john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    James 2, Mark 7: How do people know what you believe?

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 6/9/2009

    James 2.1-17 , Mark 7.24-end


    How do people know what you really believe? By looking at what you do.

    How do people know if you have faith? By seeing it work in you.

    It's not what you say, it's what you do that counts.

    Do we know any hymns that go like this: 'They will know we are Christians by our words, by our words; they will know that we are Christians by our words'?

    No, but we do know a hymn that goes, 'They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love; they will know that we are Christians by our love'.
    We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
    We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
    And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
    And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
    They will know we are Christians by our love
    The letter of James opens up to us the uncomfortable possibility that what we think we are doing as Christians just might be revealed, on inspection, as quite different from what we are actually doing.

    James' letter encourages us to face this tricky question about our Christian lives, about our church life: is what seems to be going on, what is actually going on?

    The church might think that we are faithfully taking part in God's redemptive purposes for the world. But are we?

    How can we tell? We can tell by looking at what we do. That's what James is on about.

    James knows that the Gospel is a performance, and we are the actors in it.

    Our actions demonstrate our values, our beliefs, our assumptions.

    If all the world is a stage and we are the players, then it is in acting out the drama of life that we express our Christian beliefs. From Act One Scene One to the very final curtain they'll know that we are Christians by the way we behave onstage.
    We will work with each other, we will work side by side
    We will work with each other, we will work side by side
    And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride
    And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
    They will know we are Christians by our love
    'Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead'. James preached this because he had come to see that there was a difference between what the believers thought they were doing and what they were actually doing.

    In their times of worship together James heard the believers saying 'Amen' when they heard the words of scripture, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' But he saw that when the neighbour was someone who came in to worship wearing gold rings and in fine clothes they got a lot of attention and were offered the best seats. And he saw that when the neighbour was a poor person in dirty clothes who also came in to worship they were told to stand or to sit at the believers' feet.

    This, James told them, was making distinctions among themselves, and becoming judges with evil thoughts? This, James told them, dishonoured the poor. What the believers thought they were doing was loving their neighbour as themselves; but what they were actually doing was showing partiality.

    How did people know what these Christians really believed? By looking at what they did. The believers thought they believed in equality for all in the love of God; but what they actually believed was that some people - the well-off ones - were worth more to them and to God than the poor.

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

    His sermon is about the sort of thing that we say to people who we can see are in need, but don't know what to do to help them - or won't help them. We see a person whose thin and worn-out clothes aren't keeping them warm enough, who clearly aren't eating well and maybe haven't had a good meal for days. And how do we respond? We say to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill', and send them on their way.

    James sees this and says, 'But if you don't supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?'

    Nice to be noticed, nice to be spoken to, if you're down on your luck and your stomach is empty. Many people wouldn't give you the time of day. But what's worse - someone who completely ignores your and your hunger and walks away without doing anything to help you, or someone who stops to talk to you and clearly sees your plight and talks about it and then walks away without doing anything to help you? What's the difference between them?

    How do people know what you really believe? By looking at what you do.

    How do people know if you have faith? By seeing it work in you.

    It's not what you say, it's what you do that counts.

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

    The Jesus we follow through Mark's gospel walked in a land full of demons and deaf people and those infected by madness and disease. Here's what he did again: he walked in the land.

    And when the Jesus we follow through Mark's gospel was stopped in his tracks by people possessed by demons and by deaf people and by those infected by madness and disease, this is what he did again: he stopped for them, spoke with them, touched them, healed them. He put his fingers into their ears, he spat on them and touched their tongue.

    Reading Mark you get a different impression of how Jesus would have dealt with Swine Flu sufferers than the guidelines coming from Archbishops today.

    People knew what he believed about them by what he did for them.

    People knew that he had faith in them when they saw him work for them.

    It's not what he said, it's what he did that counted.

    As if to prove that he had a little argument with the Syrophoenician woman who came to him to ask him to rid her little daughter of an unclean spirit. Because she was an outsider, not from round there, he rejected her approach. Said a nasty thing to her. Called her a dog. Said, 'Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.'

    But she persevered with him, said in reply, 'Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.'

    And as if to show that it's not what he said, it's what he did that counted, he told the woman, 'For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.' And she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

    Jesus models for us the way to show our belief to others.

    By that I don't mean we should go around calling people names who ask us to help them.

    By that I mean that we should walk were people walk. And when people stop us in our tracks, we should stop for them, speak with them, and if they're lonely people we should do something to touch them, and if they're broken people we should do something to heal them.

    We can do this because he does it to us first. We can do this because it's a joyful way to live. We can do this by encouraging each other to live out our beliefs in this way.
    We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
    We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
    And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land
    And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
    They will know we are Christians by our love.