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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Even the Devils Believe

A sermon based upon James 2:14-26.

By Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDIV, DMin

September 26th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 5/12


What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,

 16 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?

 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-- and shudder.

 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.

 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God.

 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (Jas. 2:14-26 NRS)


     Some of you will remember this song we used to sing as children in Bible School: “If you’re happy and you know it say Amen.”   The song includes a ‘punch line’:  If you’re happy and you know it, then you’re life will surely show it.   Do you remember?  

     This simple children’s song serves as a good introduction to the major concern James addresses throughout this writing.   Quoting James own words, his concern goes something like:  If you ‘really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’ (2: 1) then your life will surely show it’ because true faith will be active along with works’ (2: 22).   In other words, as the  saying goes, if you ‘talk the talk’ you must also ‘walk the walk’.   This challenge already began in the last chapter when James wrote: be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22b).  Now, James begins with a bombshell of a question: Can Faith Save You?       



      Needless to say, for those of us who trust in Jesus Christ this question is like an earthquake.   James appears, at least, to be  questioning the very core of our Faith.  An even more confusing statement comes later in verse 24.  It sounds as if James goes against Paul’s own words saying: a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (2:24).

    This apparent contradiction to Paul made Martin Luther reluctant to recommend James in his preaching and teaching.   Luther called James a ‘right strawy epistle’ improperly representing the gospel of grace as God’s free gift.  For Luther, the gospel is best expressed by Paul, where in Romans he writes: For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (Rom: 3:28).  Did you catch the apparent difference here?   Paul says we are justified by faith apart from works, but James says a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

     So, which is it?  James seems to be standing alone among the New Testament witness. As Ephesians reinforces Paul’s position:  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast (2:8-9). Clearly, to Martin Luther and still to us today, James seems to be challenging Paul and maybe even Jesus who says ‘Your faith makes you whole’ (heals or saves (Matt. 9:22, ).   To ask whether or not faith can save sounds confusing, if not contradictory.  Why would James raise such a daring and disconcerting question?   Luther did not see any solid way to resolve this.  After 500 years can we do better?

       Well, the short answer is that we do see better.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.  The main reason Luther saw James as a threat was because the church of his day had become a threat to the true gospel.   By developing a corrupted system of salvation being earned through obedience to Church laws and monetary payments, Luther saw how the Church was taking the Faith backward rather than forward.   So, on April 17th, 1521 Luther shook up all of Christendom when he stood up against the absolute power of the Pope and the Catholic Church.   Luther put his own life on the line, defying the Pope’s power, announcing before the court in Worms: My conscience is bound by the Word of God.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.’   

      As a whistleblower  for the gospel of grace, Luther was excommunicated and then had to hide himself in Wartburg Castle until the Pope’s Armies lost the political power to arrest him and put him to death.

     Needless to say, a lot has changed since that time.   As a result of the reformation, which Luther almost single handedly put in motion, we too have been given the gospel mandate to trust in God’s salvation that comes to us through Christ alone, through grace alone as understood in Scripture alone because it only can come to us through faith alone.   Our salvation is indeed a free gift of God’s amazing grace and it isn’t based upon any human work or wisdom.  Luther was right about that.   

      However, this question James raised about faith and works is still in our Bible along with Paul.  How can this most obvious difference between being justified by faith alone or not by faith alone understood as complimentary rather than contradictory?



    Interestingly, what James says about works is also implied in Ephesians and by Paul too.   Right after it says that we are saved by grace through faith, this is qualified in the very next verse: For we are ...created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (2:10).  Did you catch that?   Just like James says true faith does not stand alone but is accompanied with good works, Ephesians also asserts that these good works are what God has planned and purposed for us all along as the right way of life and living.    Also, in Romans, the apostle Paul made it clear that faith in Jesus Christ means dying from an old life of sin and being raised to new life, becoming servants to righteousness (Rom 6: 1ff) which results in presenting ‘our bodies as living sacrifices’ that in ways that are acceptable to God (Rom. 12: 1-2).   Paul goes on to put detail to how living in God’s love and grace means displaying a sacrificial love (12:9) that overcomes evil with good (12:21) by doing good.  This good we are called to do is particularly Christian because it follows Jesus’ pattern to do good to strangers and even enemies too (Rom 12:20), not just fellow saints (Rom. 12:13).

