It is somewhat a "biblical miracle" that the text of the little letter called James made it into the Bible. James barely arrived as the 59th book of the Bible. Even when it came to be regarded as Scripture, it was spoken of with a certain reserve and suspicion. As late as Martin Luther in the 16th Century, there were those who would have gladly banished it from the "Good Book."
In the Latin speaking church, James was not addressed until the fourth Century by Church fathers. Tertullian, who quoted scripture 7,258 times in his writings, never mentioned James. In fact the first Latin writer to quote James was Hilary of Poitiers in a work On the Trinity in 357 AD. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate questioned that James is truly the brother of Jesus (which he is) and hesitantly included the book in his translation. The Syrian Church almost banned the book. The Greek church wouldn't acknowledge the book until Origen's writings in the third century. Finally, at the Council of Trent in 1546, James was received into the final collection of the New Testament as a deutero-canonical book, which means "a second class addition," received with reservations.
How does this simple book with clear instructions on how to live the Christian faith end up on the "banned" list or the "non ready for prime time" list of the Bible? Two reasons: First, in direct opposition to the Apostle Paul, James describes justification by works as well as faith, and not faith alone. Second, James gives Christians no instructions or reminders of the Passion, the Resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. Christ is mentioned only two times. As Luther says, "the true touchstone for testing any book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not."
At this point, some of you may be joining my daughter in declaring, "TMI, dad." That is: "Too Much Information, dad!" But is it? James is a book friendly to Congregationalists and members of the United Church of Christ. We are Christians who like "Good Works." We like our ministry in the marketplace of the world to be productive reflections of God's love in action. Over our Broad Street door - carved in stone - are these words: "Enter to worship, depart to serve." Sounds like Faith AND Works to me! Like James, we believe that faith without works is dead. Or as the author pens in 2:18, "You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works and I, by my works will show you my faith."
Isn't it obvious that faith needs to be interpreted into practice? We might even wonder why it needs to be said. It needs to be said because something deep inside human beings leads us to presume that knowing the right truth or holding the right position makes us righteous and holy. We tend to be this way. The ancient Greco-Roman philosophers knew this. Their writings are filled with remonstrances against students who quote textbooks concerning self-control and reasonableness and yet whose lives exemplify neither. Early Christians fell into this same trap almost immediately - quoting the Bible (our textbook) while living lives not worthy of the words rolling off the tongue - "in the name of Jesus."
While we are quick to point out the "other Christians" who do this, we are flush with our own shortcomings. While others may quote scripture as they carry their Bibles boldly around church and society, too many of us are happy not to carry anything into the church or the society - whether in our hearts or in our hands.
But, our Achilles' heals shine forth as we posture in other ways. We claim, "we are not like them." We say, "We're Open and Affirming." Both statements might be true. However, as James points out in 2:5-7, there are still ways in which we show favoritism to the rich as opposed to the poor. Our worship and style is more open and affirming of Eurocentric folk than those whose roots and lineage come from Africa, Asia, and the southern hemisphere of the Americas. Beloved in Christ, we need to be constantly on guard against open and affirming faith statements without actions matching the words. Or as my children like to say to me, "practice what you preach."
Since God shows no favoritism, we must be like and must not show favoritism either. Following the example of Christ, and staving off any inclinations for snobbery, we must walk the talk of our open and affirming statements and our church covenants. All must be welcome. All must be treated equally. All must be received "just as they are" and embraced "just as they are." No one smells better, looks better, or sounds better in the nose, eyes, and ears of God. Faith and favoritism are incompatible if we are to be Christians.
Not only does James say faith and favoritism are incompatible (2:1-13), he goes on to say, faith and indifference are incompatible ( 2:14-26). The text in the second part of this lection doesn't speak of indifference, but about the necessity of works as part of faith. Nevertheless, a closer reading shows us that neglect of works arises, in the author's views, because of indifference to human need. In vs. 14 and 17, the principle that faith and works cannot be divorced from each other comes into full view. James says, "Can faith save you?" While the Apostle Paul would answers, "Yes," James answers, "faith alone cannot secure the well-being of the person." Concrete acts, rather than pious benedictions, are needed to guarantee the health and well-being of persons.
Let me be clear with a concrete image. "Faith alone" will not reopen the John Maloney Health Care Center on Parsons Ave and the South side of Columbus. John Maloney was recently closed because the building was no longer safe - after only 14 years of operation. John Maloney provided primary health care to thousands of Columbus' poorest citizens. As I pray for you all daily, so too have I been praying daily about this situation, having worked with BREAD for years on expanding the services of John Maloney. My prayers are that God will guide you, me and decision-makers and leaders in this city to open a primary center on the south side at another location ASAP. I pray for vision, strength, and direction for all of us to find a way forward. The miracle for which I pray is that God will open hearts, minds and doors - not that God will bring a faith healing - alone - to cure the illnesses of the poor ten blocks south of here. We have the resources and leadership in this great city to turn our prayers into action. That is faith and works uniting to overcome indifference.
Dr. Abraham J. Heschel once said, "The prayer of our hearts and mouths is our yearning. But, the prayer of our limbs - our actions - is our salvation." Dr. Heschel was one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th Century. He was not only a scholar and a writer, but an activist. When he marched with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, he proclaimed, "It felt as if my legs were praying." Truthfully, the goodness that we perform in this world is our highest prayer (To Begin Again, Naomi Levy, Alfred Knopf, New York, NY, 1998, p. 70).
Rabbi Naomi Levy writes in her book To Begin Again:
When we struggle to repair the world, to rise above our complacency and offer compassion, charity, and love, we are praying. When we fight to eradicate poverty, injustice and war, when we take the time to perform acts of kindness, we are praying. When we gather the strength to give ourselves to those who so desperately need our assistance instead of averting our gaze, we are praying. "I am my prayer to You, O God," the psalmist cried out. When our actions embody of truest humanity, we become a prayer. (Ibid).
Faith AND works must always be in symbiotic relationship. One cannot exist without the other. And as James points out, our Christian response to the poor is the touchstone and true measure of our living faith.
Today's Insight section of The Columbus Dispatch calls not once, but four times on the candidates for governor to address the crises eating away at our state - particularly in the area of public education! The CD's editor, Benjamin J. Marrison says, "It doesn't feel good to be a Buckeye these days. Except for the Ohio State football team, the state usually ranks high on lists you'd prefer not to be associated with." Mr. Marrison goes on to point out that Cleveland is the poorest city in the nation. Cincinnati is right up there, too! (32% of Clevelanders live under the poverty level. One of every two children in Cleveland live in poverty.) We are losing our talent pool faster than any other state. For those who stay, college expenses are far higher than other states. We have lost over 204,308 jobs since 2000. We have led the nation in this category for 125 months - 10 years and counting. We beat Texas last night in football to remain #1, but we are losing too many battles in education, job creation, and health care.
Being an Ohioan at this time means living fully into the challenge of putting faith into action. As people of faith and works, of prayer and action, you and I have our work cut out for us. May we find inspiration to become a prayer in action - as the power and hope of Christ inspires us and gets into our feet. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church