James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14,15,21-23
14th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 02.09.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Actions speak louder than words… Good things come to those that wait… Don’t judge a book by its cover… Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched… The early bird catches the worm.
We all know these sayings don’t we. Over the years they have been passed down from one generation to the next as pithy, easy to remember sayings that contain important truths. They may not be applicable in every situation, there are always exceptions, but as a general truth they hold much to commend them. And because they are easy to remember, we find they come to mind often when we need them.
Well, the letter of James is the nearest thing we have in the New Testament to a book of proverbs. It contains lots of practical advice, often in the form of memorable, pithy statements. It may not delve into the deepest theological issues, it may not provide poetic and inspiring prose on the majesty and awesomeness of God, but as a simple, down-to-earth guide on how to live the Christian life with integrity, it is a brilliant guide. And during the month of September we’re going to be giving time to exploring it and learning from it.
But before we dig in, let’s just think a bit about the author of this letter. He was called James, and of all the James’ it could have been in the Bible, most scholars agree that it was most likely to have been James, the brother of Jesus. He is first mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, alongside Jesus’ other brothers, Joseph, Judas and Simon. We know that he was initially sceptical about Jesus, doubting Jesus’ claims, but after he meets with the risen Jesus his life takes on a whole new direction and he becomes a key figure in the early church. Indeed when all the apostles and many other Christians are forced to flee from Jerusalem because of the persecution against them, James chooses to stay in Jerusalem, at significant cost and danger to himself, and he becomes the leader of the church there. Over the next few years, Peter, Paul and others often sought him out to seek his advice and support, and at one of the great crisis points of the early church – the decision about what to do with non-Jewish people becoming Christians – it was James who chaired the debate. You can read all about it in Acts chapter 15.
In addition to all this, he had a reputation as a peace-maker, someone who led with wisdom and courage, and the Jewish historian Josephus described him as having knees like a camel – not a rather back-handed compliment about his looks, but rather a comment that he spent so much time on his knees in prayer, his knees had become as a tough as a camel’s – and those words of respect came from someone who wasn’t even a Christian!
So here is the letter of a man who had known Jesus intimately, whose life had been transformed by a direct encounter with the risen Jesus, and who for the last thirty years had been the leader of one of the first churches, during a time of amazing growth and excitement, but also of famine and persecution. A man of peace, a man of wisdom, a man of prayer. What a gift that we still have his words of wisdom to draw on today.
James was writing to who he described as “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” – in other words, all the Christians now living away from Jerusalem. He was not writing to one specific church in Greece or Turkey – he was writing to every Christian, wherever they lived, so he is addressing typical, common situations that he has experienced frequently over the years. And he does so, not by teaching new theology – he leaves that to others like Paul – but by giving down-to-earth, practical advice, with lots of easy-to-remember metaphors and one-liners. You could sum it up in James’ own style by saying, he was about giving not just “pie in the sky when you die, but bread on the plate while you wait”!
The letter of James offers us some wonderful guidance on how to live the Christian life, and how to live it with integrity. Its a letter relevant to us all.
So, having hopefully whettened your appetite, let’s dig in to finding out what this letter is about. Imagine turning up to a restaurant and you are offered a plate containing lots of small samples of the entire menu. A bit of prawn cocktail, a thimble-full of soup, a slice of lasagne, a bit of beef wellington, a square of cheesecake, and so on. The plate gives you a taster for what is to come. Indeed it could almost be a meal in itself, but you know there is more to come. The first chapter of the letter, of which we heard the second half in our reading, is just like that. There are lots of different, sometimes inter-woven topics, all of which are tasters which will be returned to in more detail later on. Trying to read it as one coherent, flowing chapter, with each paragraph logically connecting to the next, doesn’t really work, like having a mouthful of beef after a bite of lemon meringue. Each bit needs to be eaten slowly, reflected upon, and then returned to later as part of a fuller dish.
And so in chapter 1 James introduces us to many important topics.
He writes about the trials, the challenges, of life and how a Christian should respond to these with prayer, with patience and with joy (a theme he returns to in chapter 5). “Consider it pure joy, my brothers,” he writes, “whenever you face trials of any kind, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”
He writes about wisdom, choosing to believe in the generosity and goodness of God no matter our circumstances (a theme he returns to in chapter 3, and that we will look at in three weeks time). For as he writes, “every good and perfect gift is from above.”
He writes about turning the world’s values upside-down and valuing the poor, and not cosying up to the rich and powerful (a theme he explores further in chapter 2 and that we will look at next week). He writes: “The brother or sister in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.”
He writes about being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” – words can cause so much harm (a theme he returns to in chapter 3 and that we will look at in a fortnight’s time).
And he writes about how true faith is about putting our faith into action – not just listening to the word, but doing it. Taking control of our tongue, caring for those in need (the orphans and widows and those in distress), living holy lives.
That last theme – putting faith into action – is key to understanding the whole letter. Faith matters only if we live it out. Seven times throughout the letter James uses a word which means “completeness/ wholeness”. Our life, our faith, is only whole, only has a consistency, an integrity to it, when what we believe shapes what we do and who we are. Just saying we believe, that we are a Christian, is not enough. It needs to be lived out. And the whole of James’ letter is about what that looks like – simple things such as how we welcome people in church, how we speak about others, how we care for those in need, how we respond when faced with crises and difficulties, how we pray.
If you’re anything like me, September is often a time of girding the loins, of jumping back in to the activities of life after a brief summer recess. Well, lets start this September with James as our guide.
Use the daily readings on James that start tomorrow – sign up for the daily email or take a paper copy away
Join our Wednesday or Thursday evening home group for the month as we will be looking at James together
Or simply commit to reading the first chapter of James this week.
In doing so, may God prompt us to know how we can best live lives of integrity and faith.