A Sermon from Sherborne
Faith Works: Compline Address 3
Compline addresses preached during Lent 2017 to accompany the Sherborne Churches Together Ecumenical Study Groups exploring the Epistle of St James
3. James 2.14-3.12: preached on 20 March 2017 by The Reverend Jono Tregale
As we have journeyed through Lent this year we have been exploring the Epistle of St James and tonight we come to its midpoint and collide full-face into what is perhaps the most theologically challenging verse in the book, if not, as some scholars suggest, the most controverted in the entire New Testament. It is the verse which more than any other led to the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther declaring the book to be an ‘epistle of straw’.
Why should this book, and this section in particular, elicit such a dismissive and disparaging response from the man who, five hundred years ago this autumn, nailed his now famous ‘ninety five’ theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in protest against the established church, thus decisively bringing to the public arena the paradigm shift of theology and ecclesiology known as the Reformation?
It is this; verse 24. “You see that people are justified (that is made right with God) by what they do and not by faith alone.” And yet the slogan of the Reformers was ‘sole fide’ – by faith alone – drawing heavily on St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans; this in chapter 3: “a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law”. Were St. James and St. Paul in conflict over this theological point? For Luther, in the cauldron of the early Reformation, if nothing else St. James had failed to unequivocally support justification by faith alone. But let’s return to Luther in a moment and focus on the text itself.
How often do we hear of politicians and world leaders lay claim to Christian faith? Perhaps not as often as in years gone by but it is still not uncommon – especially, if I may be a little cynical, where it is political expedient to do so. But, then we observe corruption and oppression at their hands, or at least the marginalisation of those most in need of society’s care. People talk of having faith but do not live it out. There is an integrity gap. Words and actions do not match in a life-affirming and world-changing way. Instead they war against each other.
What does St. James say about this? If a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food and all we offer is words, what good is it? “In the same way”, St. James tells us with characteristic bluntness, “faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.”
The problem is quite simply this. People talk about having faith but do not live it out. Rather than a lively trust in God which informs and shapes the whole of our lives it becomes an empty affirmation. And the faith in God spoken of here is not the fully formed statements of St. Paul but the simple Jewish confession of faith – belief that there is one God. But even this simple faith must be worked outwards for even the demons believe that there is one God!
You see, faith and deeds are inextricably linked. But we need to know how. You see, the saving faith that St. James, and indeed St. Paul, have in mind is in sharp contrast to the vagueness we encounter all too often; “Oh, I’m a great believer.” Often such faith has no content; it is little more than a wishful thought. At times it is merely self-belief and nothing more.
But saving faith is faith which takes us on the journey to justification, of being made right with God, of being reconciled with God – the consequence of human sin and corruption laid aside as Christ takes it upon himself as he dies upon the cross at Calvary. Saving faith is that which appropriates this great restoration of relationship with God who knows and loves us, and whom we can know personally as ‘Our Father’.
And such faith is transformational. It is all embracing. It is no private matter. Real faith, St. James reminds us, is that which is worked outward. Mere assent to doctrine is no faith at all. Saving faith reveals itself in works, or perhaps more strongly true faith is proved in action. We, quite simply, cannot credibly claim to have faith if our deeds do not match, and in the examples St. James provides for us, if we ignore the plight of those in need. And perhaps this is precisely why the charitable sector in so many areas owes its establishment to the committed service of people of faith – children’s charities, homeless charities – and even here in Sherborne the Food Bank founded and energised by Christian folk who understood that faith without deeds is dead.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers an interesting view on the issue. In his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, this modern martyr, who died standing against the evil of Hitler, draws a distinction between ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace’. Cheap grace is a type of faith that does not necessarily lead to actions, because it does not demand a changed heart. Cheap grace, he says, means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a mere intellectual belief. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. In contrast to cheap grace, Bonhoeffer defines costly grace as the kingly rule of Christ. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer makes the point that when Jesus called his disciples, it meant that faith “can no longer mean sitting still and waiting — they must rise and follow him. The call frees them from all earthly ties, and binds them to Jesus Christ alone. They must burn their boats and plunge into absolute insecurity in order to learn the demand and the gift of Christ.” Obedience to the ways of Christ is very much the consequence of faith. Bonhoeffer worked out his salvation in the midst of the Nazi regime in World War II, what might it mean for us?