           In the classic Broadway musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle sings in exasperation to her would-be beloved boyfriend Freddy: “Don’t talk of stars burning above, if you’re in love, show me!”    Eliza and James, along with Paul too could be singing in a trio here.  The tune is this: true faith, like true love,  is evident in what a person does.   Eliza is fed up with Freddy talking all the time, as if love were fully expressed in words alone.  So too with James, who seems fed up with any claim that faith floats free of actual embodied deeds.  True faith when it truly reflects the love of God in Jesus Christ, will result in good works that do actually do good, not just talk about it.  

        In this passage, what James is saying points us directly to the most necessary relationship between saving faith as a living faith which is proven with works.  Good works are the only way to be assured that we believe and trust in Jesus Christ because of  how we serve Jesus by doing the good Jesus would do.   James un is not saying against Paul that good works earn our salvation nor do good works contradict the gift of God’s free grace.  No, what James means is that good works are the only way faith can be qualified and clarified as being true faith because faith has transform our minds (Rom 12:2) and redeemed our lives and by guiding our actions (Eph 5:16).

  This is the point James was making when he gave his example about a brother or sister in need (2:15).   If you only talk or give good wishes, your faith should be called into question.   Faith, James says, is only proved by the good we do when good is being required from us from us in a particular situation.   If faith does not result in good works, as it should and does, it isn’t a living faith, but it’s dead (2:16). 

  Can you see, it isn’t faith that James is questioning.  James isn’t questioning how faith saves us, but whether or not we have the kind of faith that saves.

James is questioning a very serious misunderstanding that had developed in the church of his day and he wants to correct that misunderstanding.   Thus, James is clarifying Paul and not contradicting him.    James clarifies that any kind of belief in Jesus that fails to act in faith to follow Jesus by doing good ( Acts 10:38) is an empty, dead, and lifeless belief that will not save.  As a warning, James says directly and bluntly: So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (17).   His ultimate example is that even the devils have belief which stays alone and by itself, but it does them no real good.   This kind of belief is not saving faith.   Mere belief about Jesus will, which people have about Jesus,  because it isn’t a true faith in Jesus, and will eventually die as being no faith at all, because it has no works.     



     This warning from James about counterfeit faith  must not be understood as making faith unnecessary, unimportant, or unessential.   No, James says ‘By my works I show you my faith’ (2: 18).  Again, good work don’t save us or remove the necessity of salvation by faith, but works prove or show that we have faith.   Even when we do good, we are still saved by grace, through faith, as a gift of God, and not of works.  However, what James has clarified is that a genuine, living faith will result in good works, which prove true faith, but don’t earn salvation. 

      Having made the meaning of saving faith clear,  as being a faith that works, James final point is to show just how senseless it is to claim to have faith in Jesus without doing good for others in the name of Jesus.  This is exactly what James means when he points to what Abraham the Father of all faith and Rahab, the Canaanite Prostitute, both have in common.   What they shared in common wasn’t simply a belief about God, but they shared good works that proved or justified their trusting faith in God by doing good works.   While Abraham proved his faith by being willing to offer his only Son back to God,  Rahab proved her faith by being willing to help Israel enter the promised land.   It was their actions that proved the faith they both had.   This is an example,  James says, if how  person is justified by their works and not by their faith alone.   What James clarifies once more, is that not that justification by works replaces justification by faith, but that, as James says, faith is active along with faith and faith is completed through good works (2: 22).   This isn’t an either/or situation, but a both/and situation.   He clarifies Paul’s meaning of justification to include works as part of being justified by faith in Jesus Christ.   Just like a spirit needs a body, James concludes, faith needs good works so it can be realized in our lives (2:26).                        

