Language is always changing, and no trend is so common as the process of converting a noun into a verb.
For instance, a person might say that a few weeks ago they were summering at the coast. This morning you might say you’re churchingit, and later on you might couchit for a little while. This weekend, maybe you folk-festeddowntown, or partiedafter a long week, ortailgatedbefore a game.
Some nouns were converted to verb forms long ago: mail, ship, salt, pepper, dress, sleep, and many more that are in common use. Other examples are more recent. When you have a question, you don’t look it up on a search engine; you “Google” it, similar to the ways you might tweet, text, or friend on social media. All of these are nouns used commonly now as verbs.
Now, while all of you grammarians compose yourselves, let me explain what’s going on. Linguists call this conversion process “verbing” or “verbification” – the process of changing a noun into a verb; taking a word commonly used to describe something settled, stable, sedentary, and giving it active properties. Verbification.
And it seems to me that’s precisely what the epistle of James does to faith.
Sometimes we think of faith as an intellectual or emotional quality, or maybe as a state of being. We think of it as positive thinking or the confidence that God will heal us or help us. But for James, faith is not simply something we possess; faith is something we do.
Our passage today tells us why this is so important to James. Many take verses 1-4 of chapter to 2 to be the motivation for the whole book. It’s early in the history of the church – they were really more a spirited movement than an organized institution. But still, some pattern and order was beginning to develop, including regular worship, or “assembly,” as James describes it. One particular day, as the assembly was gathering, we imagine that two people entered. One of them was well-dressed, with elegant linen and fine jewelry, polished and put together. The other person was disheveled, dirty. One was by all appearances wealthy and one appeared to be poor. Everyone could see it in this small gathering of these minority Jesus followers, and they watched as great celebration was made for the wealthy newcomer. “Can’t hide money,” the usher said, as they showed the person to whatever seat they wanted, then turned to the person still in their work clothes from the night before and said that all seats were full and they could stand in the back. Some continued right on with worship, but one among them – whom we know as James – left the gathering, maybe right then and there, and wrote a letter. It’s a letter of protest to the whole of that little church, because this wasn’t just a case of a prejudiced usher; this was the responsibility of the entire gathered congregation. This wasn’t just an isolated episode; it revealed collective sin within the community which James describes as “partiality” toward some more than others and a failure to keep the law, “love your neighbor as yourself.” So this wasn’t, for James, just a singular situation or mishap; it revealed a complete misunderstanding of faith.
The community seems to be operating with an almost Gnostic notion of faith. Gnosticism was that first-century movement that separated the body and the soul, as though the physical body can’t be redeemed, and does not matter. We know contemporary versions of this when, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “We become so heavenly minded we are of no earthly good.” James challenges this directly. James elevates what happens to the body right alongside the soul; what happens here on earth is just as important as any heavenly vision; what occurs in response to human need is as vital as the needs of the human spirit. “If you do not supply for the bodily needs of one of your siblings in the faith,” James asks, “what good is that?
The late Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon, captured this in one particular comic. Schultz was a student of the Bible, and apparently of this second Chapter of James, because in one incident Charlie Brown and Linus are trudging through the snow. The wind is blowing and the snow is falling. They are bundled up in their snowsuits with fur hats and scarves and gloves and boots, when they encounter Snoopy, shivering, standing in front of his dog house with an empty bowl, naked — as dogs tend to be. He looks cold and hungry. Charlie Brown says “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” Linus echoes: “Yes, Snoopy, be of good cheer.” And off they go leaving Snoopy with a puzzled look on his face, and no doubt plotting his revenge.
As James asks: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm, eat your fill,’ and yet you to not supply for their bodily needs, what good is that?” Then from this example, James continues with the words perhaps most well known from this epistle: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Faith is not a noun, safe and sedentary, detached and disembodied. Faith is a verb.
Notice, James doesn’t say faith apart from works is incomplete, or useless. It’s not ineffective or lacking. James says it is dead. It is something wholly other than a faith that is alive. It is something different than a religion that is true, which James describes in Chapter 1. Faith is a verb; it has more to do with how you live than what you profess, or perform.
As mentioned last week, with such claims James has provoke mixed reaction throughout Christian history, in particular being seen as a contradiction to Paul. James has been interpreted as though replacing the idea of “justification by faith” that is so core to Paul’s theology with a kind of “works righteousness.” Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from works,” while James says, “faith without works is dead.” It prompts the question, “Do we come to know the salvation of Christ by faith or is it through works?” This has been debated for centuries, but I appreciate the way my friend, Dr. Noel Schoonmaker, explains it. Noel, who is a preacher and scholar of Paul, describes the epistle of James and the letters of Paul not as contradictory but as “mutually illuminating,” particularly given their differing uses of the term “works.” When Paul uses the term “works,” he primarily means the Jewish law, recorded in our Old Testament, that set Jews apart from Gentiles. Paul is referencing works like circumcision, adherence to food laws, and strict observance of the Sabbath. So, when Paul says in Romans 3:28 that we are “justified by faith apart from works,” he means that faith in Christ brings salvation, not these other works and observances. But when James uses the term “works,” he means performing acts of compassion, helping people in need, and living in such a way that reflects the love of Jesus in a way that makes a difference in the world. When James writes that “faith without works is dead,” it means that declaring faith in God without these sort of works of love and mercy is a faith that does not justify or save anybody. It’s similar to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2: “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Faith without love is nothing. Faith without works is dead. (1)
You don’t really have faith in something until it shapes and forms what you do and how you live. This echoes the prophets of Israel, in their insistence that what God wants, truly, is not the performance or profession of faith, but justice in the public square, and kindness in society, and mercy and compassion between neighbors and families. Such a call is found throughout the whole of the Bible, in fact.