So to return to Luther and the Reformation, St. James is not here denying ‘sole fide’, justification by faith alone, but is bluntly reminding his readers that such faith is ‘faith that is visible’; it is ‘faith that works’. Our works, our efforts, our attempts at goodness do not in and of themselves make us right with God – it is by grace we have been saved, as we place saving faith in Christ Jesus, in his death and resurrection. But real faith, true faith always results in good deeds. It is perhaps what St. Paul describes in his letter to the Galatian church as ‘faith expressing itself through love’.
So maybe, with perhaps irony, though equally fittingly, we should allow Luther to speak to us from the preface to his commentary on the epistle to the Romans:
Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works is a faithless person. Such a person gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
Now, the passage assigned for us this week feels rather like a game of two halves. But perhaps as we now turn very practically to the use of the tongue, our speech, we would do well to recognise that words are very much an aspect of works, and therefore the challenges of having a faith expressed in loving Christian service are just as relevant here.
Teachers are significant people in our lives, whether for good or for ill. I still remember the words to me of an art teacher who pronounced “You’re lazy, you’re not trying hard enough, you’ll not amount to much, and you’ll end up sweeping the streets.” Well, even if we ignore the implication that those who sweep streets have not amounted to much – why cannot such a role carry great joy and a sense of vocation? – it was not a positive encounter. Needless to say I did not pursue art much further. In contrast though my chemistry teacher was passionate and enthusiastic, encouraging and affirming – and yes I probably had a natural ability in science – but it was nurtured – and so at university and beyond, science was my focus. Teachers, and the words they speak, can open up opportunities for their students, or halt them in their tracks. But teachers, and in our text most pertinently religious teachers, can also send their hearers down the wrong line – bringing in confusions, or even advice which leads to personal disasters. There is a weighty responsibility for those who are called to lead and teach others. Those in public ministry have a greater reach to be an influence for good or for ill in their use of their tongue. Take care in preaching and pastoral conversation – for our words have power – and do not rush into such roles in the desire for prestige or influence. But still hear this – a genuine call of God to public ministry will stay with you through testing and so if in humility you have sensed a stirring within then explore it purposefully and carefully. Talk to your minister about it.
We all know the danger of the tongue. A few words, misplaced, can cause immense trouble; the downfall of those in high estate. Politicians have a remarkable capacity to bounce back, many have not. Inappropriate comments recorded when microphones are left on or prejudices let slip unawares before a journalist. Some of us may remember the demise of the once thriving Ratner’s chain of jewellers following its founder’s admission that its own-branded products were, let’s say to be polite, of low quality.
And so St. James has much to say about the power and the danger of the tongue. Like a horse’s bit or a ship’s rudder – it is small in comparison but its impact is massive, out of all proportion. Like a raging fire it starts small but its effect spreads and can be devastating to all who feel its force. Think of a harsh word spoken to a child – it can live with them until their dying day. Thankfully I didn’t take too much notice of my art teacher – but other words have cut much deeper. How utterly false are the words of that nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It is words not bullets which start wars. It is words not bruises which imprison us in low self-esteem.
Though ultimately remembered for his fortitude in leading the British people through the Second World War the greatest hurt carried by Winston Churchill was that meted out by his parents. His father detested him; his mother barely paid him any attention. To them he was a disappointment as a student and failed to graduate from Sandhurst with a high enough rating to gain entry into his father’s preferred regiment. In a letter to Winston, his father wrote these words:
Do not think I am going to take the trouble of writing to you long letters after every failure you commit and undergo. … I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you may say about your own acquirements and exploits. … If you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life you have had during your schooldays and later months, you will become a mere social wastrel one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy and futile existence. If that is so you have to bear all the blame for such misfortunes yourself.
Winston’s father then ended the letter brutally: “Your mother sends her love.”
The tongue: how powerful, how dangerous; and how utterly difficult to control. Humanity is called to subdue and care for creation, but we cannot even tame our own tongues. Because as St. James reminds us, echoing the words of Jesus – what comes out of our mouths is but a reflection of what is within our hearts. Our tongue is a barometer of our spirituality – it reveals as much as our deeds whether there is true faith at work in our lives. A pure heart cannot produce evil speech. And perhaps the deadliest sin of the tongue is inconsistency – remembering the accusation of the Native American Indian against their European invaders: “Beware of he who speaks with forked tongue.” As Christian people whose true faith is worked outward in good deeds, our speech must be about blessing always, and must eschew the double-ness of blessing some and cursing others.
St. James is intensely practical in his letter to the young Christian community. Faith is only shown to be true faith if matched by our deeds – and how much do we need to guard our speech in that; our tongues our most powerful member – for good or for ill.