     Perhaps the argument James was making still has a most practical and crucial point to make in our own day.   Many people question the whole legitimacy of having religious faith.   Since it seems that Science has all the most important answers we need,  what do we need religion and faith for?   That is how many people see faith—-as useless.  

      What James does for us is to show us how true faith not only includes good works but also inspires good works too.   Without having a moral compass we all know how science and great human skills and technology can end up doing us more harm than good.  The recent winner of the 1 Million Pound Templeton Prize, Cambridge Professor Martin Rees has written that if Science and technology are not used properly, wisely, and rightly, he thinks the human race will probably not survive to long into the 2100’s.   Now that’s something to think about.  Rees doesn’t even claim to be a Christian or even to believe in God, but he attends chapel and wonders how human works can be inspired to do the good that must be done.  He rightly wonders how?  He is asking the right question.

     Folks, do you see how both James and Paul, with their twin ideals of saving faith that does good works is the greatest need,  both in the church and in the world, and in Science too?    I recall in one of my very first classes in Seminary, watching my Church History professor put two simple categories on the chalkboard.   Remember those?  On one side, he wrote ‘right belief’ or orthodoxy,  then on the other side he wrote ‘right behavior, meaning good deeds or orthopraxy.   Then he told us how the entire history of the Christian Church has been the challenge of keeping these two sides in balance; constantly qualifying and clarifying, just like James is doing, asking what a Christian must believe and what a Christian must do.  You can’t be a Christian or a church without addressing and balancing these two areas.   According to a great Cambridge Scholar,  we won’t have a world without figuring out this delicate balance too.

     The Christian who has a true faith, must be concerned with both having right faith and doing right action.  What James clarifies for us, or should clarify, is how these two come together in real life.  Works of love, that is doing good for others is what legitimizes and proves that we have faith in God.  Just like God’s actual display of love for us, in saving us through faith in Jesus legitimizes and still calls us to have faith in God,  our actual faith in God’s love and forgiveness is proven to be real in us by the good we do in the the world. 

     A final reminder of how important it is that we walk the walk and not just talk the talk,  the late Methodist pastor from Texas, Charles Allen made James point this way to his own congregation with tongue in cheek, quoting a statistic he had just read, which seem too awfully true not to be shared.  It went:

10% of the members cannot be found

20% -- never attend

25% -- never pray

35% -- never read the Bible

40% -- never give financially to the church

70% -- never attend Sunday Evening Service

75% -- never assume any church task

85% -- never invite anyone to church

95% -- never win a soul to Jesus

100% -- expect to go to Heaven!

This kind of statistic reminds me of the old black spiritual that goes, "Everybody talkin'' about ''Heaven'' ain''t necessarily goin'' there."

      Now, perhaps we can understand better why James dared to challenge and clarify the core of Christian Faith.   Dr. William Barclay, the great Scottish Bible Teacher, believed that James wasn’t giving us any new truth, but he wanted to awaken us to the truth we already know,  but sometimes forget or chose NOT to follow.   As Marin Luther finally understood from James too:  "Good works do not make a good person--but a good person, that is—a person who has faith will do good works."   A person of faith will do good works because, as James says--"Faith without works is dead.". Amen


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Mercy Triumphs

 A sermon based upon James 2: 1-13

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

September 19th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 4/12


James 2:1–13 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.


During a weekend revival meeting, as the service was starting, a young man with long, unkempt hair and worn-out clothing came into the sanctuary.  As he walked to the front to take his seat you could practically hear people mumbling about either his hair in particular, or his dress in general.

      Not long after the service began, people where shocked when the worship leader called the young man forward to play the piano.  For the next several minutes the entire congregation was mesmerized by his musical gifts and talents.  After the service concluded, people were crowding him and praising him.  No one seemed to notice his hair or his choice of clothing any longer.  It was now all about his talent. 

What happened in that church service is common in human communities and churches too.   We humans are quick to make judgments or become prejudiced.    It was so obvious in James situation that he felt he had to address the matter.   In fact, James comes close to questioning the validity of their Christian faith.



