August 29, 2021
Tradition tells us that the author of the book of James was the brother of Jesus. James was not one of the original twelve disciples – in fact, we have no evidence he even believed his brother was the Son of God until after the resurrection. However, James quickly became a leader among the believers in Jerusalem. And let’s remember that the church in Jerusalem was the flagship church of the whole Christian movement, so James was an important figure in the church’s early development. Paul even submitted to his authority (Acts 15:13-21).
In the greeting of this letter, James addresses “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1) so we can imagine that his intended audience includes Jewish followers of The Way who have fled from Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen. Christianity was in its early stages; it was still considered a Jewish sect.
Followers of Jesus weren’t even called Christians yet, but they were already experiencing persecution. James wrote to these believers, who had scattered into the world beyond Jerusalem, to encourage them in their suffering, and to give them guidance.
Since he was writing primarily to Jewish Christians, it’s no surprise that James uses a particularly Jewish form of writing –wisdom literature, such as we would find in Proverbs, parts of Job, and some of the Psalms. Wisdom literature doesn’t tell a story. It gives advice and encouragement. Whenever we hear Jesus say, “Let those who have ears, listen,” Jesus is imparting wisdom to us.
We have just spent five weeks listening to Jesus describe himself as the “Bread of Life.” Jesus has used very graphic language to insist that, if we are truly going to be his followers, we must take him into ourselves and become like him. Lip service won’t do: we must go all in if we are to become true disciples.
But how do you do that? How do you become a disciple of Jesus Christ who thrives, whose faith grows exponentially? How do you apply the principles Jesus laid out for his disciples more than 2,000 years ago to life in our 21st century culture? How does working your faith develop a faith that works?
We don’t know if James was present when Jesus gave his “Bread of Life” sermon, but it’s pretty clear he understood what Jesus meant. In today’s passage from James, listen for the connection he makes between simply hearing the word and doing the word. For James, and the people to whom he wrote, going all in for Jesus was guaranteed to be a risky business, but failing to commit carried an even greater risk.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act–they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:17-27)
James seems to have just two questions in mind here. First, he asks, “Who is God to you?” Then James wants to know, “Who are you to God?”
It only takes a couple of verses for James to explain who God is to us. He is Father, Creator, the giver of life and light. God is unchangeable, and therefore dependable. God is truth and righteousness, fulfilling his own purpose in us. And that brings us to the second question, “Who are you to God?”
This question is a little more complicated, because in order to answer it, James has to remind us of who we are not to be. We are not to be people who give in to anger. We are not to be the kind of people who can’t control their own tongues. Most of all, we are not to be people who deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay with God when our lives give no evidence that this is true.
We are first fruits. In Jewish tradition, the first fruits were the offering brought to the temple at the beginning of harvest. These offerings were perfect examples of the produce that had been grown. They were given to God in thanksgiving for a good crop, and they served as down payment on offerings that would be brought when the harvest was complete.
We are the down payment of God’s promises to the world, James says. We are God’s gift to show what righteousness is supposed to look like. We must conduct ourselves as children of God, “for that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)
How do ‘first fruits’ behave? “Know this, beloved,” James says, and we perk up, ready to learn the key to acting like God’s children ought to act. What comes next might not be what we were expecting to hear. It seems that everywhere else in the New Testament, we are urged to speak boldly, to proclaim the gospel at every opportunity. But James suddenly sounds a lot like his big brother Jesus, turning what we expect to hear on its head.
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
Had you ever thought of listening as a form of evangelism? James tells us the first thing we should do as first fruits is to listen like Jesus. As God’s gift to a hurting world, we are to listen to the pain, the need, and the despair around us, just as Jesus did. Just as Jesus still does.
Even more than this, we must be quick to listen to God’s word. Just as Jesus told us to take his flesh and blood into ourselves, so James tells us to welcome the implanted word into our lives. It isn’t enough to sit back and let the word of God run in one ear and out the other. We are to let it be implanted in us.
I love a good paradox. Recognizing two opposite truths that depend on one another, and holding them in tension, always makes me think I might be getting a little closer to God’s ultimate truth. Jesus often used paradox – the first shall be last, bless those who curse you, whoever would be greatest must be like a little child… And here, James offers us another paradox.
