On James, faith and good works

15th Sunday after Trinity, 9 September 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park, Fr Peter Wolton


Normally when I find myself preaching I hope that my sermon will leave people encouraged and optimistic. But today I want you to leave challenged. Because that is the impact I think James wants to have on us. I want us to focus on good works, in the context of the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman's Brothers. This has triggered reviews of where we are as a society, lessons to be learnt and what we might expect in the next ten years. The low interest environment has seen assets rise in price, so those fortunate enough to own property or shares are better off than ten years ago, whilst for the average family, they are no better off. The Financial Times commentator Martin Woolf calls this "today's rent extracting economy," James challenges us to look in the mirror and ask how we can best live out our faith? And, I suggest, at this anniversary, how we, but particularly those who have benefitted from the boom in asset prices, can best undertake the works needed to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth

This morning, let’s look at four things:

  1. Who the author of James was

  2. His attitude to faith and good works- is it contradictory to St Paul’s writings

  3. What the reading from St. James might be saying to our society as a whole

  4. And what is it saying to me and you personally

Who James was

Generally thought to be James, the brother of Jesus. He became leader of the nascent church in Jerusalem and is regarded as its first bishop. St. Paul wrote that James was amongst those to whom the risen Lord appeared before his ascension. He was successful in bringing many Jews to the Christian faith, while Paul concentrated on non-Jews (Gentiles). It is believed James was stoned to death on the orders of the High Priest Annas in around 62 AD.

Does James on faith and works contradict Paul?

On its own, does appear to contradict Paul, and we note the works of disciples (James, Peter and John) in the Bible are placed after Paul. So does Paul have primacy over James? No is the answer. They are complementary. The letters from the disciples explore and emphasise areas that Paul does not. They were definitely not written with the intention of contradicting Paul. In fact in the Orthodox Bible canon, the letters of disciples, starting with James, Peter and John, come before Paul’s letters. James is saying it is not enough to give intellectual assent to the message of Jesus but then do nothing about it. True faith requires us to act, to accept the message, not in part but as a whole. To love fully our neighbours as ourselves, we can do no other than to seek the common good.

What then shall we say about James in this post financial crisis world?

A world that in the last decade has seen the arrival of words such as “alternative facts,” the GIG economy, “Generation Rent” and the JAMs – just about managing. ASIDE With regard to faith, this week we will be commencing our course on the Rule of Benedict which teaches us about living out our faith, and I hope as many of you as are able will join us on Wednesday lunch time.

With St. James, our focus is on works –good works and a more just society. James exhorts: “What good is it is it 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.”” We do not have naked people on our streets, but the current symptoms of the country that need addressing are set out in the launch of the “Prosperity and Justice Commission” report, Executive Summary Full Report: published this week, a commission that Justin Welby was a member of. One of the notable features of the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) report is the way in which politicians and media across the spectrum engaged with its analysis of the deep problems facing the British economy and its prescriptions. I do recommend that as Christians, you should read it, if for no other reason that our Archbishop had a big say in it. Interviewed in the Financial Times he said:

“Perhaps it can change the thinking space, which is what it’s trying to do, and that can enable people to act more effectively, rather than feeling imprisoned by the system in which they find themselves.”

And I think that if we were to transfer James to today, he would be asking us to look at the sort of issues raised by the data in the report.

What is James saying to you and me personally?

When reading James, we do well to recall the Swedish theologian Kierkegaard's words “When you read God's Word you must remember to say to yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; It is I about whom it is speaking.” We can read think tank reports on current challenges but our faith requires us to act. I am very aware of how much many of you do for others, giving time and giving money. Also that our church has sent out a letter this week about giving money. In our notices, we will be talking more about this. What the report I referred to earlier brings home is the huge need among many in our society, the Just About Managings and huge growing disparity of wealth. Our church could be doing so much more to spread the gospel and assist those in need and supporting churches in the poorer parts of London if we increased our commitment of time and giving. So, spurred on by St. James of Jerusalem, I challenge you with two questions and I remind you that James is speaking directly to you, and to me when he asks:

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?… So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

My first question is “How am I sprinkling the stardust of generosity to my neighbour, both in terms of money and in time. And my second question “Could I be doing more?”

Fr. Peter Wolton

Fr Peter Wolton