     James picks up where he left off earlier writing about those who deceive themselves by hearing the word without doing it (1: 22).   When faith does not lead to action, he says, you end up with a religion that is worthless (26).   This is why James questioned so intensely: Is your faith real?  Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? Are we worshipping the same Jesus?  James seldom invoke the name of Jesus but he does here.   

     What disturbed James so much were certain acts of favoritism that were taking place in the church.   He saw this as a distinct violation of the royal law of Scripture.  By royal law James means a part of the law that holds the rest of the law together.   If you fail to follow the law in this one point, he explains, you have failed in every other part of it too (vs. 10).   That is a profoundly serious charge, is it not?

         This royal law James refers to is expressed most clearly in the book of Leviticus.   Although Leviticus is filled with ancient rules and regulations intended for priests, we also find there some critical teachings that go straight to the heart of who the people of God are supposed to be.   As Leviticus 19 opens,  the people are called to be holy, as the LORD God is holy.   This call to holiness dominates the details of Leviticus 19 and some scholars suggest that James was holding the Leviticus scroll open before him when he referred what he named royal law which Jesus named part of the greatest commandment that says you shall love your neighbor, as yourself (vs18).   Just before this law above all other laws, it also says:   You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor (19:15-16).         

What Leviticus forbade is what James saw happening around him.    As he graphically describes in our text, the people were showing favoritism to the rich and well-dressed in a way that they were putting the poor among them at a great disadvantage.  Seeing this grave discrimination, James questions Do you really believe in our glorious Lord?’

In the New Testament, such questioning of the authenticity of faith often happens in conjunction with economic injustice.  It was that way in the teaching of Jesus. Just recall Jesus scorching parable in Luke 16 about the rich man who died and went to hell and the poor man Lazarus, who also died and was resting in the bosom of Abraham.  In the same spirit Jesus warned how hard it is for those who are wealthy and rich to enter the kingdom (Matt. 19:23).  When it comes to Paul, who can forget the most quoted warning of Paul, where he wrote to Timothy saying: For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil; it is through their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains (1 Tim. 6:10).   

As we consider series warnings like this, we immediately understand where James was coming from.    It is through the eagerness to be rich that not only are the rich preferred, but the poor are misjudged and discriminated against.   In other words, following the logic of Paul, James knows that the desire and love for money corrupts human love and relationships.    When we crave riches, we fail to learn contentment (Phil. 4:11) and without contentment, we do not desire godliness (1 Tim. 6:6ff.) and without a desire to for godliness, we can succumb to temptation and become trapped in the snare of senseless and hurtful desires which can bring ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9).      

The late pastor, Ray Stedman said that the proof that riches are deceiving is in the truth ‘that we came into the world with nothing, and we can take nothing out of it.  Think about it.  What do we have when we are born?  Nothing. We come into the world a little red-faced, squally, naked baby. We do not have anything; even our diaper has to be furnished. What do we have when we leave this world?  Nothing. We leave it all behind.  We take nothing with us in death, not even our bodies.    Pastor Stedman went on to describe how he once picked up a young hitchhiker.  As he was telling about himself, the Hitchhicker said, "My uncle died a millionaire."

The pastor answered, "No, he didn't."

"What do you mean?" the young Hitchhiker asked. "You don't know my uncle."  

Dr Stedman countered: "Well, who's got the million now?"  

"Oh," the Hitchhiker said, "I see what you mean."   

The pastor was right.  Nobody dies a millionaire. We all die paupers; we leave it all behind.

So, if riches are so deceiving, why are so many people fooled?   Why do we feel drawn to the rich and famous in ways that can cause us to favor the wealthy who don’t need us and to overlook our human and Christian responsibilities toward the poor who do?   



     This favoritism toward the rich and total disregard for the poor makes no sense in a church that claims to follow a Jesus who had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).   James reminds his readers that since it is the rich who oppress them, who hold all the power, and who have almost no reverence for God, the rich do not deserve to be favored at church.   This would only reveal that now, the church itself is negating the riches of faith which God freely gives to the poor (2:5).  

