"The Litmus Test"--October 17, 2019
"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." [James 2:15-16]
The way you answer the question, "How do you know if a person has faith?" says a great deal. Maybe before we go any further, you and I should each take a moment to consider how we answer that question. How would anybody know you had faith? What kind of "evidence" counts?
There is, of course, no shortage of answers to that question. What "counts" as genuine faith in large part depends on whom you ask, and maybe even the era and the place in which you ask it.
For example, in the ancient memory of Israel found in what we call the Old Testament, people often pointed to the command called the Shema, from what we call Deuteronomy 6:4 "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God--the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." That's got both a claim about God you are supposed to affirm, as well as an assumption that it will be expressed with your whole self ("heart" and "soul" and "strength"). In fact the rest of the thought after that famous verse continues to say that the people are supposed to live that belief in God out by keeping the commandments of God, as well as teaching them to their children.
Or, flash forward to the New Testament era, when the earliest statement of faith for Christians seems to have been simply, "Jesus is Lord." And while that might seem like a low bar to meet in terms of theological depth and rigor because it is so short, the first Christians understood that naming Jesus as "Lord" was a huge deal in an empire where Caesar claimed that title for himself and insisted on allegiance to himself and to Rome as "Lord." For the first Christians, confessing "Jesus is Lord" wasn't merely an exercise in abstract theology, but a practical claim about whose way of life you followed. So as short a creed as that might have been (in Greek it's only two words!), it was deeply connected to the way early Christians lived their ordinary lives.
In the third and fourth centuries, we got more complicated with our theological formulas, and the institutional church started cranking out creeds, or adding on to creeds, with increasing length, complexity, and detail. Before long, you had theologians writing systematic treatises to explain, diagram, dissect, and analyze God, each one longer than the one that came before. And while there may well have been good reason for the increasing depth and nuance as different theological questions were explored, all of that theologizing came at a price: at some point, "having faith" became something you showed by reciting theological jargon, rather than something you lived with your daily life.
Like I say, if you would have asked your average Jacob Israelite back in the year 1000BC what faith in God "looked like," the reply might have started with the words of the Shema, but the assumption was that if you believed in the God of Israel, you would do the things this God directed you to do, even down to the everyday stuff of life like the food you ate, the work you did, and the times you had for rest and play. All of it was how you lived your faith--including the call to love your neighbor, to provide for those who had no means of providing for themselves, and to forgive debts. It was that way of life that made Israel's God different, really, from the unending pantheons of gods and goddesses of Babylon, Canaan, Egypt, or Assyria. So "faith" in Israel's God wasn't reducible to saying, "Yahweh is real but Marduk and Osiris and Baal are not," even if that was a part of it. Faith always meant moving from "Yahweh is real and has claimed me" to "Therefore, I will live with the values of Yahweh and will strive to practice justice and mercy every day of my life."
And that's really where the New Testament of James is coming from, too. James is a follower of Jesus, but like nearly all of the first generation of Christians, his roots were in Judaism and its unapologetic insistence that faith is not merely head knowledge but a way of life lived out in light of the God you say you believe in. The evidence for your faith, according to James, is less in whether you can memorize a catechism and more in whether your priorities line up with those of the God you say you believe in. There's no sense of "earning" your way into heaven for James (even though that's how my older brother in the faith, Martin Luther, heard these words five centuries ago, and it made him really dislike the book of James). It's not about earning something or getting into something. It is simply a matter of whether the facts we believe about God actually shape the ways we live and speak and give and love in our daily lives. In other words, if you ask James, "How do you see somebody's faith?" he would answer, "Look at how they love in ordinary situations. That will show you the sort of God they believe in."
And for James, the particular God we believe in has a particular concern for the needs of others. In fact, as James sees it, since the God of Israel (who is also the God revealed in Jesus) cares so much about the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, then we should care about those folks, too. And since the God of Israel and Jesus is more than empty talk, we will be people with more than empty talk, too. For James, none of this is about doing good deeds in order to earn your way into heaven--it's really just the opposite: because of the character of the God we trust in, we will live and act in certain ways. We will care about the needs of the neighbor--say, actually helping them to get to eat, rather than merely wishing them well--because the God who claims us cares about the hungry neighbor.
And now this really is the lynchpin of the whole thing: there is nobody that the God of Israel and Jesus doesn't love. Nobody. Not one. Christians, yep. Non-Christians--yes, them, too. Tattooed people, uh-huh. Non-tattooed people, yes, them, too. The well-dressed country club set as well as the mom working three jobs and juggling which of her five kids will get new shoes this year, just so she can make sure the lights stay on. The religious weekly attenders at services, and the people sure they would not be welcome. And yes, the people who seem to keep having the worst luck in the world, as well as the people who keep making terrible choices that leave them in a lurch, too. All of that is to say that there is never a person God looks at and then says, "Well, you're no concern to me." There is never a face to whom God says, "You're not my problem." And because that is who God is--at least the particular God we dare to believe in--then we are not permitted to look the other way in the face of others' needs either.
James says it point-blank: if you see someone who is hungry or without adequate clothing, and you offer only generic well-wishing, you haven't helped them at all. You don't get to say, "You're no concern of mine!" or "I wish you luck!" because we are the people of a particular God who insists that everyone is God's concern. I may not be able to feed everybody or clothe everybody myself (I can't), but I am not permitted simply to ignore others because I don't want to have to think about their need, or I don't want to admit that God loves them enough to be worried sick over them while I just turn up the volume on my TV so I can ignore them.
If you ask James how you see faith, he won't point you to a catechism or a systematic theology. He will simply say, "On an ordinary day, how do you love people who are hurting?" There's nothing heroic about it, and James isn't asking us to turn water into wine. He dares us instead to turn my abundance into enough for me and the hungry neighbor. He dares us to care for people the way God does: which means we don't get the out of telling people they are no concern for us. Not next door, and not half a world away. Not when they can do favors for you later, and not when they will never be able to repay you. Not when they are the same religion as you, and not when they are of a different religion, too. The question is not, "Are you enough like me for me to have to care about you?" but rather, "Do you matter to God?" And the answer to that question is always, emphatically, "Yes."
The bottom line for James is that faith is not demonstrated in having people lay hands on you as they pray for you, or in religious name-dropping, or even in making things more comfortable for other religious people. Rather, when you ask James how he would tell who has a living faith in the living God, James just says, "Let me see your daily routine and how you love the people who are in need around you, regardless of what it costs you, and regardless of whether you get something in return."
"Let me see how you love," James says. "That's how I'll see your faith."
Love is the litmus test--the sine qua non--for faith in God, because the God in whom we believe is Love. On an ordinary Thursday, then, let us love genuinely.
Lord Jesus, let us love the way you do--in action and commitment, rather than in empty talk and well-wishing.