There is no better combination than the Letter of James in the lesson for today and this Labor Day weekend. Labor day is a tribute to those who do the things that make our nation and its economy run. Labor Day weekend marks the change of tempo from the semi-comatose days of August to the busy schedules of Fall. James fits right in with his feisty emphasis on faith as action. We can almost feel the quickening pace of life on this weekend and James is counting cadence with lines like, “Be doers of the word not merely hearers.” James is a good Labor Day read. It is just four pages but brims with edgy advice that is challenging in the best sense of the word. In addition, the Letter of James provides us with a test that casts a bright light on faith, letting us see if our faith is real and, in an solid way, of letting us know if what we believe is true. Take a moment to look with me at this Labor Day Letter and what it says about your faith and mine.
If James had a last name I am sure it would have been Cagney because he is so much like that bantam rooster on an actor with his chin in your face and a chip on his shoulder while he looked around for a fight. Listen to a few lines from James’ letter:
Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness
Be doers of the Word not merely hearers
Pure religion is this: care for widows and orphans and keep yourself unstained by the world
What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works … Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead
You believe that God is one? So does the Devil!
If you have bitterness and envy in your heart there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from the cravings at war within you? … You covet something and cannot obtain it so you engage in disputes and conflicts
Resist the Devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.
Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin
To be fair, James is assuming a precise definition of faith when in fact the word has several possible interpretations. The Nicene Creed is a faith statement, an understanding about the great narrative that is the backdrop for life. It is possible to accept that view without any overt action on behalf of widows or anyone else. And some people do believe in God the same way Satan does, as a reality to be resisted or avoided rather than obeyed.
But James has a point. For him faith is the way we understand life. It is what orders our priorities and determines our actions. The broader understanding of faith has room for agnostics, people who are just not sure about God and what God might have to do with our lives. James’ faith has no agnostics because it is about action not ideas. At the end of the day you either did it or you did not. For James faith is action and therein lies the test that he provides. If faith is action then action is faith. That is, we can tell what someone really believes by seeing what they really do.
In the James Test what we believe is not found in Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals. It is found in checkbooks, calendars, and conversations. Faith is the way we spend money. It is the way we allocate our time. It is the manner in which we relate to others. There are no theories in the James Test. No theologies, no pieties, no lofty aspirations. And there are no excuses. God’s forgiveness is a separate category not covered by James. He is decidedly oriented to efforts and results. A popular preacher’s question many years ago was, “If Christianity were a crime would there be enough evidence to convict you?” That is the James Test in a nutshell. So, let’s let the light of the James Test, uncomfortable though it may be, shine on us for a while.
In the awkward unruly way of public discourse some are wondering if America is or ever was a Christian nation. It is a worthy question in spite of its neglect of other faiths. James would tell us that the answer is not to be found in the minds of the Founders but in the lives of the citizens. He would have us look at how we treat the poor and the broken, and he would wonder how many we made broke and impoverished on the way to our prosperity. James would not care that we built a great cathedral. He would ask what difference it made after it was finished. James would not look to see what is on our minds or even our hearts. Belief in God does not impress him in the least. He would look at our GPS to see where we go and our Facebook page to find out what we did when we got there. James does not care about our hopes for the future or our view of the past. He looks only at our stewardship of the present. James says all of that adds up to what we really believe. If we take the James Test, the results need not be shared with others because the people around us already know how we act and what we do.
The James Test provides not only an uncomfortably clear picture of our faith, it also gives us the only real way to know if what we believe is true. When belief is understood as a set of ideas, theologies, creeds, and catechisms we are free to speculate about them until the end of time. People in my line of work have been doing that since the beginning of time and show few signs of wearing down. We can think and talk about faith and never come to a compelling conclusion. Theology, which is my chosen field, is like trying to get to Richmond on the beltway. At some points on 495 we will be closer to Richmond and at other points we will be further away. But we will never get to Richmond on the beltway. It simply does not go there. One cannot find the reality of God through speculation. To use another metaphor, the Bible, which is my chosen resource, is like a book about swimming. Such a book could tell us a great deal about water displacement, various strokes, famous swimmers like Michael Phelps, and the best swimming holes and beaches, but reading the book is not swimming. Indeed one cannot swim while reading it. The Bible is about faith but by itself it is not faith.
In this context James is right. Faith is something we do. And the only way to know if our faith has substance is to do it and see. There is no way to know that Jesus is Lord through external evidence. The only way to know is to live as if Jesus is Lord of your life and then it will become clear. There is no way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. But when we live as if he did rise, as if he is indeed the Son of God and Lord of Life, as if our life on this side and the other side of death draws meaning from him, the question of resurrection is not answered, it simply goes away. James knows that the way we live not only reveals what we believe, it is the only way to find out if what we believe is true.
The Letter of James is a four-page look at faith and the perfect companion to Labor Day and the change of pace coming on Tuesday. Check it out. Amen.