Where did James get an idea like this, that God gives most freely to the poor?   Interestingly, James was not only getting his perspective about this sin of economic and spiritual partiality (v. 9) from Leviticus, but he is also getting it from Jesus.  James is echoing a statement Jesus once gave to his dinner host:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14: 12-14).

In this advice, Jesus revealed why God favors the poor.  It is not because God loves the poor more than the rich, but it is because the rich, through their love for money, exclude themselves from the riches God has to give   This is clarified further in the parable Jesus tells next about a man who gave a great dinner and invited lots of people in the town.   Unfortunately, most everyone declined his invitation because they were already preoccupied. 

However, since the dinner was already prepared the host sent his servant to go out on the streets to invite the crippled, the blind and the lame.  Those are the ones who come because they were in need of the attention and were free to accept his invitation.  After these guests arrived and since there was still room at the table, the host of the banquet sent his servants out once again, but this time they are told to go out on the roads and lanes and to compel even more people to come and fill his house (Lk 14:23).   The point that Jesus is making is simple:  God has so much to offer and gives freely and abundantly to anyone, but it is only those who are open to the invitation who actually receive the offer.  Unfortunately, the healthy and the wealthy often miss the banquet of love because their hearts are already preoccupied as they think they have something better to do.

         This parable from Jesus helps us understand the problem James saw in his church.   By preferring and distinguishing the rich, the people of God were missing the party of faith, hope, and love, because they dishonored and neglected the poor.  While no one knows the exact economic situation of that time, what James saw happening can still happen.   Not only are the poor still being dishonored and neglected, the rich and wealthy, along with those still being lured by the riches of this world, still miss sharing in the kingdom of love that is rich in faith (2:5).

         Back in 1987, Teresa and I visited the Mounte Horbe Brazilian church, located in one of the poorest areas of Sao Paulo.  While visiting many of the members and exploring the city, we encountered a kind of poverty we had never experienced in our lives.   We found people living in one room concrete structures.   We visited a school where sewage ran in the middle of the street.  We even stepped over orphaned children, sleeping on newspaper lying on sidewalks of city streets.   We were even offered a child to bring home ourselves, but laws made it an impossible task.   But in that most impoverished city, the atmosphere of worship and fellowship in the church and the Christian community was electrifying and captivating.  They were a church filled with the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and they had surely accepted the invitation to the table of faith, hope, and love.  



         When it comes to being rich in faith (v. 5), fulfilling the royal law of love (v.8), especially when it comes to honoring (v. 8) and showing mercy (v.13) to the poor in the world (v. 5), James concludes his warning about unjust partiality and playing favorites at church with a reminder of our human accountability to both the written and to the unwritten law of God.  

         As to the law of God, James says whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it (v. 10).  Now that sounds like a very stiff, strict, and seemingly unjust enforcement of law, does it not?  How can God hold a person accountable for breaking all the law when they have only broken one law?   Is this fair? 

Well, it would not be fair if the law were just about laws, but that is certainly not the case.   In the Bible, the law is never only about the law itself, but it is about fulfilling the intent of the law.   This is how a single law is always related ever other law.   All the laws of God are always connected to the greatest law, which James refers to as the royal law—the law (or should we say the spirit of the law) that holds all the rest of the law together.   To clarify this, James renames this royal law (v.8) as the law of liberty (v. 12); a law that liberates.  This royal law of love is now expressed as the law that can both holds us accountable but also frees and liberates us for life and living too.  

 Following this progression of law to love and liberation, we should now understand even more fully how the royal law of love holds us all accountable.   The law of God holds us all accountable in how we show mercy to others (v. 13).  By showing mercy, especially as we show mercy toward those who need it most, we are being accountable to all the law. 

Everything James has against showing favoritism is remedied in how we show mercy---in how mercy triumphs; mercy wins!   Do you see it?  James ends in a most typical Hebrew way of expressing wisdom with both a warning and a blessing--two sides of the same coin of liberating love. 

