by Rosie Snow
An Effective Faith
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
Prayer: God of unfailing love, thank you for the gift of your wisdom, given to us through these scriptures. We ask for your presence as we study and consider these words of James, so that our daily life, and the basic habits of our minds, speech, and hearts, might reflect the love of Jesus and draw us closer to you. Bring our thoughts to mingle with your own divine thought and increase our faith. Amen.
In June of this year, I noticed some videos posted to Instagram of the pastor of my home church at a protest. Rev. Karpen and other faith leaders and activists had duct taped themselves together in order to block the exit to a New Jersey county jail, where immigrants detained by ICE were slated to taken by bus to be deportated. For some years, New Jersey has been embroiled in controversy over its county’s policies allowing local jails to work with ICE and hold detainees for them. Watching the video, I was struck by the power of the combination of faith and action, as Rev. Karpen and others prayed while putting their own bodies in harm’s way for the sake of others. Since that day, county after county in New Jersey have ended their agreements with ICE. This is not due only to that one protest, of course, but due to sustained action by many over years. Still, when I call up that image of folks duct-taped together, blocking the jail exit, I can’t help but feel a certain truth: Christian faith that follows Jesus is not only good, but it’s effective.
The letter from James is sort of like a guide book for daily Christian life—for the spiritual nuts and bolts of actually living like a Christian. Most tradition holds that this letter was written by James, also called Jacob, who was the half-brother of Jesus and led the Church in Jerusalem. The letter was addressed to Messianic Jews living outside Israel, but unlike a lot of the other epistles by Paul and others, it doesn’t address specific issues or quarrels that had arisen in specific communities, but sums up the core wisdom needed in order to be perfected in Jesus. It draws heavily on the Sermon on the Mount and Proverbs, especially Proverbs 1-9—reading James’ letter alongside those other scriptures could be a great program for personal, by the way!
Or, just read James on its own. Really, though, I highly, highly urge all of you to take some time this week to read this letter in its entirety. It’s short, do a chapter a day. James, even on its own, can be transformative for anyone’s personal faith.
Martin Luther was famously less enthusiastic. He is widely quoted as saying that James was the “Epistle of Straw.” He didn’t regard James as highly as other epistles in part for a pretty obvious reason – because James’ insistence that “a person is justified by works and not faith alone” seems to directly contradict Luther’s core belief, based on Romans 1:17, that Christians are justified by “faith alone.” He also didn’t like that the letter doesn’t talk about the resurrection or mechanics of Christian salvation much. That being said, when all Luther’s commentary on James is considered, he wasn’t so entirely dismissive. He preached on it a number of times, didn’t challenge its place in the canon, and considered its teachings good and in line with the Gospel. He also admitted that his slight dislike of the letter was his opinion, and others might have their own opinions.
A little coincidence, but Luther really didn’t like the Book of Esther, which contains another of today’s lectionary readings, so I think he wouldn’t have enjoyed today’s service.
But back to James and Luther, I suspect a lot of Western protestant Christians use the “epistle of straw” comment to dismiss James’s letter because it makes us deeply uncomfortable. The unexamined belief that “faith alone,” lazily interpreted as “faith without action,” is the truest form of Christianity not only doles out a free pass to continue living in comfort while tolerating or even protecting systems that impoverish our neighbors and the earth, but it allows us to feel self-righteous about that kind of life. It allows us to de-emphasize the very clear statements in James and from Jesus about the implications of wealth, the implications of how we relate to the world of human power, about the importance of backing up our faith with both action on behalf of others, and with strict attention to how we use our minds, our tongues, and our hearts.
My view has always been that there is no contradiction between “faith alone” and “faith without action is dead,” because faith in God and in Jesus necessarily leads to action. Action flows naturally from faith—the greater your faith, the more important right treatment of others and critiques of violent, unequal systems becomes to you. To hold great faith and then cut off action is like trying to bottle up the Holy Spirit—it feels like smothering something—it doesn’t feel good.
But stressing the importance of faith joined to action isn’t just about morality, or doing the right thing as a Christian. It’s not so drear as all that. What I don’t hear preached about much is how incredibly effective it is. Faith in God, which is reinforced by daily spiritual practice, joining together with action, has incredible spiritual power. It has the power to, and regularly does, change the reality we live within. Think about the Rev. Karpen duct-taping himself to other protestors in order to change New Jersey’s policies. Think about the 800 mutual aid networks that popped up around the country last year, which along with federal aid and charities actually led to a decrease in hunger during a global pandemic. Think about the transformation in our community because of the sanctuary ministry. This list does not end, but it could be a lot longer, if we realized the power we have. If we realized that ours is an effective faith.
I’m going to get real for a second here. Failing to embrace the supernatural effectiveness of Christian faith is a big weakness of progressive Christianity. One of the reasons more fundamentalist Christianities are so popular is because they don’t question that faith in God leads to literal, supernatural intercession in peoples’ lives. Of course, divorced from reason, this belief can lead to harmful practices, like trying to heal a person’s disability by laying on hands and then blaming them when it doesn’t work, but it still adds a vitality and wonder to faith. Apart from Christianity, the huge explosion of interest among young people in practices such as astrology and magic, comes mostly because these are seen as efficacious—that is, they are seen as tools one can use to change the fabric of reality. For young people growing up in world where the future is increasingly uncertain, and the weakening of democracy makes it harder to effect change through politics, spiritualities capable of making effective change are understandably very appealing.
Yet if progressive Christianity—that is, Christianity that truly centers unconditional love—can embrace the supernatural power of faith married to action, it has the potential to be among the most effective forces in the world. James literally says this in the verses we read: “the prayer of the righteous is effective,” he says. He names prayer and praise as practices that work, when performed by the righteous. And what makes a person righteous? What gives a person this power? It’s a combination of a few things. First, the daily spiritual practices and right behaviors outlined in the letter, which draw one closer to God. Second, being a doer and not only speaker of the word: taking action. And last, a real, deep, faith in the power, goodness, and love of God not just as an abstract principle, but as a supernatural force that can and will transform the world. That last one is the one progressives struggle with the most, and so it’s the one we need to embrace the most. At Wesley, I see this piece of faith best embodied by the prayer group, because the folks in the prayer group truly believe in the power of prayer.
The great news is that today we have far more tools for effective action to back up our faith, than James had. We don’t need to rely solely on laying on hands to heal someone, because we have many eastern and western medical tools for health and healing. We have far more political tools, too, for addressing systemic evils. The piece that’s missing the most is faith. Faith in what we can accomplish with God. Faith in our ability to heal and make change. Faith that we can draw closer to God.
So, I encourage all of us, once again, to read James. Take it to heart. Allow it to order or reorder your life. Make it a practice. Be doers of the word. Take up an effective faith, and see what happens. Amen.