TEXT: James 2:14-22; Matthew 25:31-46
Back in the early 90's, before I went into ministry, I was attacked by a Bible verse. It started on Sunday morning, when the sermon was on Hebrews 11:1, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." It continued that night, in another church, where I heard a sermon on Hebrews 11:1, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." It continued as I got ready for bed, when I pulled out my devotional booklet and read a meditation on Hebrews 11:1, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." I was beginning to get the feeling that God wanted me to pay attention to that verse.
The assault continued. In the days and weeks to come, I kept hearing and seeing that verse. I saw it in Time Magazine; I saw it on a banner draped on a building; I heard it on the radio. I wasn't ignoring the message. At home I was digging through Scripture, trying to hear what God wanted to tell me. I asked my pastor for a good book on faith, and I read it. But still the message was flashing before me, wherever I turned. Finally, one night, I was watching Jeopardy--and there was a Bible category--the answer was revealed, "It is the substance of things hoped for." That was too much. I shut off the television, got out my Bible and had it out with God.
"I am trying, God. I have read every commentary in existence on Hebrews 11. I read a whole book on faith. I have been looking and thinking and studying, and I still don't get it. Why are you attacking me with this verse? I think I have a good grasp of what faith is--what's the problem?" I was pretty mad, and I told God right there that I wasn't budging from that couch until He quit playing games--especially Jeopardy--and told me what I needed to know.
My first tactic was an old one for those desperate for a word from God. You take your Bible and with all solemnity, you open it randomly to a passage, put your finger reverently on the page, and read what it says. The idea is that God will miraculously guide you to the passage you need. I tried this. My finger landed in Galatians. Galatians 3:1, to be specific. "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" Ha, ha, God. Really funny. Attacking me with this verse hasn't been enough, now you have to call me a foolish Galatian. I wasn't happy, but I didn't try that method of Bible study any more. Although I had done it before, I went back to my concordance to look up passages about faith.
I had looked up most of them several times already, except of course for the ones listed in James, because everybody knows that the book of James is about works, not faith. Martin Luther thought the message of James was so opposed to the notion of salvation by faith that he called it a "straw epistle" and wanted it tossed out of the Bible. I knew I wouldn't find what I needed in James, but it was the only place I hadn't looked, so I thought I would at least cover all the bases.
And there, shining like a light in the darkness, sat James 2:22. He's talking about the faith of Abraham--You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works." In the NIV, it reads, "His faith was made complete by what he did." Bingo. Faith and works are not opposing things. They are complementary things; you can't have one without the other. The error of Luther, the error that has long made Catholics and Protestants think they can't get along, was the error God was trying to get me to see. Works without faith are useless and will never bring you to salvation. But, just as important is the message from James--faith without works is dead. Faith, to be complete, must be followed by works.
And when I looked back to the infamous verse in Hebrews 11:1--Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen--the same message was there. Faith wasn't some nebulous, unseen, foggy thing. Faith was about substance and visible evidence. Faith is the working out here and now of the things that we hope for in eternity. Faith is living in a way that expresses our hope in the unseen God, living out our belief that righteousness is our eternal calling, putting into practice the justice, mercy, and equality that we hope we will have one day in God's kingdom. Faith is not just about belief. James says in verse 19, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder." Faith is more than just believing, it is acting on that belief--acting in a way that provides evidence for the hope that we have in God.
Somewhere along the line we have gotten the notion that faith and belief are only things that we think about, rather than things that we do. But we seem to have only made that distinction in the world of religion. People argue all the time and whole denominations have been split over whether faith in Jesus Christ means believing something or doing something. But nobody makes that kind of distinction in the rest of life.
If I truly believe that my house is going to be hit by a hurricane tomorrow, that belief is going to affect the way I behave. You don't see people who believe their house is going to be blown away in 24 hours out having a round of golf or sipping coffee with friends. If they really believe the hurricane will hit them, they will be actively making preparation for it. Everybody knows this. What we believe is not separate from what we do. What we believe is simply the motivation for what we do.
This is all James is saying. Don't go telling me that you believe this Christian Gospel stuff unless you can show me that it is having a real effect on your behavior. If it isn't, you can't really believe it. Why? Because the Christian message has instructions about behavior all through it. The purpose of Christianity is to bring abundant life, not abundant thought. It is about living in community with people different from ourselves, not hiding in ivory steeples and thinking deep thoughts.
Jesus, of course, knew this. When Jesus paints a scene of people being judged before God, they are not quizzed on the Apostle's Creed. Jesus does not examine their writings to see if their theology is sound or ask whether they objected to homosexuality or abortion or war. What does matter, it seems, is how their beliefs, whatever they were, played out when confronted with the poor, the naked, the hungry, the sick, the prison inmate. The ones who treated those conditions with love and active care…the ones who gave of themselves and their resources to help those who had less…they are the ones welcomed into the Kingdom.
James indicates the same kind of thing just one verse earlier than the reading you heard. He says, "Mercy triumphs over judgment." The Greek word for mercy here, eleos, means "good will toward the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them." Mercy, like faith, carries with it the implication of action--action that liberates the oppressed, the miserable, the afflicted from their condition. The works that complete our faith--the works that provide the substance of our faith, and the evidence of the Kingdom for which we hope--are the works of mercy that liberate the captive--the works that free the poor from want, the works that free the hungry from their plight, the works that free people from the burdens that weigh them down.
That is the question of Matthew 25…the basis for our judgment before God. To whom have you shown mercy? To whom have you shown active love? When did you work to set someone free from the burdens that weighed them down? How was the faith you professed completed by what you did? What works gave your faith substance? Were they works of love and mercy? This is saving faith--the faith that motivates us toward love of neighbor. Faith that moves us in any other direction, or faith that fails to move us at all, is only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Remember Hebrews 11:1. The faith that saves us is a faith with substance. It is a faith that provides evidence to that which is unseen. It is a faith that is made complete by our works of mercy and love--the works that show that we not only believe in Christ, as do the demons--but that we have committed our lives to serving Him by loving and serving our neighbor.
Faith and works--they are inseparable, and righteous works flow from solid faith as surely as light from a burning candle. Ultimately, that is why we give. We give because we have more and others have less and God is concerned about that inequity. We give because the more we become like Jesus, the more we, too, care about that inequity and realize that we have a responsibility, because of the wealth God has given us, to do something about it.
The faith promises you make this morning come at that in several ways. Many thousands of what you give will go to individuals in need or to other organizations that help to provide for those who need the basics of life. Almost $50,000 will go to such needs at various places around the globe. Other money helps to support the discipleship of Christians…from Sunday School to other educational programs to worship experiences and a staff to make it happen, we are betting that more committed Christians in the world will mean more of the hungry fed, more of the naked clothed, more of those sick and in prison visited and cared for.
It is like the old adage of "Give a man a fish and he is fed for a day; teach a man to fish and he is fed for a lifetime." Some of our budget simply gives fish to the hungry. The lion's share, however, is devoted to fishing classes…making disciples of Jesus Christ…forming Christians who want to be like Jesus enough to put their money, their time, indeed their very lives where their faithful mouth has been. Christians who will have a complete faith--a faith with substance. Amen.
(c) 2003, Anne Robertson
Return to AnneRobertson.com