Covenant Faith Expressed in Covenant Life

Reflection on James 2:1-13

Offered by the Rev. Brian D. Ellison

Closing Worship at the Milwaukee Regional Conference
Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, November 17, 2012


Our scripture reading today, James 2:1-13, was the assigned text from the daily lectionary.

We Presbyterians don’t tend to be daily worship service kind of people and so many of us have never mined the treasures of the daily lectionary, with its two-year cycle of readings assigned with passing nods to the Sunday holidays but generally focused on just getting us through this book in a relatively thorough way.  Even so, much is still skipped over—the long lists of who begat whom, historic recitations of otherwise unknown names governing unknown places, and—we suspect a little too often—those passages that would be uncomfortable to read aloud or (God forbid!) to preach on, because they feature abject violence, or problematic assumptions from a long-ago time, or statements that don’t make sense in today’s context and culture.

Today’s passage is not one of those skipped over: It’s far too well known to do that. But it does make us uncomfortable  … and for a different reason. The whole book of James is something that we Presbyterians, and really we Protestants–like Calvin, and like Luther, before us–always find a little disarming. We who talk about grace shudder a bit at all this focus on our actions. We who proclaimed faith alone are confronted by some pretty direct talk about works.

But the reason I didn’t skip over it today is that I think in today’s topic … and in the work of the organization that has gathered us today … we might just find the perfect living response to these ancient words. For where better do grace and word and action meet than in lives lived with an encompassing civility? And how better to express this scripture’s call than through a group that has taken as its name and as its starting place a rich theological concept: Covenant—an expression of the relationship between God and humanity, and among the people God has created and called—and said that our theology demands of us not mere belief, not mere correctness, but action: Lives lived out in faithful service and compassion and intentionality and justice.

And so it is that the epistle of James speaks to us an apt word, if still an uncomfortable one, not so much about the contrast between faith and works as we sometimes pretend, but really about the seamless connection between them. About covenant faith expressed in covenant life. About doctrine only real when it is lived. About love understood only when it is shown with a generous civility … to all.

The call to action in the passage is in fact, a call to inclusion and civility, deeply intertwined. To show the same love, the same place at the table and at worship and in one’s heart and in one’s understanding … to the poor, as well as the rich. To the hungry as well as the adequately fed. Might we even add the LGBTQ and the straight, the Republican as well as the Democrat, the Muslim and Jew and Sikh and agnostic? I believe James today would call us to this, to this work to which the Covenant Network is committed and which each of us can live out in every part of our lives: The work of calling upon the church and upon the world to show no partiality as God shows no partiality. Such is nothing less than the full expression of faith that is not dead.

May our faith be so alive. Amen.


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