Even if you have studied just a tiny bit of church history, it’s hard to read from James’ epistle without thinking of Martin Luther. Luther famously hated James. He thought that it was a mistake that James had made it into the Bible. James was, as he put it, an epistle of straw.
Luther’s big objection was the language that we hear in the reading this morning:
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
And in order to understand why he objected as much as he did, you need to understand a little about Luther himself. Luther suffered from a fear called scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is a word that, these days, means carrying things out with meticulous detail. But historically it meant – and referring to Luther it means – being racked by doubt. And what Luther doubted in particular was that he had remembered to confess all of his sins to God. He was afraid that he had forgotten something and, as a consequence, God would punish him, God would stop loving him, God would reject him.
And a good part of the theology that Luther ends up developing is in response to these fears, is a way of curing these fears if you like. Luther concludes that we are saved by God not because of any action that we do – not by the sins that we remember or confess, not by the service we engage in, not by the indulgences that purchase from the church. We are justified by faith alone, we are saved by God’s grace alone.
There are a set of steps right behind me. These are Paul’s words from Second Corinthians:
My grace is sufficient for thee.
And if Luther were standing on these steps he would be nodding hard. God’s grace is sufficient. We don’t need anything else. We don’t need to do anything else.
But then, elsewhere in scripture, Luther encounters James:
What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works?
And it resurfaces Luther’s old fears. And Luther says:
Oh no! James says that I have to work in order for God to love me. So James must be wrong.
I bring up this not just as a historical curiosity but because I want to suggest that Luther’s struggle with scripture is profoundly relevant to you and me right now. Because it seems to me that it is very common for people to have some fear about God – in particular a fear that God does not love us – and then go to the Bible and conclude that it confirms our fears.
So, to choose a really famous passage, we might read John 14:16, in which Jesus says:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
And conclude that only people who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord get into heaven. And this can be enormously distressing if we know and love people who aren’t Christians, especially if we know and love people who have died who weren’t Christians.
But notice, that Jesus never says, Unless you admit that I am Lord, you won’t get into heaven. What he says is that he is the way. I don’t know if you have ever been lost, if you have ever been on the way somewhere and not known that you were on the way to that place. That has happened to me a lot. I’ve gotten turned around, I am not sure which way North is, which way home is, which way anything is.
And suddenly, I’ll turn a corner and discover I’ve arrived somewhere amazing. Maybe it’s the coolest view across a valley. Or, if I am in a city, maybe it’s the neatest building. Maybe it’s a place where people are doing something extraordinary, like the time that I ended up in Laurelhurst Park and all of these people were having a dance party but the music was coming through headphones that everyone was wearing. I had been on the way to that dance and didn’t even know it.
You can be on the way to the Father and have no idea that you are on the way. Jesus is amazing. All the time he guides us safely home despite our best efforts to get lost.
James is the same. It doesn’t say, If you don’t do the right work, God won’t love you. It says Faith without works is dead. Maybe, let’s paraphrase that just a little and see how it sounds. What if we said:
When your faith is alive it’s full of works.
James isn’t saying do the work so that God might love you. That is Luther – and maybe you and me – projecting our fears into scripture. James is saying do the work because God loves you.
Think about your own encounters with love and you will know that this has to be right. Think about a person who loved you – maybe they are still alive, who loves you – unreservedly. This is the person who, in Mr. Rogers’ glorious words, loved you into being. This is the person who wanted with everything they had to see you thrive.
Now, did that person love you only when you made good choices? When you got all A’s? When you got some amazing job?
They were proud of you when you did these things. But their love for you? It wasn’t changed and it couldn’t be. Because you couldn’t earn it. You couldn’t change it. You couldn’t deserve it. You couldn’t lessen it. Their love for you was the sun rising and rain falling down. It happened ten times out of ten.
Sometimes we are loved like that and we make disastrous choices anyway. We choose to live in a way that is kind of dead, that is not full of life. We do not respond in fullness to the love we have received.
But still the love remains.
That is what James is talking about. Luther brought his fears to this passage. But those fears weren’t in here to begin with. To the contrary, this epistle of straw is just shining with the Gospel. It is shining with good news. What James is saying is this:
You are loved by God, you are loved by God, you are loved by God.
You are loved by God til the end of the earth.
Now go let that love shine through all of your works.