Scripture: James 1:17-27
You just heard a snippet from the beginning of the Letter of James to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. We are going to spend the beginning of the summer preaching from James, so you could say we are spending June with James, plus the first Sunday of July. I’m guessing that most of you at one point or another have read or been exposed to James and I want to know your thoughts and reactions to his words. How have your interactions with James been, and what do you think of James?(People respond)
For me, the book of James has been a way to live into the faith that I have received from Christ. Paul is very theological, even heady. James is very practical, how the heart and hands live into what the head is trying to process! But, James has had a hard time in the church. The early church and then the Reformers a few hundred years later really struggled with what to do with James. And for both, it was because of Paul and Paul’s teachings on salvation by faith alone. James’ focus on how we should live is sometimes understood as a message of salvation by works that challenges Paul’s teachings. The early church debated for many years whether James’ letter should be included in what is now the New Testament. In his love/hate relationship with this letter, Martin Luther called James “an epistle of straw” and that it was dangerous. Luther didn’t think that the teachings found in James were essential for understanding and accepting the gospel, though he did say that James’ letter contained “many good sayings.”
Now, this first section is loaded with teachings and commands, especially about not being deceived in the world and having a humble stance toward God and fellow believers. Actually, James is packed with commands to the point of being the bossiest book of the Bible. In all of scripture there are 6,140 imperative verbs, or commands, telling the listener what to do. Almost three percent of those commands are found in this relatively short letter. That’s almost double the competition which is the Old Testament prophet Joel. James even surpasses the commands given by Moses, unless of course you add up all the commands in all five books’ worth of the law at the beginning of the Bible. But for a single book, James stands high above the rest in his in his authoritative commands.
But it is something that stands out in the midst of these commands that draws my interest. And that is James’ discussion about being religious. I’m a ‘professional’ religious guy, and as someone who is sitting here on a Sunday morning, you would be considered part of the religious holdouts of our society. So our ears perk up when we hear James talk about being religious. And to help us understand where he is coming from, we have to understand his story. If this James is the brother of Jesus, and not one of the other James’ listed in the New Testament, we can get a clearer picture of what James is trying to say about being religious and even come to a deeper understanding of all the commands that he lays out for the followers of Jesus.
Depending on which tradition you follow, James grew up as Jesus’ younger brother—a boy under Jewish law raised alongside the only one who ever kept the Jewish law fully. By the time Jesus is well into his earthly ministry, James doesn’t believe in him. There was probably some typical sibling rivalry going on because he sure couldn’t believe that his older brother could be the Messiah. But here he is a good religious Jew who understands that at the heart of the Law is a love of God and love of neighbor, but he doesn’t have faith in God through Jesus.
At some point, James is a changed man. After the resurrection, scripture tells us that Jesus appeared specifically to James before he ascended. This experience leads James to understand the Law and the requirements of the Law in an entirely different light. Someone has come who fulfilled that Law and a deep profound faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord affects how one worships God and serves neighbor.
Now, fast-forward to AD 49: The church faces its first huge dispute: How do Jesus’ grace and Moses’ laws go together now that there are Gentile believers? Should they be circumcised and live into the Law before they could become part of the church? The argument between Jewish and Gentile Christians gets so heated that the Christians in Antioch send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to sort it out with the apostles. In Acts, we find James explaining his understanding of the issue, and then expanding that understanding in this letter: Faith and works are not opposed. They work together in the lives of the believers. Faith in Christ affects how one lives out one’s religious life, Jew or Gentile.
And in his letter, he starts his discussion about the religious life by doing something very Jewish: he looks at several ethical concerns. James identifies three necessary aspects of religion: Taming the tongue, caring for the needy and avoiding worldliness. James expands the concept of religion beyond the ritual action or a private observance. His point isn’t to loose sight of good things like worship and devotion to God but to supplement them with action that extend into our relationships. Worship of God the Father is important and faith in Jesus is of utmost concern. But for James, being religious takes on ethical qualities that must be expressed in actions. One must be a hearer and doer of the Word of God. If there is no action tied to the faith or religion, then that faith or religion is worthless.
Religion addresses spiritual and ethical realities. Worship leads to action in the world and a life lived in society. But that life lived in society is not overcome or influenced by the evils that are found there but addresses the ills. Devotion to God leads to the glorification of God, but also leads to the invitation of the Holy Spirit to make us more Christ-like and being led out into the world by the Holy Spirit so the Kingdom of God can be experienced. Worship, ethics, and purity all go hand-in-hand. Remove one of those and the religion becomes hollow.
So, how does this speak to us? It’s hard. Most of us, including myself, are drawn to worship, ethics, or purity. James has no tolerance for that. Religion is useless if it doesn’t tame our tongues and change our hearts and our lives and the lives of those around us. Anyone who thinks otherwise deceives his own heart. Per James, true religion, true faith, needs to bring us to worship, action, and purity. We need to gain insight into where our religion is failing us and the key is keeping each in its proper place.
Neither worship, nor action, nor purity will save us, but lack of them exposes us. We languish without worship, and it shows in our attitudes and words. But we can’t only have worship on Sunday believing that is all I am required and called to do. Actions betray what is happening inside of us for good or for evil. Impurity will usually show in words and thoughts, if we are willing to pay attention to those words and thoughts, even going so far to ask those around us where they may see areas of our lives in need of God’s healing touch.
I think James would say being a doer of the word is to have a desire for true religion. And true religion—the pursuit of good practices of worship, action, and purity—will shape us. If we wait until we can worship with total integrity, we would never step foot inside of the church. If we wait until we can do every action with total devotion, we’d sit at home and never do anything good. If we wait to live for God until we are totally pure, it will never happen as we are never pure, we all fall short.
But that isn’t the point of James. James wants us to praise God with all that we can and with our entire being. James wants us to be upset at a world where people suffer needlessly and where we respond to that suffering. And James wants us to be dissatisfied with our brokenness and we say, ‘enough, I want to be made whole’.
And James knows none of that will get us to heaven. They are just signs that God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit has laid claim to our lives here and now. They are signs that the word of God isn’t something we just hear, but is something that we do.
Friends, James is a hard book, and I have to agree with Luther that it is dangerous, but I think dangerous in a good way, in a radical way, in a transformative way. What James is calling us to do is translate our faith in Christ into concrete acts of love and rediscover the power and meaning of our faith. Then the words of the Gospel will touch our hearts and the hearts of those beyond the walls of the church. Amen.