James Chapter 2
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims/their families/the ambulance crews/the firefighters etc.” It seems that "thoughts and prayers” are the de rigueur thing for politicians and other public figures to express during times of national tragedy.
Perhaps it is because there is little to say or do in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, making silent contemplation the most appropriate response.
The cynic in me wonders if expressing "thoughts and prayers” is a way of absolving the benefactor of any further action, or even worse, it acts as a smokescreen for having been part of the cause. It even has a name now: it is called slacktivism – "the showing of support for a cause with the main purpose of boosting the egos of participants in the movement. The action may have little effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed.”
Whatever the intention, you can guarantee that whenever disaster strikes, be it a terrorist incident or a natural disaster, "thoughts and prayers” will abound.
But it seems that "thoughts and prayers” are wearing a little thin. For example, following the shootings in Florida earlier this year, the actor Mark Ruffalo Tweeted: "Prayers without accordant action are silent lies told to oneself, heard by no God, amounting to nothing. Action is the language of truth, the prayers of the Saints.”
There is even a computer game called Thought and Prayers: The Game in which the player must prevent a mass shooting with only the power of thoughts and prayers. You always lose, of course.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not standing here in Church today saying that prayer is ineffective or that we should not pray, but as we continue to look at the letter of James, I do want to explore what happens after we pray.
In an article for The Week, linguist James Harbeck wrote: "[You] won’t find thoughts and prayers in the Bible — the phrase doesn’t turn up in any version that’s been in common use. Nor will you find it in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or any Roman Catholic liturgy...What you will find in the old Christian liturgies, however, is a set order of "thought, word, and deed,” as millions of Catholics and Anglicans say during the penitential prayer.”
Harbeck argues that in the language of "thoughts, words and deeds,” there is a kind of movement from internal to external: "Thoughts stay in your head,” he writes, "Words go out to others but don’t by themselves move physical objects; deeds change the physical world.”
Or, as the letter of James puts it:
"Faith without works is dead.”
This is a phrase, which is repeated throughout the whole of chapter two and it reveals James’s main theological point. It is presented as an argument with an imaginary person, during which he draws a distinction between a faith, which is set of mere verbal statements about God and a faith, which is active in service to those in greatest need. "Sure you can pass the test of orthodoxy,” says James, "But what is the point of believing those things if they do not make a difference to the way you live your life?”
Or, to put it another way, I can believe that Jesus is our Saviour, but this is just a kind of intellectual ascent to a fact. Alternatively, I can believe in Jesus as our Saviour, and in doing so, I would commit to following the call that he places upon me and seek to fashion my life according to his will.
James uses an example of a sister or brother from the community who finds themself in need; "What good is it,” he asks, "If you offer them your thoughts and prayers and yet you do not supply their bodily needs?”
And therein lies the problem with "thoughts and prayers”.
The prayer has become the deed itself.
What more is there to do once prayers and good wishes have been offered?
But we don’t have to think about it for very long to come to the conclusion that this is not how prayer works: prayer is never offered to those in need, but to God, for the sake of those in need. Nor do we have to think for very long to realize that when we pray, we are not merely dumping our petitions at heaven’s door so that God can sort it all out whilst we go and find someone else to whom we can offer our thoughts and prayers.
No. When we speak to God, we expect God to speak back and when he does, we should not be surprised if God asks us to act decisively to help those for whom we pray. After all, God himself was, is and forever will be active in the world, from the moment of creation, in the life, death and resurrection of his Son and through the life-giving Spirit.
Thoughts and prayers are important, of course they are, and that’s what we are here to do today: to think on the Word of God and pray for those who are in need. But at the end of all of that, we are commanded to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” To love is to serve and to serve is to love.
Ironically, Martin Luther (who thought that the letter of James was an "Epistle of straw”!) sums up James’s thesis rather well:
"O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things in incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.”
In other words, thoughts and prayers are good, but works are better.
Read Romans 5 and James 2:14-17. What do they say about the relationship between faith and deeds? How might we hold together faith and works?
Martin Luther dismissed the letter of James as "straw" - he believed that we are saved by faith alone. Do you agree with him? Why?
What do you pray for in times of difficulty? How has God responded?
What might God be saying to you about faith and works in response to this sermon?