15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Lectionary Reflection
September 6, 2015
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. James 2:15-17
As a Lutheran I have to admit that I approach the epistle of James with a bit of theological baggage. First, Lutherans have a knee-jerk aversion to anything that even hints of works righteousness. And second, we are unduly influenced by Martin Luther’s low opinion of James, as he writes:
In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that it is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to the others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35).
As if all that weren’t enough, in becoming a Lutheran I left behind a tradition that believes works ARE important and indeed express a joyous and faithful response to the gospel. As a result, I am left with a sort of love/hate relationship to James’ letter to the faithful scattered abroad. There is indeed a part of me that resonates with “Old Camel-Knees” (an ancient nickname for James, given to recognize the calloused knees he earned from years of fervent prayer) and his instructions for how Christians ought to conduct themselves. Should we throw the book out wholesale because of its emphasis on the centrality of works, rather than gospel grace? At the risk of incurring Luther’s ire, I have to say no.
Like the authors of all the epistles, James was writing for a specific audience in a certain time and place. Surely this was a message his readers needed to hear. Not surprisingly, the message is just as applicable to our congregations today. Whether beset by notions of “cheap grace” (Thank you, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!) or altogether apathy, folks today need to hear about and understand the integral connection between living faith and action just as much as those first century believers did.
“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” says the author. It’s the living, the being, AND the doing that animates the life of faith. Without the daily experience of practicing faith and responding to God’s grace, mercy, and love, faith becomes a mere academic exercise–province of head more than heart. Conversely, we stray into the realm of works righteousness when we lean too heavily on works without acknowledging and understanding that we can do nothing to earn the gift of faith. This life of faith is, therefore, a delicate balance. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, we are doomed for failure at one or the other extreme.
Where’s the gospel? Cruise on over to Mark’s healing stories this week. Jesus offers healing to an unlikely foreign child after an irresistible request by her mother, a.k.a. the Syrophoenecian woman. The good news is that healing and wholeness through Christ is for everyone. Next, Jesus is off in the region of the Decapolis, where he opens a deaf mute’s mouth and ears–he can now both hear and speak–both receiving Jesus’ healing and then being able to go out and do something in response to it. The good news is that we do receive this costly unmerited gift of grace AND we’re empowered to do something with it, to share it with others, to work for the healing of this beautiful yet broken world.
We aren’t to stay glued to our pews. We are people on the way; we are sent into the world to be Christ’s hands, feet, heart, and eyes. By grace and the power of the Holy Spirit we are “opened” to be aware of possibility and to do something about it. We are “opened” to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and we are “opened” to spread our arms and love to others. Funny, that doesn’t seem like straw to me. To me it sounds like grace in action, like faith with feet, and like Spirit with spunk. It sounds a lot like how we’re sent: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Now DO something!” And may all God’s people say “We will. Amen and Amen!”
What does it sound like to you? How have you been “opened” to see and respond to Jesus’ amazing grace?
Photos: Daniel Holt, Creative Commons and mangostock, Fotolia. Thanks!