By Pastor Wes Poole
(St. Paul writes)…yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. NRSV (emphasis added)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. NRSV (emphasis added)
So who is right, St. Paul or St. James? Is it faith that makes us right with God and neighbor, or is it the good works we (hopefully) practice every day? These are age old questions that have sparked theological discussion, and disagreement, for centuries. For the last few weeks in worship, we have read several accounts of Jesus telling parables underscoring the need for the faithful believer to put his or her faith into demonstrable action, AKA Good Works. This proverbial double edged sword was a source of great pain and anguish for Luther, who early in life never felt like he could do enough to earn God’s love and favor. Luther was also quite right, none of us can, but he hadn’t yet seen and grasped the whole picture. His angst and pain continued for years, until in the course of his studies he finally came to understand St. Paul’s assurance that nothing we could ever DO would make us worthy of a perfect God; Christ has already done that for us. Believing in him and the promises he has made to us frees us for a life of service; knowing we can always call upon God to forgive us when we fall short. It is commonly understood that Luther was tempted to leave the Book of James out of his Bible translation, as he thought James’ emphasis on good works negated God’s grace. In the end, he was wise enough to see that each one needed the other. A faithful life is demonstrated by the good we can do in it.
To put in another, more practical way…
A young boy, on an errand for his mother, had just bought a dozen eggs. Walking out of the store, he tripped and dropped the sack. All the eggs broke, and the sidewalk was a mess. The boy tried not to cry. A few people gathered to see if he was OK and to tell him how sorry they were. In the midst of this outpouring of pity, one man handed the boy a quarter. Then he turned to the group and said, “I care 25 cents worth. How much do the rest of you care?” James points out that words don’t mean much if we have the ability to do more.
So how much do we care about our neighbor in need, or the marginalized and discriminated against in our society, or simply the person who is different from us in some way? These are questions we believers must ask ourselves every day as we live, work, and have our being. Jesus modeled for us the life into which he calls us. It is a life of active kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and care for others…all others. In the story above, I would posit that all of the people in it experienced three things that are ever present in the life of the believer: frustration at life’s difficulties and the associated feelings of helplessness, guilt or the feeling of being convicted at our lack of adequate response, and the joy of God’s grace that happens when we receive, or show it to others. Yes…St. Paul, St. James, Jesus Himself, and many others in the witness of scripture are like the man with the quarter. Again, the question persists, how much do we care about our neighbor, our communities, our own church family, or someone far away whose circumstances may not affect us at all? Can we put a number or a price on that care? These are questions we can only answer for ourselves, with God’s help of course. During these admittedly difficult times, when the cares and woes of society can seem too big to be addressed, let us remember that God values even the smallest of our efforts. When we reach out in kindness to others, in any way, we are living out the grace that God has given us in Jesus Christ. No work of love, no matter how small, is ever in vain. As Luther himself wrote, “Good works do not make a good [person], but a good [person] does good works.” This is, again in Luther’s own words, most certainly true! May we strive always to live that truth actively and joyfully.
Let us pray…
God of all goodness, help us to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only. Wherever we see need in this world, may our faith compel us to meet that need with the grace and generosity You have shown us in Christ Jesus, for it is in his name that we pray. Amen.
Be well, be kind, be safe, and be ready to serve!
Pastor Wes †