A portion of James’ letter (James 2 1-17) is to a church which is in crisis. What he writes appears to be in conflict with much of what Paul writes to his church communities – so much so that Martin Luther questions if James really knew what he was talking about. He famously called James letter the straw epistle, meaning it was weak and flimsy… Luther struggled with James letter because he felt it was contrary to what Paul’s teaching. Paul said, by grace we are justified in faith, and Luther used that as a foundation for reforming the church. James says that faith without works is dead, and Luther isn’t quite sure how to square that. I think it would have been helpful if Luther would have understood who James was talking to and why he was writing to them and maybe then he would have found James to be more valid in his thinking. Moreover, James isn’t talking about what happens when you die, he’s talking about how you live.
Here’s the background. The church to whom James was writing was no longer the church of Jesus Christ, it had become the church of the rich and famous. It had become classist.
Rich brothers and sisters in Christ were treating poorer brothers and sisters in Christ badly. Rich Christians were shown preference in the assembly over those without high means. Poor Christians were without food and clothing, and their needs weren’t met by those in the church with them.
James asks the question, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”
James isn’t making a great, nuanced theological point here. He’s looking at the behavior of the people in the church, and he’s saying that he doesn’t see much faith, if any. Their actions or lack of actions speaks louder than any of their words.
James wasn’t telling the church to be good to the poor and thereby earn salvation. He was saying that if their faith was genuine, they’d actually be loving their neighbors as themselves. He wants them to stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap.
The tragic gap is the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. For example, we see greed all around us, but we’ve also seen generosity. We hear a doctrine of radical individualism that says, “Everyone for him- or herself,” but we also know that people can come together in community and make a common cause.
Parker Palmer makes the argument that our democracy was built standing in the tragic gap. He says that they knew what they were seeking and ideal of freedom of justice for all, where all men are created equal – an ideal that would never be fully obtained, but must ever be striven for. They believed that the people would always strive for those ideals. The tragic gap is standing between the reality of way things are the possibility of the way things could be. He calls it “tragic” because it’s a gap that will never close, an inevitable flaw in the human condition. Palmer writes, “No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.
James calls us not to choose between rich and poor, not to choose between black and white, not to choose between young and old, first world and third world, free and imprisoned, sick and healthy, naked and clothed, hungry and fed. In the end, these are all false dichotomies, for we are all children of God. James calls us to stand with the cross of Jesus Chris--to take up residence in the tragic gap between what is and what should be. To profess a faith that stands anywhere else is to profess death.