(James 2: 14-25)
Your thoughts and prayers have just arrived. That was the caption that was under a photo of an empty delivery truck that an acquaintance of mine recently posted on Facebook. The post showed a large delivery truck with the back doors wide open revealing that it contained no contents. The caption under the picture read: “Your Thoughts and Prayers have just Arrived.” I immediately had an adverse reaction partly because of who the poster was and partly because it hit a nerve. I resisted the temptation to respond and started thinking about the different ways one could attach meaning to the post. My initial knee-jerk reaction was that it was a slight towards Christians but, then again, thoughts and prayers is not a Christian-only response. Thoughts and prayers can and do come from other faiths. I thought back to when he posted this on Facebook and it was in the wake of a particularly tough couple of months with the hurricane devastation in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico which was followed by the wild fires that raged in California. We also had the mass shootings in Las Vegas and the Baptist Church in Texas, and numerous other tragedies. Maybe hearing news reporters and politicians saying, “the victims are in our thoughts and prayers” just sounded too trivial or pat. Maybe he thought, “hey, these people need more than thoughts and prayers, they need help!” Maybe he’s one of those people who think we Christians are no longer relevant and that churches exist only for those who show up on Sunday morning. He may be one of those people who think that we hide behind our religious tax exemption so we can hoard tens of thousands of dollars paying our preachers obscene salaries so they can live in fancy tax-exempt houses and drive high-dollar automobiles. He’s probably one of those people who don’t think much about our faith because they don’t see where it is doing any good. All of these unfair perceptions are our reality. It is how we are seen and perceived.
In a way, I wish I had taken the opportunity to weigh in on the topic and speak from what our church does in such situations, but I stuck to my Mark Twain rule of not engaging idiots for fear of being dragged down to their level and being beaten by experience. Hypothetically, I would have told him that we would have prayed because that is what we do. Prayer is always our first response. We pray for those who have been hurt and those others who are impacted by the hurt. We pray that God will hear their cries and ease their pain. We pray that God will send people to them to help in the aftermath. We pray that God speaks to us and that, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are led to do whatever we can to help. Because our faith is strong, and we do pray, we are guided to do what we can and, as John Wesley said, “When you do what you can, you’ve done enough.”
I think the Apostle James and my Facebook acquaintance may have been talking about the same kind of people. In our scripture reading for today we hear James ask, “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it?” James is saying what my Facebook friend is thinking, “you Christians talk a good game, but I don’t see you doing anything that might require your hands getting dirty.” James asks the rhetorical question, “claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?” He tells us to imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What, he asks, 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? James points out that, “in the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” James says he will show you his faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. He points out that faith without actions has no value at all. I think that may be at the root of my Facebook friend’s post. James tells his readers, “As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.”
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline addressed Faith and Good Works in paragraph 102 where it says, we see God’s grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God’s grace calls forth human response and discipline. Faith is the only response essential for salvation. However, the General Rules remind us that salvation evidences itself in good works. Both faith and good works belong within an all-encompassing theology of grace, since they stem from God’s gracious love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In the section on Mission and Service, it says that we insist that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. By joining heart and hand, we assert that personal religion, evangelical witness, and Christian social action are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. The Book of Discipline says that for Wesley there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness.
John Wesley understood that good works didn’t lead to justification and that our justification comes freely of the mere mercy of God. But Wesley was appalled at the lack of compassion the Church of England had for the poor and like Jesus and Martin Luther, he was firm in his conviction that something needed to be done.
In his writings on True Christian Faith, Wesley wrote, of this faith three things are specially to be noted, first, that it is fruitful in bringing forth good works; secondly, that without it can no good works be done; thirdly, what good works this faith doth bring forth. Wesley goes on to explain that for the first, as light cannot be hid but will show itself at one place or other, so true faith cannot be hid but will break out and show itself by good works. Wesley said that the soul that hath a living faith will be always doing some good work, which shall declare that it is living. He also said to beware of sins of omission. Lose no opportunity of doing good in any kind. Be zealous of good works. Willingly omit no work either of piety or mercy. Do all the good you possibly can, to the bodies and souls of all men.
We know that we cannot earn our salvation by serving and obeying God, but such actions show that our commitment to God is real. Our deeds of loving service are not a substitute for, but rather a verification of, our faith in Christ. We are not justified by what we do in any way. True faith always results in deeds, but the deeds do not justify us. Faith brings us salvation and active obedience demonstrates that our faith is genuine.
For Community United Methodist Church, 2017 was a year of showing our faith through our deeds and our works. When I reflect back on what this little congregation of less than one hundred worshippers did last year I am astounded. Our true faith cannot be hidden and is showing itself by our good works. We don’t have time to sit back and rest on our laurels. 2018 is here and the problems of society still abound. We need to continue the work we have started and look for new opportunities to exercise our faith and commitment. Jesus is calling you and me. Will we follow him into unfamiliar places? Will we let his love be shown in us? Will we let his name be known? Will we let his life be grown in us and us in him?
Please pray with me.
Most wonderful and loving God, how grateful and blessed we are to be your children. Your grace and mercy abounds. The life we have in you compares to nothing the world has to offer. You have bestowed so much upon us yet there are so many out there who have so little and have yet come to know you. Their lives are consumed by debt, hunger, joblessness, homelessness, addiction, poverty, helplessness and hopelessness and know not which way to turn. We pray that you use us and guide us through the Holy Spirit to reach out to these people and get us out of our comfort zones so we can search for the lost and minister to the least and the last. Move us to labor for you so that our faith shows in the work we do for you in making the world a better place for all and to bring those who are searching for you so they can join us in the peace we have in your loving son, Jesus Christ. Amen.