dollars taking a Metrolink train sixty miles to Los Angeles from San Bernardino, where he had relocated his lady and newborn to avoid the dangers and desperation of his previous gang life. He had a part-time job but couldn’t get his boss to give him more hours.” Boyle writes, “Now he sits in my office, rattling off a list of the pressures and needs of his family. With no safety net in sight but me, he speaks of no food in the fridge, no lights, landlord looming, no bus fare. When he finishes this breathless account, Cruz stops, shaken and exhausted. He grows teary-eyed and says quietly, “I just keep waiting.”
“For what, son?” I ask.
“For the last to be first.”
Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? James tells them. But he goes on: But you have dishonored the poor…You would do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love you neighbor as yourself.”
James just turns the knife, doesn’t he? First the Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, and then he drops the greatest Commandment on us? All in making a point about a social norm that’s been a part of every culture the world has ever known: making distinction between those with means and those without. Yes, we know in Christ there’s no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor. All the distinctions have been washed away. We know this. And yet, life in the world continues. Can’t James understand that?
It reminds me of a story I’ve shared before about Clarence Jordan, the founder of the Koinonia Community, an interracial farm in Georgia that in many ways was on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement and still is. As the story goes, sometime in the early 1950s, Clarence was talking with his brother Robert, a lawyer who would go on to serve as a state senator here in Georgia and a justice on the state supreme court, and asking him if he would represent Koinonia legally. His brother tells him, Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job or my house, everything I’ve got.
We might lose everything, too, Bob, Clarence tells him—and it was true. Koinonia had been under the threat of violence.
It’s different for you, said his brother.
Why is it different? Clarence asked him.I remember you and I walked down the aisle of the Baptist church on the same Sunday when we were boys, and the preacher asked me the same question he asked you, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ and I said, Yes. What did you say?
I follow Jesus up to a point, Robert said.
Could that point by any chance be—the cross?said Clarence.
That’s right. I follow Jesus tothe cross, but not onthe cross. I’m not getting myself crucified, Robert told him.
Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple, said Clarence. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.
Well now if everyone who felt like I do did that, his brother said to him, we wouldn’t havea church, would we?
The question, Clarence said, is, ‘Doyou have a church?’
Clarence Jordan and James would get along well, I think. They’re both insistent about what it means for a church to be a church. Or rather, what a church must do in order to remain a church. It must be a people of integrity, of character—or as we put it a few weeks ago, being a people committed to “living truthfully”—a people who practice what they preach. Not just admirers of Jesus, but disciples.
This is what James means when he says faith without works is dead. It’s not an issue of earning one’s way into God’s good graces—this isn’t works righteousness he’s concerned with. He’s saying our calling is not simply to “believe” or “have faith” in the teachings of Jesus. We need to live them, to “work on them,” in concrete ways—often in ways that run counter the world around us.
That we’re a Christian community—a community bound by the memory and teachings of Christ—should make us different. And from the very beginning, one of the chief beliefs or practices that was to make the church different, that the church obviously struggled with, is our belief that all people are to be valued simply for who they are as children of God. And even past this, that those on the margins are to be highly valued because their experience gives them unique access to the gospel that we need to hear. And this is still true today. When we work on these convictions we still are doing something different in the world. Something important, something holy. And it’s also true that we still struggle to do these things.
And this may be the hidden comfort tucked inside these uncompromising words of our brother James. We’re reminded in this passage that people of faith have struggled with the demands of our faith since the beginning. They’ve struggled to live up to the standard we’ve all claimed, to put into full practice this life we’ve chosen. And yet by the grace of God and the grace we extend to each other, here we are. It’s work that never really ends, but this is why we speak of the lifeof faith, not just the momentof faith or even the seasonof faith. It’s to be lived over the long haul, and as we’ve been saying over these weeks, it’s to be lived out together. We live out these convictions faithfully together and at times—more times than we wish—fail at them miserably together. But what keeps us the church is not that we succeed in this life we’ve chosen, but that we continue to choose it, that we continue to believe it really is life. But even more, that we keep working on it, together. Amen.
Greg Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, 60
As told by Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew in the Brazos Theological series, p. 57