Sometimes there are readings from the lectionary that come up which are so good and clear, that it might actually be advisable for the preacher just to read it; shut up; then quietly pack things up and go home.
Our reading from the Epistle of James is exactly like this. In fact, the whole epistle is pretty good, and if it were published just on its own, it could be used as a guidebook for how people of faith should live. Of course, Martin Luther didn’t much care for it, because it seems to deny the idea that we are justified by faith rather than works.
However, I think more rightly that it offers us an understanding of the necessity for works that speak of a life transformed by faith.
Anyway, the letter draws from the earliest known teachings of Jesus’, which helps scholars to date it at least before 70 CE. So what we’re reading is not simply an interpretation of what Jesus taught, but likely even the result of practical experience with Jesus.
Its style relies on a deep love of the Law and tradition, as well as draws the ethereal and spiritual into the daily and the practical; making it very instructional for the young Christian community of the First Century.
James, the apparent author, was certainly well known to the early followers of Jesus—in fact, he was the one who officiated the Jerusalem council that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. This was when the Apostles were trying to figure out what to do with all of us Gentiles who were coming into this new faith in Jesus…
James was also respected as a leader in the Early Church, and we see this in the way that Peter shows deference to him at the Jerusalem council.
This James isn’t to be confused with the brother of John, our patron. However, as to what James means about being the brother of Jesus…well, there are a whole slew of speculations including James being the son of Joseph from a previous marriage; James being a close relative to Jesus’ earthly family; or most likely James was the son of Mary and Joseph, making he and Jesus brothers.
Now, for those of you who were hoping that I would pack up and go home at this point; I fear you’ll be disappointed. Because, perhaps against my better judgment, I do plan to speak a bit about this reading…sorry.
Anyway, James begins the passage by making it clear that acts of generosity are not simple things, because they come down from God, the father of stars and angels, whose light never fades like other heavenly bodies. And this is set against an earlier statement about how temptation and sin lead to destruction and death.
He then goes on to say that by God we’re given birth through the word—meaning not only the birth of humanity through God’s creative word, but also the rebirth that we’re given through Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of God.
Now all of this may sound lovely and transcendent, but what follows makes it very clear that all of this (while it may not seem practical) no less has practical implications for how we’re to behave.
James says, you must be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…even for those of us who enjoy ‘righteous anger’ it’s hard to argue with the sense of that.
But he says, we’re to rid ourselves of sordidness and rank growth of wickedness—I think he forgot to add that this is also expected in election years. Instead, we’re to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.
Finally, we’re told to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…if any are hearers and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror…and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
The point is that it’s not enough to claim some deep ontological change in our lives—there has to be evidence, or incarnation of that change. Simply put, if we claim a faith that challenges and changes us, our lives and actions should show it.
Those of us clergy who sit around and talk about how Christianity is changing, and mourn the decline of mainline denominations are mistaken when we pretend that we don’t know why. We’ve spent decades resting on laurels and being the churches of society. We’ve taken credit for the work of a few who were part of the work of the Underground Railroad; we’ve hung pictures of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in prominent places in our churches, and claimed a piece of the Civil Rights Movement.
While that is and has been necessary—it hasn’t been a unified effort. In fact, there were times when it was hard to tell which side the church was fighting for…
But now we’re suddenly surprised that people aren’t joining us in our mission. We’re offended that people point to the Church and talk about hypocrisy (an allegation that I find very unfair—especially when there’s always room for one more hypocrite).
The argument of James, however, is not that we are not justified by our faith—rather that our faith is evidenced in our action. Ours as a true and lively faith is one that continually calls us to action in the world—action not of social justice (only) or any other charged term—but action that is defined as Christian charity; our duty to God; our continued participation in Christ’s redemption of the world; and above all faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And while some of these acts of faith look like social justice, I can assure you that they are a different thing, because they are acts which are the effulgence of a life marked and changed by faith. These acts are responses to a grateful reception of unconditional love, and the promise of new life. Simply put, we give and work because we have received and are beneficiaries of Jesus’ mercy. In this way, none of us can claim a right to terms, nor can we boast about our adherence to a particular aspect of the Gospel.
We’re not allowed to call our good works prophetic, or glory in the good work that we do for the sake of more membership. Because, the beauty of a reading like this is that it leaves vacuous holes in our self-righteousness. It reminds us that we cannot be people of faith in name only—that by the Incarnational nature of our religion we cannot exist with integrity if we are not actively living as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world.
Now, the Epistle of James shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves. We shouldn’t feel like we’ve neglected our call to Christian faith. Instead, we should see it for what it is—an admonition—the shot in the arm that the whole Church needs to be faithful in her mission as Christ’s Body. This is a reminder and an opportunity to dust off our talents and gifts and put them to work for the sake of the Kingdom of God. And it’s in fidelity to our Baptismal call, and our identity as those born of the word of truth that we can begin to show the meaning and reality of that gift by our actions—actions that are not only our gifts of generosity, but are gifts given by God.
As much as it may have been advisable for me to have shut up earlier; I have to admit that the Epistle of James honestly started something in me. It started a deep sense of longing to see this parish work toward its full potential. It made me see that many of the right things are in place for us to be an essential and vibrant part of this community and our diocese. But what it will require is that none of us only hears readings like this one from James, and does nothing. Instead, we have to hear it, let it reflect our true selves, and be inspired by it. That word inspired (for all that it gets over-used) is exactly the right one here, because its etymology refers to being breathed into—just like the breath of God that turned molded clay into a living being in Genesis. It’s like the breath of life called by Ezekiel from the four winds that brought a valley of dry bones to life again. And it’s the same inspiration—the same God of life breathing into us now through his word. (Breathe in/breathe out)
But having heard this word, and breathing the breath of life, will we walk away and forget? The choice is ours, I suppose.