Jim Wallis describes how in his first year in seminary, he and some friends did a thorough study to find every verse in the Bible that pertains to care for the poor, and calls for justice to roll down. They came up with thousands, of course. By their count, it was one out of ten verses in the first three gospels, including one out of seven in Luke. And yet, they could not recall a single sermon on themes of poverty and social injustice in their home churches. To make the point further, one of the students took an old Bible and began to cut out every single biblical text about the poor. Much of the Psalms and prophets disappeared, and Wallis says they ended up creating “a Bible full of holes.” (2)
And James reminds us how we do the very same when we make faith a matter of the soul or when we approach religion as a matter of our intellect or understanding. Reading further in chapter 2, James says in verse 19: “You believe that God is one; even the demons believe – and shudder.” Demons, in other words, can profess the identity of the one God just as well as any of us, so with a wry tone, James congratulates us for knowing as much as them. For we are no more than that when we can profess with our mouths, but deny with our lives what we know to be God’s will for this word. Faith is not simply something we possess. Faith is something we do. We need to convert our settled, safe faith into its verb form. We need to verbify our faith.
My friend, Noel, has suggested we could call it “faithing.”
So let’s say you’re working on that Habitat House that Phil Barbee told us about earlier. Someone might walk by and ask what you’re doing. You could say that you’re hammering, or hanging sheetrock, or painting a bedroom. Or you could say, “I’m faithing.”
Or maybe you’ve been working to help settle a family of refugees, and love some of our newest neighbors. As you help to set up an apartment, someone from the complex might ask what you’re up to, and you could describe it as bringing groceries, or carrying furniture. But you could also just way that you’re “faithing.”
What if you see someone alone in your school cafeteria, and you leave your usual table and sit down next to this person who is isolated, and befriend them? That’s bound to turn some heads, and when someone asks what you’re doing, you could just answer, “It’s called faithing.”
Or maybe you come home one evening after a meeting about the housing crisis in our community, and the underlying poverty. Your spouse asks, “What were you doing at that meeting again?” You’d respond, “I was faithing.”
Or what if someone saw a church that was living with a saving faith, and moving beyond the partiality and prejudice of this world, and doing real work for justice and peace. People are bound to ask, “What are y’all doing over there at your church?” To which we could say, “Well, that’s what we call faith.”
This sort of faith was present in the life of one of the geniuses of the twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer. An organist and celebrated theologian, at the age of 30 Schweitzer saw the call for medical missionaries in Gabon, in Africa, and amidst great protests from family and friends, he went back to school to become a medical doctor to serve out his ministry as a medical missionary. During a BBC interview, Schweitzer was once asked why he left his amazing life in Germany to go the Congo and he replied, “I have decided to make my life my argument.”
The Noted preacher and storyteller Fred Craddock was twenty when he read Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus, a significant text still assigned today in seminary classes. Craddock says he found Schweitzer’s portrayal of Jesus to be lacking – so he marked in the book, wrote in the margins, raised questions of all kinds. The one day, he read in the paper that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for an organ in a big church up there and then remain afterward in the fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment. So Craddock bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went to Cleveland. All the way up there he worked on this Quest for the Historical Jesus. He laid out his questions on separate sheets of paper,making reference to the page numbers, so he could ask Schweitzer precise and challenging questions.
So he went there, heard the concert and rushed into fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with his lap full of questions. After a while, Schweitzer came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, at seventy-five years old. Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: “You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me. I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to the Congo. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. If there’s anyone here in this room who has faith in Jesus, would you be prompted by that faith to go with me and help me?”
And Craddock looked down at his questions, which he now found absolutely meaningless. He said, “And I learned, again that day, what it means to be a person of Christian faith, and had hopes that I could be that someday.” (3)
What was Schweitzer doing? James might say he was faithing. And James would say that it’s what anyone of us can do, too. We can give our lives fully to the promises of God. We can not only profess with our mouths, but even more show with our lives a faith that really does save.
It’s what I once heard about through a minister named Brooks Andrews, who has worked with Japanese Baptists on the West Coast, most recently as an Interim Pastor at the Japanese Baptist Church of Seattle.
Brooks’ father was the English pastor of that church many years ago, back in the mid 20thcentury – back when Japanese internment camps were opened in the United States during World Ward II. It was a devastating time in our history, with which we still wrestle today. Many of the Japanese and Japanese American parishioners the Andrews family knew were moved to the camps, uprooted from their homes and jobs, completely reorganizing the church community.
So the elder Rev. Andrews and his wife – the white, anglo pastors to this community – decided almost immediately that they would move, too. They quickly organized and moved the whole family – Brooks and his siblings – to live next to one of the internment camps so that they could support their colleagues, friends, and congregants, and continue to live out the ministry to which God had called them.
Sometimes Brooks is asked why his parents did that. Why did they act in such a radical, sacrificial way? His answer is immediate, matter-of-fact, without any hint of drama or show: “Well, they were Christians.” (4)
Body and soul. Doing and hearing. Verb and noun. They were people of faith. And together with James, we pray that we might be the same.
- In “Faith that Works” on Day1(September 9, 2018)
- In God’s Politics, pp. 212-14
- In Craddock Stories, pp. 125-126
- Story of Rev. Andrews courtesy of Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski