What does religion look like?
That is the question posed and answered in our passage today.
The past few weeks we have been focusing on one of the most well known New Testament authors, but now we move on to one of the lesser known, but equally important, early teachers in the church. In the early stages of this new faith the early church leaders were trying to answer this question of what does religion look like?
James’ answer here in this passage begins his exhortation upon showing people what it means to be a Christian. All of this wrapped in the phrase we often hear most often from James and which will appear in our text next week. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) This is the premise for James’ faith and this is where James’ initial writings today come from. James wants his readers to understand that the basics of faith are not only believing, but also action. We must put into practice that which we believe or our faith is worthless. We must live a worthwhile faith.
As some of you know I have been golfing since I was very young. I remember, as a young child, trying to grasp the game because parts of it seemed so complicated. There were so many steps and so many rules. It boggled my young mind. For example there are many aspects that go into a standard golf swing. Any good golf swing begins with your grip. Not too stiff, but also not too loose. You must have the right stance and put the ball in the right position in your stance depending on what kind of shot you are taking. When you begin your backswing you make sure the only thing moving is the top half of your body. Your left arm stays straight all the way to the top of your swing. Once you reach the top of your golf swing you begin to move your whole body forward bringing your arms down to make contact with the club and swinging your hips to pull your momentum around. As you come down and close to making contact with the ball you rotate your wrists to make a clean and straight hit on the ball. You continue to rotate through your swing and follow through bringing your shoulders and waist square with the projected angle of your shot. And in all of this you keep your head and shoulders down until after you make contact with the ball.
Kind of complicated, I know, but the greatest golfers in the world do all of these things in their swing and they do it over and over again every time they swing their club. Even for the beginner golfer it is important to follow each of these steps in order to makes the best shot on the ball possible. A mistake at any point in the swing can result in the bad golf shots. Our failure to put into practice the fundamentals of a good swing make any swing we take worthless, because it will often leave you with a lost ball or a terrible next shot.
James to wants us to understand the fundamentals of our faith so that we know what it means to have a worthwhile faith. This entire letter follows this manner by helping Christians to understand what the fundamentals are, and here in these opening verses we get an overview of it too.
As with Paul, James begins where Jesus begins and that is with God and identifying God as the greatest fundamental aspect to our faith. Because face it what is our faith without God?. James writes,
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1:17-18)
Our faith starts with God. It starts with believing in God and believing in what God has done for us. James talks of what God has given us in our lives. He notes that God has given us these great blessings. All the good in our lives is from God. This runs to counter the verse that occurs before our scripture today where James writes, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13) James juxtaposes God not being the tempter with God be the blesser and giver. When we start our faith by acknowledging God and our blessings from God we acknowledge that this faith is more than just Sunday morning. We lay the foundation with the most prime fundamental we have as Christians.
The next fundamental comes in our interaction with others.
James writes, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (James 1:19-21)
It is in those three commands that we gain great wisdom. We learn the importance of a listening ear, the power of words, and the potential destruction of anger. These are the foundations of our actions in faith.
A.K.M. Adam is a theologian in England who writes, “James cares particularly about the ways we characteristically speak; precisely because speech is so easy, so immediate, and so very hard to control, James sees it as the test case for genuine faithfulness. You cannot, he counsels us, casually insult your neighbor (who is, like you, made in God’s own image) and presume to be approved by God. You cannot give voice to God’s wrath out of your own irritation at another.” (Adams, Working Preacher)
Our words are the most powerful tool we have to share the Gospel and when we misuse them we taint the Gospel we share. We make the Gospel seem worthless because of the manner in which we have chosen to present ourselves and use our words.
James final foundation and command is, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” (James 1:22-25)
This is James thesis of sorts for his entire letter. Our faith should be founded upon doing and not just hearing. James takes this metaphor of a mirror to show how we often treat the word of God. We often give it a chance and we listen to it, but upon walking out those doors we completely forget its nature and go back to living our lives the way that we want. James wants us to know that we cannot do that. For that worthwhile faith that we all ascribe to we must be those doers who act.
I want to close with a story.
The night was January 17th and I had been on my Intercultural Immersion class for my seminary degree for a week and a half. The class took place in one of the poorest parts of Fairfax County. An area ridden with poverty and homelessness. In the two weeks of this class we learned about what homelessness meant and how people were trying to combat it. We interacted with the people and learned their stories. We didn’t merely give them food, but we ate with them. We learned who they were and attached faces with stories. Faces that are burned into my mind for all eternity. Stories that scare me and drop me back to the reality of life. However, it was this one night that hit me the hardest.
On this night some members of our group were staying at the Hypothermia Shelter, and I was one of them. When you spent the night at the Hypothermia Shelter you were in charge of keeping track of who was in the shelter and checking people in who might have showed up in the middle of the night. Now there was a big rule for the people who stayed at the shelter. You could stay at the shelter overnight, but you could not leave. If you left your bed could not be guaranteed.
On this particular night a young man had come to the shelter and gotten some dinner and had gotten his stuff set up. However, at some point in the evening he dismissed himself from the shelter. Because of the frigidness of the night the shelter filled up sometime around midnight. Because of this we could take no more people and we were going to be forced to turn people away if anyone else might have showed up.
Around 2:30 in the morning the man who had left sometime earlier in the evening returned. He rang the doorbell seeking to get in, but we couldn’t let him in. We were at capacity for the night and had no room left for him to stay. His stuff was even still inside the church, but he couldn’t come in himself. It was heartbreaking to be the one that had to tell him he couldn’t have a warm place to sleep for the night. This gentleman had nowhere to go, it was cold, he had lost his spot in a warm place, and just needed a place to stay. We told him that there were other shelters around who could take him in, but he didn’t like that thought. However, for me and one of my colleagues being a Christian was not letting that be the end of the story. It was helping him to get to one of those shelters safely, it was getting him checked in at that shelter, and it was reconnecting with him later on to make sure he was alright.
Being a Christian is looking in the mirror and knowing you have done everything you can to help God’s children. It is this mirror metaphor that James latches onto, because it is about what we see that defines us as Christians. James separates it into hearers and doers. It’s in those actions that we define what our faith, what Christianity, truly is. James is calling us to put our faith into practice. It could have been so easy for me to have simply turned away the gentleman because we were full, but helping him to find and get a warm place to stay is doing God’s work. It is ensure comfort and safekeeping to someone in need. It is putting into practice that which I had learned. Being a Christian means putting the fundamentals into practice.
A.K.M. Adam continued to write in the quote from earlier, “our merely listening to divine teaching without putting it into effect shows that you have not benefited from God’s commands; you remain a half-hearted, unstable semi-believer.” (Adam, Working Preacher)
In a song that I wrote for a seminary class on the book of James I wrote,
“I wanna look in the mirror, and know who I see. I wanna see. Someone who does, and doesn’t just listen. Someone who cares, and doesn’t just forget. Someone who loves, and never likes hurting. Someone who’s blessed, will share their blessing.” (Ware, Who Do I See)
This is a faith to do and not just hear.
1.) Adam, A.K.M. Commentary on James 1:17-27. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2605
2.) New Revised Standard Version
3.) Ware, Andrew. Who Do I See.