(James 2: 1-17)
You know how I love acronyms and this one, CINO, may sound vaguely familiar. It sounds kind of like a couple of others that are used to describe someone’s political persuasion or lack of political persuasion, as the case may be. The terms aren’t meant to be complimentary and signal a person’s lack of commitment to the cause, whatever that may be. The terms I’m referring to are DINO and RINO that are usually used to describe someone who professes to be a Democrat or a Republican, but suddenly doesn’t vote the party line. It usually gets thrown out there when a politician crosses the aisle to vote with the other side because the particular piece of legislation might actually help someone and do some good. The aggrieved political party gets upset and attacks the defecting member accusing them of being a Democrat In Name Only or a Republican In Name Only riling up the base and generating a political backlash. “We have a party platform, and how dare you go against the party and help the other side!” “We’ll show you!” And then the appropriate punishment is meted out as a warning to any others who might be thinking about doing the right thing.
And not doing the right thing is what was troubling the Apostle James in our scripture reading for this morning. He had observed that there was an over-abundance of CINOs in the early church, people who were Christians In Name Only, who weren’t working actively to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. James was Jesus’ brother and a leader in the Jerusalem church and wrote this letter to the 12 tribes of Israel that had been scattered outside of Israel. He was concerned for the scattered Christians who were now aliens in foreign lands. And, these folks, he believed, were in a perfect position to spread the gospel if they just acted like followers of Jesus Christ for all to see. He starts out by saying: My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? Wow! James is saying out loud what many of us have thought, and maybe done, at one time or another. We’re so excited when someone visits our church, and although we may not mean anything by it, we might display a little bit more hospitality to someone who looks like they might be able to help us out more, like maybe financially, as opposed to someone who appears to be a little down-and-out, a nice enough person but not who we prayed God would send us. What kind of message are we sending out to the other person who already feels marginalized enough? James continues: My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? He’s prompting them to reflect back upon the teachings and examples of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, healing the sick and lame, eating with sinners, stopping what he was doing to help the helpless and give hope to the hopeless. By doing this he reminds them that they are dishonoring the poor who hold a very special place in God’s heart. He reminds them that it is more likely the wealthy who have made their lives difficult, the ones who have dragged them into court for no good reason, the ones who have used their position and status to gain an unfair advantage. He tells them that they would do well in fulfilling the royal law found in Leviticus 19: 18 which says to love your neighbor as yourself. However, he says, that when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. Kind of harsh to my way of thinking, but it underscores just how serious he thinks this issue is. He says that anyone who tries to keep all of the Law, the law of Moses, will at one time or another fail and will be guilty of failing to keep all of the law. With James there’s no such thing as just a little bit pregnant. Having made his point, he says: In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment. James’ point is plain and unambiguous. The one who refuses to perform God’s works of mercy to others cannot expect to receive mercy from God on Judgment Day.
Now that he has gotten their attention he asks: 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? Good point. My Wesley Commentary says that a more literal translation of “What good is it?” might be “What is the profit?” “What is to be gained by such faith? What advantage does it bring?” James is clearly asking if faith without action profits in salvation. But he’s also asking whether faith without action has any profit in the world for the poor and vulnerable. He asks them to imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. He asks: 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? His answer to this rhetorical question was an unambiguous no, there is no good in it. He tells them that faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. Essentially, what the Apostle James is saying is that we cannot, in good faith, say that we love our neighbors when we do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the underprivileged and vulnerable in our world, whether next door or half a world away.
John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, said: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. Faith and action are inseparable; you cannot have one without the other.” Wesley believed that our Christian faith must account for the whole work of God, “from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.” He believed that the appointed end of such a faith is the salvation of the entire self, so that words and actions, creeds and deeds, heads and hearts and hands might all be purified for holy service to God. What the Apostle James was saying resonated with Wesley because of his experience with the Church of England that led him to despair that so few who took the name Christian sought to live as God’s sanctified people in the world. To Wesley, they were Christians in name only because they, the church, did nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering of the poor who were literally living in the shadows of churches all over England. If it weren’t for the fact that the Church of England showed no mercy to the poor, we wouldn’t be sitting here today in a Methodist church doing all we can with what we have for the helpless and hopeless within the shadows of our own churches.
In closing, James presents us with three principles of faith. First, commitment is an essential part of faith. You must commit your minds and hearts to Christ if your faith is to have any staying power. Second, right actions are the natural byproducts of true faith. A genuine Christian will have a changed life and a changed perspective that will show him or her the right thing to do every single time. And third, faith without good deeds doesn’t do anybody any good. It is useless. What is the profit? What is to be gained by such faith? What advantage does it bring? How does it profit the world and those living in your shadow?
Showing your neighbor the kind of love you would want to be shown when you are at your lowest is what makes you a somebody who does something, a person who is a part of the solution in Jesus’ name. Anything less leaves you in danger of being a Christian In Name Only.
Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, how we pray that we can be one in the Spirit and one in you. And hear our prayers that one day all unity in you will be restored. Until that day may we walk hand in hand with each other spreading the news together that you are in our land. And move us to work side by side with each other in our efforts to guard human dignity and save human pride. All praise to you O Father, from whom all things come, and all praise to Christ Jesus, your only Son, and all praise to the Spirit, who works to make us one. And if we live a life of faith exemplified by our good works in your name, they will know we are Christians by our love. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.