Salvation is a gift from God. There is no way around that. Salvation has to be a gift because we human beings cannot do anything to earn it—we are too broken for that. So we accept salvation as a gift—not because we deserve it, but because God loves us and wants the very best for us and all of God’s children. That is what Jesus came to teach us. That is what is revealed for us in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. To follow Jesus Christ is to understand that the gift of salvation changes the way we live our lives. To follow Christ is to know that faith leads to action.
James is very concerned about people who say they are followers of Jesus Christ, but whose lives do not reflect the influence of what Jesus taught. There are some who believe that once they have received this gift of salvation that they can continue their self-centered lifestyles—striving for wealth and prosperity while ignoring the plight of the poor. Others are persuaded by outsiders to search for some secret spiritual knowledge—that once a person is spiritually enlightened you need not be constrained or judged by the physical life. To these groups James says, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” [James 1:27]
Widows and orphans were the poorest of the poor in biblical times. Women had little status in society and without a husband there was not much a widow could do or own. Children were treated as much like property as family and with no family to rely on, orphans were usually destitute. Jesus taught us that God is mindful of the poor. God’s sense of justice means giving all God’s children—including widows and orphans—access to resources required to experience the fulness of life in the community.
Gnostics were people who dismissed the physical realm and sought after secret knowledge that they believed would lead to salvation. In some cases everything physical was even perceived as evil with only knowledge being good. To gain access to this secret knowledge that was good you had to be a part of the “in crowd”—you had to have connections. The church had to be vigilant in keeping this influence from corrupting the teachings of Christ. We know that all creation belongs to God and was pronounced good. We know that Jesus do not die on a cross to keep the way of salvation a secret, but he rose again to offer life to all.
Even today we continue to wrestle with our call to devotion. James tells us it means more than just spending time in prayer and worship. True devotion means living our lives with a focus on caring for the needs of the poor. True devotion means working to prevent the social and political agendas of the world around us from distorting and corrupting the message of Christ. At the same time we remember that we do not act in order to earn our salvation, but rather our salvation comes by faith and that faith calls us to action.
Look in the mirror. Who do you see? I hope that you see a disciple who is transformed by God’s grace—a disciple following the teachings of Jesus Christ, called to a life of action that reveals the justice, mercy, compassion, love, and peace of God’s kingdom.
Grace and Peace, Pastor Rik