“Willard Duncan Vandiver” is not exactly a household name. But you are probably familiar with a phrase from a speech he gave in 1899 at a naval banquet in Philadelphia. Vandiver was one of Missouri’s congressmen and a member of the House Committee on Naval Affairs. In his speech he said this: “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” From then on, Missouri was known as the “Show Me” state.
Like Vandiver, we often demand of others that they “show us” who or what they are. Talk is cheap, and actions often speak louder than words. Before we buy the car that the salesperson says is the best possible choice, we take a test drive. We want the car to show us what it can do. If you want to know if someone loves you, you don’t rely on those three little words; you rely on how they show you their love by how they treat you. It seems like the campaign for this year’s General Election has been going on forever. In the coming months, we’ll be hearing lots more talk. But what we really want to know of the candidates is, “What have you done to show me you’ll be a good leader?” As Vandiver said, “frothy eloquence” neither convinces nor satisfies us. We want to be shown.
Frothy eloquence didn’t satisfy James either, when it came to matters of faith. That’s what he says in our passage from his letter today. It isn’t enough to just say that you have faith. Your actions have to show it. “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” he says.
I mentioned last week that Martin Luther was not a fan of this letter and, in fact, thought it shouldn’t be included in the Bible at all. Partly it was because he questioned whether it was really written by Jesus’ brother. But what really got Luther’s goat were James’ words about faith being dead if it had no works to show for it. Luther believed, as did John Wesley, that faith is the only thing that justifies us before God and begins the process (and life) of salvation. Luther believed James was challenging this teaching. Luther thought that James was saying that somehow we have to earn God’s love and forgiveness through our own works, and that completely eliminates grace from the equation. What a terrible thought that is—that our redemption would depend on our own efforts.
Before we go any further, let’s be clear on one thing. Martin Luther was mistaken about James. James is not suggesting that we are saved by the things we do. He is not advocating for what is called “works righteousness.” James is in no way contradicting the fact that, as Paul said, “By grace we have been saved through faith.” James is not suggesting anything contrary to the teaching that the only way to be in full relationship with God is by our utter surrender to and faith in Jesus Christ. Our works do not purchase our entrance into eternal life with God. It is not our works but our faith in Christ’s work that secures our place there. Thank God, and I mean that.
But James does say that if you are a true believer in Christ, you will have something to show for it: a life that has been transformed. As a follower of Jesus, your life will be different. “Try showing me your faith apart from your works,” James challenges. “Try showing me a faith that doesn’t spill out into action.” A vital and living faith can’t help but make itself known through the believer’s deeds. It pours out through how we treat others. It moves us to action in Christ’s name. It shows in our response to all that happens in our lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our works are the evidence of our faith. Saving faith comes first, but in grateful response come the works.
James was writing to Christians whose actions often did not reflect a living and vital faith. As I mentioned last week, during the infant years of the Church, James was responsible for the Jewish Christians living in places scattered outside Palestine, away from the Jerusalem community. They were having a difficult time living out their faith in the midst of cultures with very different ideas about things like how to treat the rich and the poor and how to make a living.
They were living in a society where your well-being depended on whom you knew and who could do favors for you. Once you were in someone’s debt for those favors, you owed them absolute loyalty, no matter what they asked of you. So, the rich were getting preferential treatment. When someone came into the worship service dressed up in fine clothes and jewelry, they were given the best seats, regardless of how they had behaved towards God or neighbor.
But if a poor person came in, dressed in dirty, work-worn clothes, they were directed to a spot on the floor or a corner where they’d be out of sight, because associating with people lower on the social ladder reflected badly on you, unless, of course, they owed you something. This was a society whose values were pretty much the opposite of Christian ones, and the lives of James’ readers were reflecting that, rather than the faith they claimed.
James challenges them on this. Because for James, if our lives don’t reflect the faith we say we have, then we don’t really have the faith we claim. When James asks, “Can faith save you?” he means, “Do you have the kind of faith that can save you?” When James asks, “Can faith save you?” his answer is yes, but it has to be a living and vital faith. It’s not enough to just say the magic words—that we have faith and are good to go. If that faith we say we have isn’t shaping how we live, then what we’re calling faith isn’t faith at all. It’s a lifeless thing, like a corpse that has no breath in it. John Wesley called it “a dead, imaginary faith.” Whatever it is, it’s not a saving faith in Jesus.