As a warning James reminds us that if we pass judgement in ways that goes against or neglects others, we are only hurting ourselves.  In other words, when we show no mercy, we receive no mercy.   The unwritten law we live by is the law that judges us. 

On the other hand, James offers a blessing to anyone who would show mercy.  To those who are merciful; God will be merciful.   This is implied throughout Scripture and is most simply expressed as what you give is what you get.   In this James echoes Jesus in Luke 6: 37 "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Lk. 6:37-38 NRS).

Again, when we show mercy, we are being judged by the law of liberty (v.12).   That sounds strange, but by overcoming our human tendency to play favorites and express negative prejudice against others, everyone wins---the poor win, the rich win---the law wins, and of course, mercy wins.   And because mercy wins, everyone is winner!   Do you like the sound of that?   

Surprisingly, however, some people still do not like to hear about mercy.  Some people take joy in a world where some lose and others win; were a few have everything, and many are left with too little.   But in the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom that is still coming—this kind favoritism or partiality will not work. 

Years ago, in the West Indies, what now is known as the United States territory of the Virgin Islands, Lutheran Missionaries ministered to the Danish landlords who ruled the islands.  One of the missionary pastors saw that the Danish were only serving the white people.  The missionary pastor asked, "What of the Negro slaves in the fields?  Who ministers to them?"  He was told, "If you want to preach to them, go out into the fields where they work.  We don't want them in our church."  The pastor did so, and today large Lutheran congregations in the Virgin Islands testify to the pioneer missionary pastor who went into the fields and into the slaves quarters to preach the freedom and hope that Christ brings. 

In this story we see judgement at its worst—in prejudice, oppression and slavery.  But we also see mercy at its best—with promise, justice and liberation.  Life fills up every day with countless opportunities to have mercy on others. Sometimes we may be challenged to take a stand on an issue of social justice.  We all have opportunities to encourage someone who has been dealt a raw deal in life.   The grace of God shown toward us should enable us to share and show grace to others and to have mercy on our neighbor.

Dr. Paul Brand,  a former missionary surgeon wrote: “During my life as a missionary surgeon in India and now as a member of the tiny chapel on the grounds of the Carville leprosy hospital, I have seen my share of unlikely seekers after God.  And I must admit that most of my worship in the last thirty years has not taken place among people who have shared my tastes in music, speech, or even thought.  But over those years I have been profoundly -- and humbly -- impressed that I find God in the faces of my fellow worshipers by sharing with people who are shockingly different from each other and from me.”

Out of much the same kind of experience of  appreciating and trying to understand, C. S. Lewis recounted that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.   But as he continued going to church, he said, "I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots.  That gets you out of your solitary conceit”

Folks, our scripture text is clear.   As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, we will not show favoritism or remain prejudiced against others.  True faith in Jesus Christ leaves no room for favoritism, partiality or discrimination.  The only way God works among humans in this world is when everyone gets a chance to win.   This means you and will get a chance to win too.  When we live in in liberating love of mercy, we will win and cannot lose.  We win because the mercy that flows out of the royal law can save us all.      Amen.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Doers of the Word...

 A sermon based upon James 1: 19-27

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

September 12th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 3/12


James 1:19–27 (NRSV): You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.


     There is an old joke about five men in an airplane: the pilot, a lawyer, the smartest man in the world, a pastor, and a Boy Scout. They were flying along when the plane started to lose power. Noticing that there were only four parachutes, the pilot grabbed a parachute and jumped out.

     Now with only three left, the lawyer said, “Without me, the world would be dull.” So he grabs a parachute and jumps out.

      Then the smartest man in the world stood up and said, “I can’t imagine what the world would be like without me.” So he grabs a parachute and jumps out.

     The pastor turns to the Boy Scout and says, “Son, I’ve lived my life and I know where I’m going, so you go ahead and take the last parachute.”

     The Boy Scout replied, “No, we can both go. The smartest man in the world took my backpack!”

      The moral of that story, I guess, is that just because you think you are smart, doesn’t mean you know everything.

     Our text from James is concerned about believers who think they are ‘smart’ in being Christians, but they are missing something very important.  In fact, just like in the funny story, they have ‘jumped’ into life but are still missing ‘the power’ that can ‘save their souls’ (v.21).



     James begins by declaring what his readers are missing and must understand.  It’s is a specific form of moral righteousness.  This righteousness is should being growing out of their faith, but it’s evidently not.  Instead they are growing in wickedness.  He describes this wickedness as a verbal, outspoken anger.  Instead of being humble in their faith and having patience with others, God’s people have become overbearing, prideful, and even downright filthy in their attitude and talk.   We will see later that this was a growing favoritism toward the rich which prejudiced some against the poor among them.    

     To James this apparent flaw in their personal ethics proved how they have ‘grabbed’ the wrong understanding of faith.  Recently I received an advertisement about a book entitled, The Unsaved Christian.  Sounds contradictory and oxymoronic, doesn’t it?  How can you be a Christian, if you aren’t saved?  Well, as most of us know, this isn’t a new warning.  Its been around ever since Jesus also warned,  Not every one who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will ‘enter the kingdom’ (Matthew 7:21). 

Through the centuries, Christians have constantly been warned not to confuse religiosity for salvation.  In the book about the UNSAVED CHRISTIANS, the author was particularly discussing the difference between a being a cultural Christian and a committed Christian—between a person who believes in Jesus, goes to church and who does few good deeds, with a disciple who denies themselves,  who follows Jesus daily, and takes up their cross to allow the message and mission of Jesus to change, challenge and reshape their own attitudes and actions in ways that bring saving hope and help into their world. 

     This is the tricky part about having a spiritual, religious faith, isn’t it?   Does your understanding of faith really save, and if it does how can you know?   In James, his own example of this question is how you can look in a mirror, can yourself, then quickly forget what you look like.  The problem he is describing is that not only do you forget what you look like, you also fail to realize how you might look to others too.  While you think you are a Christians, others clearly see how you’re not or how you forgot.  

      This failure to remember what we are supposed to look like and be like is a unique blind spot for those of us who seek spiritual salvation?  Just like it was a challenge for God’s people, Moses said, that they could forget their true God who choose them.  Just like the greatest problem Jesus faced was the hypocrisy of the already religious.  Now, in James day too, even after Paul’s incredible preaching about God’s righteousness coming down from heaven through faith in Jesus Christ, some were still picking up the wrong bag and thinking they were ‘saved’, but others saw differently.   In other words, they heard the word, they knew all the words, they thought they understood the word, but they still failed to see the righteousness growing in them that’s the implanted, saving word should produce.  

      Some time ago, I stumbled upon a documentary about the Old Order Amish in America, entitled ‘Breaking the Silence’.  What made this documentary interesting is that it was an honest and constructive, being put together by some who had either left or been forced out of the Amish community. 

Now, most interestingly, they weren’t forced out for doing wrong, but they were forced out because they questioned whether their communities were really following the Bible, or just creating and living by their own versions of righteousness.  In one example, a woman told how her community refused to accept her baptism simply because she didn’t put a certain pin in her clothes in a particular way demanded by her community, This was never explained to her until they rejected and embarrassed her.  This was just the beginning.  In many other ways, she found so much pain and hurt, not because she didn’t love being Amish, but because it proved to be built more on traditions, culture and community rules rather than being based on biblical faith, hope and loving actions.

     Now, of course, this isn’t only true for old-order Amish, but it’s true of any faith tradition or religious belief.  Since religious belief is a matter and ‘habit of the heart’ and can be very personal for us,  we must all hear the concern James has about God’s righteousness as the implanted word that saves our souls.   We don’t want to be left, literally, holding ‘the wrong bag’.



In contrast to the person who looks at themselves in the mirror and then forgets what they are supposed to look like,  James challenges his readers to be  doers of the word’ and not only hearers.   This deception of hearing without doing, of believing without becoming, and of seeing without acting out God’s way is corrected by looking into the perfect law of liberty.  Now, that’s certainly an interesting way to find salvation— in the law of Liberty.  Isn’t the law more restrictive rather than releasing?   

      Part of the answer lies in what James means by the perfect law.  This perfect law refers us back to Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is one ‘even greater than Moses’.  Once, a lawyer asked Jesus: How does one enter the kingdom?  Basically Jesus answered with a trinity of love : Love God in a way that you love your neighbor just like you love yourself (Mat. 22:35).   On another occasion Jesus informed his own disciples the same lesson, but more intimately, ‘This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you (John 15:12).   The perfect law, which means the law that fulfills all the law because love reveals the laws true intention: love.  

      Unpacking what James means by looking into the perfect law of liberty can take a lifetime, but begins by understanding just how  demanding love can be----even more demanding than any other kind of law or rule.  Remember, Jesus told the lawyer that the greatest commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with ALL your heart’.   Love is the most demanding way because love also demands ACTS OF LOVE flowing from sincere hearts of love.

      Again, this kind of sincere, demanding, and active love isn’t easy or simple meaning anything goes.  Back in the 1960s, Anglican professor Joseph Fletcher taught that acts of love must be at the center of any Christian decision about what is right and what is wrong.  Love is what guides our interpretation of the Bible. 

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?   Just love people.  Do the loving thing.   All you need is love.  For some people it sounds too simple and if there is anything Jesus taught us about ‘God so loved the world’ is that love isn’t easy for the person who loves.  Love is what put Jesus on the cross.   Remember how Jesus put it:  ‘No greater love is there than this, that one lay down their life for their friends’.  This kind of love is anything but simple, but how is it perfect?  



Now, we come to the final part:  James says this perfect law of God’s love is also a law of liberty.    How does this perfect, highest, greatest and most important and demanding law become a way of liberty and freedom rather than a way that restrains and confines us in our lives?  

Way back in the 5th century, early Christian thinker named Augustine made a statement about what it means for a Christian to do good.  It still grabs your attention when you first hear it.  Augustine said the most basic rule, calling, or way of a Christian is to ‘love God and do what you want.’  Now that’s it---that’s liberty.  When you truly love God you can live and do what you want in life.    Now, you can do ‘what you want’ because you’re ‘want to’ is being guided by your love for God.   Because you love God you want to do what pleases God.  Isn’t that what you do for someone you love---you ask them what they want?   Teresa and I have had an argument that has never gotten better over 41 years of marriage; in fact sometimes it still gets worse.   It’s the question she asks me, then I turn and ask her, and then she asks me again, and then turn it back to her again.  It’s the question ‘What do you want to eat’?, then I ask, ‘It doesn’t matter, what do you want?’   That’s one argument neither of us wins, or loses.  It’s only gets better now because we eat at home more.  She controls the fork.

         This is exactly where James has been headed with his discussion.  He goes from speaking of how sin is conceived (16) to showing how God’s word gives us a new spiritual birth (18).   This new spiritual birth is proven because we look into the mirror of God’s truth and remember who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.   We only keep remembering who we are when we look into this prefect law and freely do what we know we are supposed to do, not because we have to, but because we want to.   God’s perfect law of love is what now guides, leads and liberates our lives from living in wickedness to living in God’s righteousness.  

So, finally, what is this righteousness and religion in its most perfect, purest form?   What James reminds his readers is that true faith is a righteousness of action—of both doing and being, being and becoming, which is based upon our seeing and remembering.   This kind of religion isn’t worthless, but is based on a liberating love that liberates us to love.   This kind of religion guides our speech, it protects us a sinful world, and motivates us to love and to care for our most helpless neighbors as God has used others to love and care for us in our own helplessness. 

As we all remember, during the Coronavirus Outbreak, one of the most difficult challenges in our United States was to get people ‘wear masks’ for the sake of the most vulnerable.  Many misunderstood that their own individual or religious liberties were being threatened.   But when we ‘look’ into perfect law of liberty, as James says, and we care for those most vulnerable, we are indeed practicing liberty, just like we are also practicing pure religion.   It’s a faith and a liberty for all of us, not just some of us.   Amen.