Do What You Know
James 1:17-27, August 30, 2015
The Letter of James has caused some controversy through the years. Legend has it that it was written by Jesus’ brother James, though that has been in some dispute in recent generations. Reformer Martin Luther famously called it “An Epistle of Straw.” That is because there are some verses within the letter that could be interpreted as implying that one can earn salvation, by obeying the law flawlessly. Luther passionately believed that one can only be saved by grace, that is, that salvation can only be a gift to the undeserving—and he believed everyone was undeserving. Martin Luther even contended that the Letter of James should not be included in the Bible!
There has always been tension among Christians between grace and law—that is whether one can earn or deserve forgiveness by works of the law on the one hand, or is salvation a radical gift that can never be earned that we can only be dependent on God’s freely giving this gift. And if that’s really the case, then is there not any incentive to be good, kind or “Christian” if it won’t change our status anyway.
The Letter of James is a “general” or “catholic,” that is universal epistle. It is not addressed to a specific situation within a group of Christians in a particular city, as Paul’s letters are. This one is sort of a general reminder and encourager to Christians in all places.
I do not find this morning’s readings difficult to understand or controversial in any way. I’ll go through the readings a few verses at a time, though to help explain things a little more clearly.
“Every generous act of giving…is from above,” that is ultimately, God is the source of all our giving, because God is the source of every gift we have ever received. We sing this reality every Sunday. “Praise God from whom all blessing flow….” Earlier this month I presided at a wedding and I pointed out those words, saying “to Presbyterians these words are like wallpaper, because we sing them every week, so we do not realize what a powerful, radical statement of faith and trust they are.”
James’s concept that there is no shadow or variation due to change in God is the foundational idea for the hymn that we will close this morning’s worship with. God’s faithfulness, like God’s generosity is great, even beyond what we can understand.
The next three verses remind us that anger has real power to hurt people—and has little power to bring other people closer to God. Rather than being wicked, or sordid both of which point to being cruel and selfish, we are admonished to be meek, that is patient and humble. To endure things that might motivate us to lashing out angrily.
A friend of mine who is recovery from addiction has said that the first indication that he’s having difficulty maintaining his sobriety is his driving. That was a very helpful comment for me. I try to notice how I feel and react when, for example, someone goes before me, when I believe it’s my turn at a four-way stop. Do I smile and recognize that maybe it was that other motorist’s turn after all, or do I shake my fist and get angry because he took my rightful turn? Am I in a hurry? Am I in such a hurry that I feel exempt from being considerate? Is anyone better off, is the world a better place because of my self-righteous, perhaps completely private foray into road rage?
The second reading seems so obvious to me, “be doers of the word and not merely hearers..” That says to me that the faith we have, or perhaps I should say the faith we profess to have should be lived and not just something we believe. If you hear the word of God, but it does not change the way you behave, if it does not shape your life, it’s as though you looked into a mirror and them immediately forgot what you looked like.
This passage always reminds me of Ruby Chandler, the woman who was my 4th grade Sunday school teacher. I have to stop and think who was president then, but I will never forget Mrs. Chandler. One day in class a girl asked her what she thought the worst sin was. Mrs. Chandler said it’s being a “Sunday Christian.” What she meant by that is someone who puts on their best clothes and brings his Bible with him to church—but then does not show any effects of having gone to church when Monday morning rolls around. Going to worship, singing hymns, praying together, hearing the Bible read and interpreted, should shape a person. Sometimes we sing “they will know we are Christians by our love,” and to me that says strangers should be able to watch what we do and see that our faith makes us act differenly.
A few years ago I was surprised that the most searched word on the internet was “integrity.” Words go through phases of popularity and integrity had its day in 2012, I think. We have a sense of what that word means, “the quality of being honest and morally upright” and “the state of being whole or undivided.” Those are good definitions, but I think when it comes to faith, as James is talking about in this morning’s reading, it means that our beliefs, the content of our faith is integrated with our actions. We have integrity when our highest beliefs and aspirations are in accord with our actions. If we think we’re devout, but our actions do not reflect that, we’re deceiving ourselves. If our faith is to be pure, if it is to live up to our ideals, it means we have to get our hands dirty, caring for the poor and the vulnerable.
In the next chapter of this letter, James gets pretty blunt about living our faith; walking the talk.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
In just a few minutes we’re going to baptize two young people into the universal church of Jesus Christ. Yes, yes, there will be cake afterwards, I call your attention though, to a promise that all those gathered for worship will be asked to make:
Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture
these two people by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know
and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?
I don’t think there’s a more important promise anyone will be asked to make this year. There are lots of ways you can fulfill that promise, lots of ways each of us can guide and nurture Adeline and Domanic. I call this to your attention today because today’s Bible lessons point us to integrating our words with our deeds, to living our faith, not just hearing and believing it. So I challenge you to think about what it means to nurture and guide one to follow Christ, Then, more importantly, do that. Amen.