Last week we learned from James that the deeds that spring from a living and vital faith focus on two things. One is keeping ourselves unstained by the world, not by withdrawing from society but by living Christ-like lives in the midst of it. The other is caring for those who are friendless, who have no connections or power in the world, and who struggle to make their voices heard. We do this through action, not through sympathetic words alone. We don’t just tell a hungry person to go and enjoy their next meal. We make sure they have a next meal. And then, we work to reform the systems that keep people wondering where their next meal will come from. When we have faith, it shows.
But that begs the question, who is the audience for this show of faith? Who is saying “Show me” to us? Who needs to see our faith through the works that spring from it?
We’ve already established that God doesn’t require works as the condition for our salvation. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have some expectations of how we should live. The prophet Micah said, “God has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus put it plainly: we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to love one another and feed Jesus’ sheep. The love that Jesus speaks of is not a sloppy sentimentality, but love as an action.
We don’t have to show God evidence of our faith through our works; God knows whether our faith is genuine or not. But think how glad God must be when we show, with all that we say and do, how grateful we are for God’s love and forgiveness. Think of the joy in heaven when God’s people live according to kingdom values. Think what delight we must give God when our joy in the saving faith we’ve been given shapes all that we do and say—when our faith shows.
God may not require us to show proof of our faith, but all we have to do is to walk through our doors to find people who are saying to us, “Show me.” When we walk out our doors, we walk into a community where more than 56% of the people living within a mile of this church are not connected to any faith community. Close to half of them say it’s because they don’t see how faith is relevant to their lives; one-third aren’t sure what they believe. 1 out of every 7 people from our zip code isn’t sure whether God exists at all, and 1 out of 5 think Jesus was just a really good teacher.
They may not say it out loud, but these neighbors of ours are crying inside, “Show me. Show me why I should believe in Jesus. Show me how faith can make a difference in my life. Show me, through how you treat each other, what it means to be part of a Christian community, and how that’s different from any other club I can join. Show me, through how you care for others, that you are guided by something other than your own self-interest and that you see the poor and the forgotten—and maybe me—differently than the world. Show me through your life why faith in Jesus should matter to me, and how I can face the challenges of this world with a sense of peace and assurance. Show me how to fill that God-shaped hole in my life.” Telling them isn’t enough. We’ve got to show them.
Those who do not yet have Christ in their lives are not the only ones who need to be shown what living in Christ looks like. We need to be shown, too. More often than we may realize or want to admit, we are like those early Christians. We live in a world that does its best to weaken our faith. If we’re not careful, our works—or lack of them—will betray a weak or dying faith. We can become the people that James described in Chapter 1: “those who look at themselves in a mirror . . . [who] look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
Our words and actions and attitudes are the mirrors of our faith. What we do gives us clues about our faith’s strength and vitality. Our works show us, just as they show others, who we are and whose we are. But as soon as we turn away from that mirror—when we abandon the works that are evidence of our faith—we forget the image in which we were created and the Christ-like image we are called to grow into. We become the ones James warns against—the ones who talk a good game but deceive their hearts, the ones who call themselves Christians but whose deeds do not reveal a living faith. We need to look often into the mirror of our works and see if a living and vital faith is revealed there.
The idea that our faith shows in our works shouldn’t be so surprising really. Christianity is at its heart a “Show Me” kind of faith. In Jesus, God showed us God’s concern for the plight of this sinful world. Jesus showed us through his own life how to live as kingdom people, how to draw close to the God who loves us. Jesus showed us what it means to live in utter faithfulness to God, going to the cross rather than surrendering his mission to restore the relationship between God and human beings. And, finally, in the ultimate act of showing the power of God’s love for us, Jesus was raised into the new life that he promises to share with us. God did not offer mere frothy eloquence that neither convinces nor satisfies. God showed us how to enjoy eternal life, now and forever.
Madeleine L’Engle has written many books for both children and adults. Even though she is a writer, she knows that simply using words about faith is not enough. In her book Walking on Water she writes this: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
James tells us, “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is also dead.” But thanks be to God and the power of the Holy Spirit, who gives us a lively and life-giving faith in our Savior Jesus Christ that transforms and shapes our lives. Thanks be to God, that our works can be our response to those who say “show me”—show me the way to the saving love of Christ. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young