Proper 18, Year B, Church of St. Joseph of Arimthaea, Hendersonville

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:17).

Faith is a word that has many shades of meaning. In one sense, it’s what we believe, as in “the Articles of faith” found in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. St. Paul refers to faith in this sense in the First Letter to Timothy, to “the words of the faith and of the sound teaching” (1 Tim. 4:6) about Jesus Christ. Faith here is not simply propositional but has a strong narrative quality. When we proclaim our faith (as Paul refers to it in Gal. 1:23) we tell the story of Jesus Christ, the one who lived a faithful life and who is himself the object of our faith. We cannot really talk about our faith without talking about him.

Another sense of faith is caught by the ancient Hebrews, who certainly had their own story of faith to tell, their own narrative of faith. But for Israel, faith was not only what we believe but belief itself. Faith was most of all an “action word,” the living sense of confidence in God, who revealed his love and care for the family of Abraham throughout history to the present. The Jews trusted in God, believed in God, had faith in God, and it’s in this same sense that Jesus himself calls upon the People to have faith. “Your faith has made you well” (Mk 5:34), Jesus tells the woman with the hemorrhage: a theme repeated in many stories of healing. Faith in the God of Israel and his power to save in the present.

This same sense of faith also comes through in the New Testament Epistles, where faith in Jesus Christ is at the center. “The righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested through the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22): that is, trust in God in Christ. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Rom. 5:1): again Romans. “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20): again, Paul in Galatians. You all know I could keep on multiplying examples.

You might call this sort of faith “heart knowledge”; faith that is planted deep within us by God’s free gift. It’s closely related to the “head knowledge” that goes with the “pattern of sounding teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13) about Jesus Christ. These two senses of faith are not really different, because no one can really have faith in an abstraction but only in the God who acted in the past and who acts today: a trust in God that is wedded to the story of Jesus Christ. Faith is what we believe and belief, trust in God, itself.

Our second reading today takes faith further. As we know, it’s impossible to have faith in an abstraction, but only in the living, breathing, God of Israel. In the same way we can’t let our faith in God remain an abstraction, locked up in our heads and our hearts. Faith has to take shape, to take on flesh, to take on works of its own. So the Apostle James writes, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:17).

This second chapter of the Letter goes on to ring the changes, in verses we’ve not read this morning. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas. 2:18). The point is that faith is revealed in our obedient response to God. Real faith produces the fruits of faith. “Faith without works is barren,” James goes on to say (Jas. 2:20). His examples are Abraham, who was willing to offer his only son Isaac as a sacrifice; and Rahab the prostitute, who was willing to welcome the messengers sent out to spy out the land. Faith was active in these works and was brought to completion by these works, as St. James says (Jas. 2:22).

In our Collect of the Day last week we prayed that God might bring forth in us the fruit of good works. Our reading today has encouraged us along the same lines: to get to work, to take action, to hear the call and obey. There are so many needs around us that it is not difficult to find a task. If you are stymied for works of kindness and love that you can do I encourage you to pay attention: you will find them.

But our reading today, at the same time that it encourages us in the good works we are called to, also reminds us that they are the expression of faith: what we believe, and belief itself, our trust in God. Faith in the God of Israel who justifies us and calls us as his own; faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and gives himself for us as a sacrifice to God.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee