What makes a good student? A student that aces every test? never late for class? never talks when the teacher is talking? Tries really hard?
I present to you a case of two students.
Student A averages B+/A- work. She does most of her homework, but sometimes it’s done in the 5 minutes before class starts. She sits in the back of the classroom, not interacting too often with other students, but also because she puts her head down as soon as she finishes work.
Student B struggles to maintain a C average. He does all of his homework so that his “effort grade” makes up for his test grades. He occasionally talks to other students during class, but that’s mostly to ask for help or when he’s mentally drained from his frustration. He attends after school tutoring when he can because the subject seems like a foreign language for which nobody gave him a dictionary.
They are real students - both were in the same Algebra 1 class I taught. Student A was a girl named Cassie, who readily admitted to me years later that she was a terrible student. And I agreed - lovingly.
Student B was a boy, who we will call Bryan. Even though he couldn’t tell me what 5x5 was without a calculator, I would have taken a classroom full of Bryans any day because he tried so sincerely. His efforts didn’t always match up with his results and vice versa; however, he wanted it to.
What makes a math student? Is it A:knowledge, B:performance, C:effort, or D:All of the above?
In a similar vein, what makes a Christian? (Not a “good” Christian because we aren’t rating each other.) Simply, what makes a person a Christ-follower? Is it a person’s knowledge? belief? “good works?” all of the above?
Today’s Scripture presents a debate that some theologians love to engage in and others are tired of hearing about. Faith v. works. What saves you? What makes you a Christ-follower?
The author of James was concerned that the people’s understanding of faith was too small. (Craig Koester, workingpreacher.org). His concern was that these relatively new believers would fall into a mindset that “I will simply say these few words and then all is good.”
To illustrate his point, he gives the example of treating people unequally according to their finances. The society of that time would understand this illustration, as there was a lot of emphasis on social class then.
The author’s point, though, was that if a person professes to be a Christ-follower, then it would follow that they would take to heart Christ’s teachings and life examples. They would apply to their lives such teachings as the “royal law.” Similar to the “golden rule,” it is Leviticus 19:18, which states to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is a command Jesus stated explicitly and implicitly. So, if a Christ-follower applied those commands to their lives, then they would not treat people unequally.
The author was building the argument, using an example which applies even today, that a person’s faith shows in their actions.
Now, before we get too carried away with looking for evidence of the Christian faith in people’s lives, we need to examine the potential Catch-22, the balance, in this argument.
This is not an opportunity for us to justify judging other people who claim the Christian faith!
So, if you immediately just thought of someone who proclaims the Christian faith and you thought “that person’s faith doesn’t show in their actions! They were rude to me the other day! I don’t ever see them volunteering, and how can they drive that car on their income, they obviously don’t give enough money to charity” I want you pause.
We are here to encourage reflection, not impose judgment - because judgment, however right we may think we are, slides into “holier than thou” falsehoods.
When seriously reflecting on these words from James and others, we are cautioned to not rely solely on either “faith” or “works.” On the spectrum of faith and works, residing purely on either end is dangerous.
On one end, if a person errs in thinking that merely saying the words included in the Christian faith - the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of confession, etc - without any intent of living out those words, makes a person Christian, then they miss the experience of deeper spiritual growth.
Craig Koester (workingpreacher.org) notes that “People may want to reduce faith to a series of statements that people profess to believe, but for James, faith is what is operative in a person's life.”
It isn’t just a matter of saying the Lord’s Prayer, it is a matter of letting the words “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” sink into and lead our daily lives. Otherwise, they are merely letters put together to make words, put together to make sentences.
Sadly, many who want to simply say the words and then move on are often just trying to avoid some form of eternal damnation. The practice of the Christian faith is not something to check off of your to-do-list.
On the other end, if a person errs in thinking that good works alone - volunteering, giving to food pantries - will make you a Christian and save you, then they have also turned the Christian faith into a to-do list.
The slippery slope here is that the question becomes “how many good works are enough?” There are always more people without homes to lodge - more families without food to feed - more abused children to love. The work is never complete, and so for a person with anxiety or OCD or raised with a fear-inducing faith, working towards salvation through works is crippling.
Margaret Aymer states that this balance of faith and works that James presents, coupled with last week’s lesson about Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands as prescribed by priestly law, begs for reflection “on the nature and purpose of the Law of Moses for Christians today.” Indeed, a thorough reflection on this topic can be liberating. (workingpreacher.org)
For people who held themselves to a strict adherence to the law of Moses in the time James was written or for people who are today caught up in making sure they “do all the right things,” realizing that salvation is not dependent totally upon the words we speak nor the actions we do can bring freedom. It is a combination of both. It is an outward expression of our inward belief.
Our salvation is found when we take Jesus’ words to heart about loving our neighbors and we are freed from judging each other.
Our salvation is found when we learn to pray for one another, experience a spiritual connection with others, and are freed from thinking we live in complete isolation.
Our salvation is found when we read Jesus’ account of every last penny & every lost sheep being sought out and we learn that we, too, are worthy.
Our salvation is found when we read over and over again in the Scriptures that God is merciful, we accept that we are forgiven for the ways we separate ourselves from God, and we strive to extend that same forgiveness to others.
Koester writes “For James, faith begins with a word--the Word of God that gives us new life.... And if that Word from God gives people life, then those who live out that Word extend life to others. Faith is what is active in a person's life, actively giving life to you and to those around you...
“Where is the good news for your neighbor?" James wants the good news to be experienced--by each believer and through each believer to the many others who need a tangible expression of grace.” (Koester, workingpreacher.org)
The Good News is that you have the chance each day to show a tangible expression of grace to the people you encounter. Thinking about the next 7 days until we meet again, what will you specifically do to live out your faith?
Scripture: James 2:1-10, 14-17