This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd September 2018. It is the first in a series of five messages I wrote for the parish over September.
In the five Sundays in September I want to walk us through The Letter of James, portions of which have been set as the lectionary Epistle reading for each week in this month. So first, an introduction.
James has had a troubled time in Church history, and the letter was in danger on more than one occasion of not being included within the New Testament when the Church’s scholars decided what the Christian scriptures would be. Despite the fact that this text was attributed to Jacob the brother of Jesus, which is really what got it across the line and into the top twenty-seven, there are a number of big issues with it even for Christians today. James does not speak about Christ’s cross or resurrection, at all, and it doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit. And, other than identifying himself as a belonger to Jesus Christ in two places, James 1:1 and James 2:1, Jacob doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all in the text. This is a letter about God, the Adonai of the Israelites.
James is a general letter, addressed to everyone at large and nobody in particular, unlike Paul’s letters which were addressed to newly born churches in specific cities or regions. As a general letter James is not as personal as Paul’s writings, it offers a few bits of generalist advice rather than answering the questions of one specific location. James was written within a contemporary Greek and Hebrew literary style called paranesis which means it offered admonitions and exhortations; it’s all about “everyone should…” and “no one should…” and the like. And James jumps around a bit, there’s no clear flow from one point to another, there’s no development, there’s just a bunch of ethical points, almost like dot points, and then having made all his points Jacob stops writing. There’s no “farewell to the brethren and tell Sophie I said hi”, there’s just stop. In this way Jacob’s writing is more like Jesus’ preaching than it is Paul’s writing.
So, James is in the Bible primarily because Jacob ben Joseph, the second son of Mary the former Virgin, wrote it, apparently, and somewhat in spite of it not talking about Jesus much and not talking about Calvary at all. But the main reason that James nearly didn’t get into the Bible is because it seems to contradict Paul. Paul is all about salvation by grace, and James is all about faith revealed by works, right? Well one of my commentators describes the solution this way: that Paul’s key message is indeed that our salvation comes about from the sheer generosity in grace expressed by God who welcomes us home. There is nothing to be earned or achieved, Christ has opened the way through his death and resurrection and we are invited simply to open our arms and receive the gift. But Jacob in James did not dispute or refute this, which many have thought he did, (including Martin Luther who thought James was a very dodgy piece of work), what Jacob emphasises is that God-faith is not true faith unless it mirrors God in producing a radically generous and grace-filled life. James does not say we must earn our salvation, James says that our salvation should prompt us to action in a world desperate for truth and love. In other words, Paul writes about how salvation comes about, and Jacob writes about not becoming fat and lazy in the salvation you were gifted, but rather live out your faith for the good of the world, just like Moses and the prophets said. After all, what is the point of being saved if you’re just going to be gossipy and ignore the dire plight of your widowed neighbour, or be rude to the shabby man who comes to church looking for salvation? Jacob says that we can live generous lives safe in the knowledge that God who has already saved us (and the prophets) and is eternally faithful to Israel continues to have our back. Jacob is actually saying that if you’re saved, drop the nervous religious pretence and live freely and openly as an ambassador of the rolling-out Reign of God.
So, with the background in place let’s look at what James actually says in today’s readings. We’re starting at James 1:17 so very briefly let me tell you that in the first sixteen verses Jacob writes about God’s understanding that humans are basically good creatures who do dumb things. There’s no total moral depravity for Jacob in the fallen world, Jacob takes the mainstream Jewish view that Adam was a perfect creation of God, but Adam made a mess of things and that mess continues today. But God is still God, humanity is still the image of God, and God desires a reconciliation between Godself and humanity. Furthermore, God understands Godself needs to get about this because humanity can’t. Basic, simple, Jewish and now Christian stuff.
The first thing that humanity needs in a messy world is wisdom and Jacob says in the mode of the Jewish scriptural wisdom writers that we should just ask God for it. There’s no shame in asking God for wisdom, just be confident when you do.
The second thing humanity needs in a messy world is guts. It takes bravery and perseverance to live well in a messy world, and since Jacob tells us to be bold in living out our faith then we need to be brave against the condition of the world, and brave against those who prefer the world in its current state and will resist our desire for godly transformation. God does not send temptation, (this is very clear in James 1:12), but God does send hope to stand when temptation comes from desire for something other than God’s provision. Temptation leads to death because temptation leads away from God, who is life. James 1:14 in The Complete Jewish Bible reads each person is being tempted whenever he is dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire. In Jewish rabbinical wisdom, only repentance can halt the vicious sequence of hezer hara (the evil inclination).
Now we come to today’s lectionary portion, with all of the above in mind, and we read in James 1:17-18 that God’s response to our lack of wisdom and lack of perseverance is generosity. The first gift God gave us was life, and then with life came the gifts of an abundant life. There is nothing dark or hidden about God, God is holy and good and the more you get to know God the more beautiful God is for you (the more you see God’s beauty, the less you can doubt God is duplicitous). Jacob counsels us that the best response to God’s gift of life is that we live fruitful lives which display God’s dependability and eternal goodness. As I said in the introduction, this is Jacob’s main point, and it’s the reason why I for one am happy that James is actually in the Bible. Jacob continues in James 1:19-21 where he writes about lovingkindness and patience with regard to anger. Listen before you speak, he says, and don’t be fast about anger. (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God given through an abundant life. We have already read that God does not send temptation, now we read that when the world does send temptation we have the opportunity of God to respond with abundance. If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose. There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it. Furthermore, we must actively purge our lives of sordidness, immorality and growing wickedness. James 1:21 in The New Jerusalem Bible reads do away with all impurities and remnants of evil; we must pursue the Way of God with meekness because the Way of God revealed in scripture is powerful to save. Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.
Finally, for this morning, in James 1:22-25 we read about activity in faith and we are encouraged to practise religion as well as talk about it. By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness. Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing. In James 1:26-27 this is taken further to specify good use of speech. Speak with self-discipline and put into practice what you hear of grace, especially to your marginalised neighbours who are helpless, homeless, loveless and comfortless, and non-belonging ones in your community. Show grace towards yourself and encourage yourself to live with resilience and perseverance in the face of temptation. Jacob suggests that good speech is an outward sign of a good heart, so if you hear yourself speaking badly see that as an indication that you need to examine your motives and attitudes. The best way to avoid pollution from the world is through practising wise hearing and action.
So, get on with it.