The James Series: Just Do It

James 1:17-27

We are launching into a five-week sermon series on the book of James. I have done versions of this series twice before at other churches. Even on the third try, I go into this effort with just a little fear.

Here’s the basic problem: We’re going to spend a lot of time hearing from James about how to behave. The danger is that you will process all of this as a lesson in what you have to do to get into heaven.

Please do not hear this series that way. In fact, this first sermon mostly is about how not to hear the other sermons.

We are saved by grace and grace alone. In other words, when Jesus Christ went to the cross and died for our sins, he gave us a gift, the gift of eternity. All we have to do to gain eternity is believe and accept the gift.

When we begin talking about Christian behavior, we’re always talking about it as a proper response to grace. God acts first, loving us and saving us, and we respond joyously and thankfully. That response often is delivered in the form of righteous living and good works.

The author of James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He also likely was the brother of Jesus, coming to a belief in Jesus as the Christ after the resurrection. His one letter that made it into the Christian canon has long been controversial; some church leaders—the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for example—wondered if it should be in the Bible at all, concerned that its emphasis on works caused too much confusion in a grace-based religion.

I personally don’t find James’ words as confusing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. We simply have to keep events in their proper order.

Consider this:

The vine precedes the grapes. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our faith in Christ makes us his branches, but there is no point to being his branches in this metaphor unless we bear fruit, the good works that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom.

Doesn’t a new life in Christ imply new ways of acting? James is telling us that if our new life in Christ doesn’t result in new ways of thinking and relating to others, then we may be mistaken about our relationship with Christ. This seems to go along with Jesus’ words about the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. Yes, we are saved because of our belief in Christ’s work on the cross to defeat sin, but our behaviors seem to be a prime indicator of how strongly we hold that belief.

For years, Nike has used the trademarked phrase, “Just Do It.” To me, it references that need for athletes to reach down inside themselves and find the willpower to make themselves what they want to be.

The Christian twist on the phrase would be that God reached down in us and put something new there when we accepted Jesus as Savior. The good works we do actually are part of the gift of salvation. If we trust that truth—if we let God work in us—the change can be astonishing.

The next few weeks will be about seeing what change is possible, trusting that even miraculous healing of the body and soul can occur.


A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.


Action!: Faith in Motion

James 1:19-27 and 2:14-17

One of the great tensions for me as a preacher is figuring out how to talk about the importance of doing—of taking action in the name of Christ—while at the same time emphasizing we can do nothing to save ourselves.

Having faith that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins is central to becoming a Christian. Scripturally, there is no other way to re-establish the relationship with God that was broken by sin. We cannot do enough good deeds to overcome our evil; without faith in Christ’s work, we cannot even love God or others passionately enough to impress God into taking us back. We might as well claim we can jump high enough to get into heaven.

And yet, Christianity is a very deed-oriented religion. For example, in Matthew 25, Jesus describes the final judgment as being based on how we treat the hungry and thirsty, the poor, and marginalized people such as prisoners, the sick, and friendless strangers among us.

Counting today, we’re going to spend five weeks in the Book of James. With some help Aug. 5 from our new discipleship director, Melissa, I’m going to be spending a lot of time talking about our actions. You’ll hear me talk about how we speak to one another, how we use our resources, and how we reach out to each other in life-changing ways. But I don’t for a minute want you to think I’m telling you that good works will save you—salvation simply is a matter of believing in what Christ has done on the cross.

If this sounds a little confusing, at least we’re not alone. Because the Book of James talks so much about Christian behavior, early church leaders struggled with whether it should even be a part of the Christian Bible. As late as the 16th century, Martin Luther, the man who triggered the Protestant Reformation, was questioning the value of the Book of James.

His ambivalence was rooted in his times. He had watched the Roman Catholic Church enrich itself by selling something called indulgences. We Protestants sometime oversimplify what the Roman Catholic Church was doing, saying they were selling forgiveness for sins, which is not exactly true. The Roman Catholic priests were selling relief from what they called “temporal punishments” associated with sins that cause attachment to this world. I’ll not go into all of that in great detail, but suffice it to say that the selling of indulgences and other abuses by the Roman Catholic Church caused Luther to begin to emphasize very strongly the idea that we are saved “by faith alone.” Luther cited the writings of the Apostle Paul, particularly Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

Therefore, language like we’ve heard in our Scripture reading this morning, and in other verses in James, gave Luther heartburn that he could not attribute to his German beer and sausages. Verse 2:24 really bothered him: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Tossing the whole Book of James, or at least dramatically de-emphasizing it, probably did seem easier to Luther and others.

And yet, God has given us the Book of James, if you believe the Holy Spirit has guided church leaders through the centuries to an understanding of what Scriptures should be in the Bible. Christians are called to listen to these very works-oriented words and understand them in the context of other biblical words that emphasize faith.

I personally don’t find James’ words as confusing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. For me, understanding faith and works is largely a matter of understanding the order in which they arrive and which is dependent on the other.

Let’s try a few metaphors:

Which lives first, the vine, or the grapes? The vine, of course. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our faith in Christ makes us branches. But what is the purpose of being branches unless we’re going to bear fruit? Our fruit is our works, those behaviors and actions that make the world a more holy place.

Which would you prefer, a dead body or a living body? That one’s pretty easy, too. Without life in your body, you cannot get much done. Faith brings new life to the Christian body. Naturally, you’re going to do something with that new life. James is trying to tell us that if that new life doesn’t result in new, holy works, we may be mistaken about the relationship we think we’re in with Christ.

Consider the role of grits. As the story goes, a Yankee—excuse me, a person from a more northerly state—stopped to eat breakfast at a diner in the South. He ordered eggs, bacon and toast. (People from more northerly states don’t always appreciate biscuits.) When his eggs, bacon and toast arrived, however, alongside them was a white, mealy, gloppy substance, a little lake of butter pooling in a spoon-indented crater.

“Waitress,” he asked, “what is this? I didn’t order this.”

“Honey, those are grits,” she replied. “You don’t order grits. Grits just come.”

Faith is trusting God enough to ask, knowing you will receive. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life are what we were expecting on the plate. Our ability to do works, given to us by the Holy Spirit, just comes, and is evidence we have been served in full.

This understanding of faith and works is very Methodist, by the way. Luther may have struggled with the Book of James, but John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, loved it. Wesley emphasized our need to grow in faith, a process we call sanctification, and show evidence of our faith after we are saved. In 1742, Wesley wrote an essay called “The Character of a Methodist.” I’m going to rephrase Point 14 in modern English:

Whatever a Methodist does, it is done to the glory of God. A Methodist not only aims to do this, a Methodist actually accomplishes this, be it in business, at play or in prayer. It doesn’t matter whether the Methodist is at home or in public; this business of glorifying God goes on. A Methodist could be glorifying God while getting dressed, working, eating and drinking, or taking other diversions, and God is glorified because peace and goodwill are spread through every act to others. Here is the Methodist’s one invariable rule: Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God.

I think the next few weeks will be challenging for us. Let’s ready ourselves not by the works we do, but by opening ourselves to a deeper faith. Let’s remind ourselves of what we already believe; let’s ask that God strengthen our belief.

It is my prayer that by August 12, we will be better Christians, with works that prove a living faith.