If the word of God is planted deep within you, it’s going to show up on the outside. Whatever is at your very core is the thing that dictates your outward behavior. The mark of an authentically Christian life is this connection between inward spiritual health and outward acts of compassion, mercy, and justice.
So if you say you follow Jesus on Sunday, the way you live your life on Monday through Saturday needs to be congruent with that statement. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” James tells us. If you want to develop a faith that really works, you have to work your faith.
How do you do that? James writes:
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:26-27)
Orphans and widows, in first century Jerusalem, were the most vulnerable people in society. They had no resources, no social standing, no power. They were completely dependent on the mercy and generosity of others. They were in distress.
Who can you think of in that position today? Who experiences the distress of powerlessness in our community? Who are the most vulnerable people around us? These are the people James says we should be caring for if we have God’s word planted inside us.
It’s easy to think, because our church has a Blessing Box and an Aid program, because we support ministries like Family Promise and the Food Shelf, that we are taking care of orphans and widows. And while I am really proud of this church and its work in these ministries, we have to work faithfully to make sure they don’t become transactional ministries. Taking care of widows and orphans means more than giving a handout or dishing up food. It means building relationships and becoming part of others’ lives, as they become part of ours.
It means bearing one another’s pain. And carrying another person’s pain is hard. It is emotionally exhausting work. Bearing someone else’s pain doesn’t mean that you take it on yourself completely, so they don’t have to bear it. It means walking alongside them and helping them carry that load by being present with them. By listening first, and speaking later, by guarding your tongue, and by not getting angry at the drop of a hat. It means being Christ to someone else, just as Jesus has been Christ to you.
It means living your life in such a way that it reveals your true identity as a beloved child of God. We are first fruit, precious and belonging to God, with God’s Word firmly implanted in us. James wants us to see ourselves as God sees us, as who we really are. And here’s another paradox.
James describes those who hear without doing as people who look at themselves in a mirror – but “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.” (1:17) The direction of your gaze matters. If you are looking at yourself, focused on your own wishes and preferences, James says you are deceiving yourself. Acting on your faith means looking outside yourself, into the “perfect law” of Christ, and persevering as you work your faith, so you can have a faith that works.
Churches can be just as guilty as individuals, when it comes to forgetting who we are and becoming inwardly focused instead of outwardly engaged. Somewhere along the line, we may have lost the passion for sharing Jesus that marked our church’s beginning, with that handful of Methodists who gathered in a boxcar to worship. Somewhere along the line, we became more concerned with keeping the institution alive. We started caring more about our own comfort, doing things the way we like them done, than we cared about doing things in ways that would share Jesus with the hurting world around us.
The world is changing. Today’s culture is becoming more “spiritual but not religious” and the number of those choosing “none” as their religious identification continues to grow. Even before the pandemic, we saw our congregation growing older and smaller, and we wondered how to connect to our constantly changing culture. One thing is certain: we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them if we want to make disciples for the transformation of this corner of the world.
We need a clear understanding of why we exist and what God wants us to accomplish. Over the next few months, as we attempt to discern our purpose and the mission God is calling us toward, I urge you to participate fully in the process. This is not the time to sit back, to wait and see. This is the time to engage, to risk, to be doers of the word, and not hearers only.
Together, we can develop a sense of excitement about our future. We can become people who really live what we say we believe. With the word of God firmly planted within us, we will be equipped to live out our faith and grow deeper in love of God and our neighbor.
As we prepare for the next God-sized vision that will shape our ministry here, it will mean becoming an inviting congregation, developing ways to connect with newcomers, and engaging them in the life and outwardly focused ministry of the church. It will mean taking a close look at the way we do worship, the way we use technology, and the ways we become more involved with our community as God leads us into a hopeful future.
James tells us that those who do not invest in active faith deceive themselves and their faith is worthless. Here’s how we will know that what has been planted in us is bearing good fruit: the most vulnerable people in our community will be cared for by us, and our lives will become more Christ-like, as we live our faith with integrity and purpose. As we work our faith, we’ll develop a faith that works.