Scripture: James 2:1-26
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Christ, and to the indwelling Holy Spirit within and among us. Amen.
In the book, The Other Side of Chaos: Breaking Through When Life is Breaking Down, Margaret Silf wrote these words of wisdom: “When we are in transition, depending on how serious the breakdown is, we may feel as though almost every aspect of life has been disrupted…the old home, the old job, the old “me….” [When that happens,] it may be time to ask, “What is that essential core of who I am that remains through all this upheaval?”
There are signs that the Church today is on the cusp of a titanic shift. What is it that looms on the horizon? I do not know. I’m not sure anyone knows. But we can count on at least one essential question that must be answered: How do we speak Good News to one another in challenging times of change?
Perhaps now may be the time to ask ourselves not only what our own personal essential core is, but also “What is the essential core of who we are as Christ’s Church? What will be the legacy we pass on in and through this current time?” This is an important question, because discerning our essential core is the beginning of new growth, and a new chapter in the life of the worshiping community.
I can only imagine that James the brother of Jesus did some serious soul-searching in his time. He was living through a time of huge transition during the years after his brother died; both in history, and personally. Within a decade or two after the time of Jesus, James had become the De-facto head of the Jerusalem Counsel of Jewish Christians. James, the brother who witnessed his entire home village take offense at his brother’s amazing teachings. James, who watched older brother Jesus learn their father’s trade as carpenter; Jesus who would have become by social convention the family provider after their father Joseph died. James, who watched Jesus leave the family business behind to go on circuit and preach good news to the poor and release to the captives. James who watched Judaism itself become completely disrupted in the wake of Jesus’ life and teachings. James, the lone member of Christ’s earthly family we read about in our scriptures to whom Jesus bodily appeared after his resurrection. Talk about difficult transitions.
Some years after Jesus rose and appeared to him, James wrote to “the diaspora,” scattered Jewish Christian believers in the Roman Empire near and far. He wrote to encourage them, reminding them of the way of life Jesus taught. Can you imagine what James must have been going through? Trying to write a letter that balanced precariously on the edge of an almost violently fermenting Judaism about to experience final contractions before birthing a separate Christianity?
What could he say to exhort, challenge, uplift, teach, and encourage when the Roman Empire was getting stronger, Jerusalem itself was feeling pressure, the Temple was being threatened with destruction from without and challenged by divisions from within? I wonder how many rough drafts and false starts he had before he finally sent off his encouragement. What we have in our canon today is a very polished Greek letter; some say it was finally organized and written well after James. However it happened, James’ teaching hits upon some of the core essentials of not only orthodox and traditional Jewish faith-but also encompassing the Good News in a Jewish Christian-perspective.
While at first glance it may seem James writes on various unconnected themes, with a closer examination, we begin to see the depth of his love and concern for Jewish Christians — believers whom at the time he initially sat down to write were still considered within the fold of Judaism.
Reading the second chapter more closely, I was struck by how today’s passage is like a three-fold discussion of being “doers of the faith.” Faith in action seems to be, for James, the clearest indication of righteousness lived out in the lives of faithful believers. James writes, “You see that faith was active along with…works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.” This completely Jewish insight gives us at least one essential core of who we are as Christ’s Church: Christians today still live at the synthesis of faith and works.
Now, I am sure you may be familiar with some of the letters of Paul, who was writing about the same time James was writing, and also writing on some of the same themes; including the theme of faith and works. You may even be familiar with the passage from Romans that Paul writes, and I quote, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works proscribed by the law.”
Just hearing that in juxtaposition with James’s statement “Faith without works is dead,” seems, at first, to be completely incompatible. What we have to understand here is that Paul was writing to Gentiles. For the largely Greco-Roman audiences Paul addressed, faith was in the realm of the intellectual; and works were in the distinctly different realm of charity, and never the twain would meet. James, writing to Jewish believers, reflected their understanding that faith and works were inseparable; that is, together they form a woven fabric of faithful people living out their core belief.
After attending Presbytery this past weekend, it doesn’t take too much imagination for me to envision Paul and James, standing off to the side of the Jerusalem Counsel meeting during coffee break and discussing this very difference:
“So, James, how do you propose we get this word across to both our audiences? Gentiles think so alien to our understanding, you know?”
“Quite, Paul old boy, quite. You are our missionary in that context, I have every confidence that you can put yourself in their shoes and get it out properly.”
All humor and speculation aside, I had to reflect on my own perspective, as a Gentile, and from another time and place far removed from Palestine and Hebrew culture. In my reflection, I became convinced James has something very important to say to us. When he reminded his readers that faith without works is dead, he also reminded them that the royal law is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Put another way, faithful believers uphold the law of God, so faith is the basis for the action of loving neighbor.
I particularly like James’ Jewish perspective; we are members in the kingdom of God, a kingdom where the royal law is to love our neighbor. In this kingdom, the ethic of love emphasizes the need to love all impartially, extending the hospitality of Christ to everyone we meet. It means to meet peoples’ need, whatever and wherever that need may be. It means to set aside ourselves and our own agendas and to walk with our neighbor in solidarity. It means we serve those for whom servitude is all they have ever known. It means we give voice to the voiceless and provide the love of God to the loveless. For James’ communities, and I submit for ours, the whole of the community is lifted up when the ministry of hospitality – which is rooted in God’s love – is extended to all.
James writes, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For…mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). And again, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (2:26). Friends, our faith communities, including this one, have been given a gift. We are stewards of this ethic of love, the royal law of loving neighbor. Our calling as a faithful community is to honorably respond by extending the hospitality of Christ.
For James, extending the ministry of hospitality to others, and especially the poor, shows faith being brought to completion.
Extending the love of God to all around us is an expression of how faith and works go together. Believe you me, our actions speak louder than words the depth of the faith we live and breathe. No matter what changes swirl around us in this day and age; if we remember this core essential of who we are as Christians, acting out the love of God towards all our neighbors and all who come to Christ’s Table, and even those who don’t, then we are living from the depth of our faith – and – I submit to you – the Church will live on through us.
May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us; even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.