Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22, year B
texts: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23 (several verses added into the middle of the lection); Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Our faith is worthless if it doesn’t result in actions of love.
Our faith has no value for us or for God if it doesn’t shape our lives into servant lives.
These are hard words to hear. But they’re James’ trumpet call over the confusing din of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees. James brings clarity to what we often make a distracting sideshow. How do we know if our heart is right with God? When we live God’s love for those in need.
Pure religion, James says, is caring for the widows and orphans, for all who are on the edge, all who hover at the fringes of the world, all who struggle to make it through a day. That’s it, James says. That’s how you know your faith is real.
James makes Deuteronomy simple for us: don’t just hear God’s Word, do it. Do God’s Word, keep yourself unstained by the world, and take care of people.
Otherwise, our faith isn’t genuine.
Hard as that sounds, we might be surprised at how much sense James makes if we actually read him.
We’re going to hear from James in the next weeks, and we’ll learn he gives a helpful corrective to Lutherans. We value good thinking, proper doctrine, orthodoxy. James, a letter we don’t pay enough attention to, reminds us that how we act and live is a truer measure of our closeness to Christ than whether we get our theology right.
This little letter barely mentions Christ Jesus in the way of proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection for our salvation and life.
But this little letter is full of the way of Jesus, full of what Jesus actually lived and taught and urged and called to those who would listen. James never denies we are forgiven freely by God’s grace. He simply, urgently, asks: does that come out in how you live in the world?
In fact, James helps us understand God’s grace in the right way.
As long as we limit our view of the forgiveness of sins we receive in Christ to our not being punished, we limit our serving as disciples. As long as we keep a childish view of confession, that we’ll do it only so we don’t get in trouble, we miss the true depth of what God’s grace and forgiveness is meant to do.
The forgiveness and grace we receive in Christ is God’s way to reshape and heal our hearts for visible love. There’s nothing about Christ’s death and resurrection that forces the Triune God to forgive us. God could do that without the Incarnation, without the cross, without the empty tomb. God can, and does, simply forgive people and refrain from punishing them. It happened all the time in the Old Testament.
But if God really wanted humanity to return to a place of loving God and loving each other that was intended in creation, something more drastic was needed.
God needed to become one of us, teach us, show us how to live and love. God would have to take all of human hate and evil and be killed by it to show us that is the path to end human hate and evil. Not by overpowering it, but by absorbing it and transforming it with love. Changing death into life.
The forgiveness we receive in Christ’s death and resurrection is our path to a healed and new heart, our path to a life of costly love for the world and all in need.
As for God’s law, rather than arguing over which are still valid, or other points of theology, James says: act like Jesus. That’ll do.
Imitate our Lord in his love and grace, compassion and healing. Act like we care for the widow and orphan, the poor and outcast, the sick and needy, the oppressed and hated.
We have been forgiven of all we are and have done in order that we will live this very life. When we act like we’re gracious, loving, compassionate people of God, we become gracious, loving, compassionate people of God.
That’s James’ gift. Don’t talk so much theology, he says, revel in the new birth you have as first fruits of God’s creatures for the healing of this world. Act like you’re Christ – because you are – and you’ll start looking like you’re Christ.
And people will get helped. People will get well. People will get fed. People will find life. People will find hope. Which is what God really needs.
It turns out the Pharisees might have a point, though.
There are habits we have, rituals we do, that can shape our lives. Maybe not a ritual handwashing. But we are shaped by what we do.
Part is what James already has said: doing God’s Word, practicing being Christ, these are habits we need to learn. We become what we imitate and practice.
And there are habits of worship and life that make a difference in our lives acted in the world. Our worship here shapes our sense of both belonging to God and being called to be God’s presence in the world.
The rituals we do here are not important in their own right. But when they help us worship God, when they shape our hearts toward love of God and neighbor, when they help us come before God and seek forgiveness for healed and new hearts, when they help us hear God’s Word in such a way that we start doing it, they’ve done their jobs.
If they don’t, we need to re-think our habits and life, in worship, at home, at work.
Sometimes the best way is the simplest way, even if it’s hard to hear.
James shocks us when he speaks of worthless religion, of faith that has no value. But he shows a clear path to walk, where we can tell as we go whether or not it’s the right path.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ, we know this. James helps us with what’s next: how we will know that love is embedded in our hearts and lives. Do God’s Word. Keep unstained by the world. Take care of people.
It’s the way of Jesus. It’s our way to life, too.
In the name of Jesus. Amen