James 2:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Martin Luther did not like the book of James. He called it a “straw epistle,” and wanted to toss it from Scripture. I understand where Luther was coming from. He had been trying unsuccessfully to make himself good enough to earn God’s grace and forgiveness. Then, when he read the first four chapters of Romans, he suddenly understood that salvation wasn’t about his own works but was a gift from God. He didn’t have to earn it; Luther’s righteousness in God’s eyes was assured by Jesus. He was so excited that anything smacking of his old works mentality made him rise up in anger, believing that God’s grace was affronted.
But James was dealing with a different problem. Thanks to the tireless preaching of Paul, people understood about the gift of God’s grace. But they were going too far in the other direction. When they heard it wasn’t their good deeds that saved them, they scrapped the good deeds and lived any way they pleased, imposing on the largesse of God. Now we would call that “cheap grace.” James is reminding his readers that faith is not some set of intellectual propositions that you can agree to and get on God’s good side. Faith and works are tied together…you can’t have one without the other.
Religion is not supposed to be about creeds and doctrines and interpretations of Scripture. Religion is supposed to be the vehicle for moving God’s justice and mercy from heaven out into the world. Caring treatment of the poor and helpless is what marks true religion for James, and he went so far as to say that faith without such works was dead. I think he’s right. When we pollute ourselves with the materialism of the world, making us unwilling to share our resources with those who struggle every day for food and shelter, our religion is no longer pure and faultless. We can sing “Oh, how I love Jesus” until the cows come home, but such faith without the works of justice and mercy is dead.
I think that’s the key to our unity as Christians. We’re never going to agree on the creeds and doctrines. But if we listen to James, all that doesn’t matter. We can serve soup to the hungry in the name of Christ, even if one of us thinks we chose that option freely and the other thinks it was all part of God’s plan from the beginning. We can build shelter for the homeless together, even if one of us thinks the earth is only 6,000 years old and the other thinks that Genesis teaches truth through myth and story.
Maybe James is a “straw epistle,” but if it is, it is straw that lines the manger and allows us all to rest comfortably together as the Body of Christ.
God of our faithful works, guide us into your true religion. Amen.
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