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Toad the Wet Sprocket, Stephen Colbert, and the Rather Small Gulf Between James and Paul

April 26, 2012

Paul is making me nervous

Paul is making me scared

Walk into this room and swaggers

Like he’s God’s own messenger

I don’t often get to combine my love for the pop-alternative music of my high school years with Bible studies I lead in my current context. But “Fly from Heaven” by Toad the Wet Sprocket provides the perfect opportunity. The song, penned by Glen Philips and appearing on TTWS’s 1994 album Dulcinea, assumes the viewpoint of James, the brother of Jesus. The lyrics paint a picture of a man who is terrified at what Paul the newcomer is doing to the message and the memory of his brother. If Lutherans tend to dismiss James because he doesn’t fit Paul’s mode of thinking, “Fly from Heaven” captures the opposite viewpoint. Perhaps it’s Paul who has the whole thing backwards. Perhaps it’s James who is correctly interpreting the work of Jesus and what that means for those who would follow Jesus as their Lord.

We picked up last night in James 1:19 and read through chapter two. As James nears the end of chapter one, he introduces what will be the great theme of chapter two and has been the touchstone of conflict with Pauline thinking: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22). What does James mean by this? He unfolds his meaning in the two sections that comprise chapter two.

The second chapter opens with a warning regarding the danger of showing favoritism within the assembly. He shows a scene that might hit close to home for us still today, that of a community of faith giving automatic and unquestioned preference to the rich over and against the poor. The hypocrisy of this is as rank as it is obvious: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5b). A community cannot claim to follow Jesus if it ignores the very people Jesus made a point of valuing the most.

What is true within the community is true for how the community acts beyond itself: “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, what is the good of that?” (2:15-16). This leads to the crux of the matter: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

And here our Lutheran hands fling themselves heavenward! Works?! In addition to faith, we have to do something? What about grace? Isn’t the whole thing undone leaving legalism to run amok? I don’t think so, particularly if we read this passage in context. James does say that faith does not save you, but he does not say that works do. Scan back to chapter one and you’ll see this: “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21b). What, according to James, confers salvation? An implanted word from without. I think even Paul could agree with that!

So what is the role of works? They are the living out of faith that is created by the implanted word. If we read the second half of chapter two as flowing naturally from the first half, it becomes clear that James is not advocating works that will appease God or qualify us for his favor. Instead, the works James commends are always and only directed to the neighbor, particularly the neighbor on the margins of society and survival. James is not advocating ritual works of the law to earn salvation, but works of love for the neighbor that flow from salvation. And yes, faith without that sort of work is dead, for it is not faith at all. Paul puts it this way: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Again, the conflict that emerges between James and Paul is real at points. They are not without contradiction, which is borne out in Acts. James’ interpretation of the justification of Abraham stands at odds with Paul’s discussion of the same in Romans 4. Still, it’s not like Paul is walking around saying “Grace and Faith” while James runs about rebutting him, “Works.” Paul focuses mostly on the creation of faith through the grace conveyed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. James assumes largely the same thing and then says, “Now what?” Well, to start with, if you see someone who is hungry or naked, do something about it. Don’t tell him what you believe. Believe in God shown forth in Christ, and then let Christ’s love work through you for the good of your neighbor.

Or as the modern-day prophet Stephen Colbert puts it in a different context: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” James 2:26

From → Scripture

2 Comments
  1. Good reflection Dave.
    Faith alone saves you. Yes it does.
    Faith without works is dead. Yes it is.
    Opposed? Not really. Perspective matters.
    Thanks…

    Good to see you out here! G

  2. Exactly! Thanks for reading, Geoff.

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