James 1:19-27; John 6:24-35
9th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 01.08.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
During August we are going to be reading the letter of James. It is in many ways the perfect companion to John’s gospel which we are also reading throughout this month. Whilst John often writes in a complex and theological style that requires several sittings to unpack his meaning, James is quite different. He writes in a simple and practical style, more akin to a self-help book or a short book of pithy sayings. The challenge with reading the letter of James is not that he is difficult to understand; it is the opposite. We can understand him all too clearly, and that leaves us in the uncomfortable position: “what am I going to do about it?” Over the next few weeks our preachers will each unpack a different section of the letter, but for this morning, I will begin with the section we’ve heard read from chapter 1.
James starts: “My dear brothers and sisters.” I love that.
James is writing not to one specific individual or church, but to all the Christians living around the mediterranean world (“the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”, as he describes them). Some of them he would have known, but many others he would not, and yet he describes them as “my dear brothers and sisters”. There is genuine love and affection here. So where does that come from?
One way in which that love clearly develops and grows is through prayer. We know from the writings of contemporaries that James was a person of prayer. 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!
It has been my experience, and perhaps yours too, that the more I pray for people, the more I come to love them and care about them. The act of prayer, of asking God to touch their life, to bring hope or healing or joy into someone’s life, changes how we feel about them. We come to long for the best for them.
Another way that love grows is through compassion. The literal meaning of that word is to “suffer with”. Many of the Christians James was writing too had suffered persecution for their faith, some of them had been forced to flee their homes and their country. James had chosen to stay in the epicentre of that persecution, in Jerusalem itself, and for years he had maintained a Christian witness despite what must have been significant cost. James could identify with, he could come alongside, those going through hardships elsewhere.
One of our aims as a church is to grow in love for one another. If we wonder how we can do that, then the example of James shows us two very simple ways. Pray for one another and come alongside one another in their time of need.
James then gives his readers a memorable pithy saying, one that can be remembered from first time of hearing: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Quick, slow, slow; quick, slow, slow. It sounds like some kind of ball-room dancing rhythm. Those three injunctions hold a weight of wisdom.
“Be quick to listen.” Listening, really listening, makes a huge difference to our quality of conversation and understanding. Often we can use our time when the other person is speaking to be thinking about what we are going to say next, to prepare our words, so that we are ready to jump in when there’s a pause. But listening means actively seeking to hear and understand the other person, listening not just to their words, but their tone and body language too. It means checking back with them that we have understood what they were wanting to communicate. Too often we can either ignore what the other person has said or are so keen to get our view or perspective across, that we only half-listen.
A vital step in resolving conflicts and disagreements at whatever level, whether in the workplace, or with family or friends, is enabling the space to listen, to ensure that people are properly heard and understood. Those of you who have done the Difference course that Victoria wrote will know the importance of that.
Two of the greatest political breakthroughs of the last 20-30 years – the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa and the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement – were achieved largely because people learnt to listen to one another. They stopped assuming that they knew what the other person was going to say, and started to truly listen.
No wonder James was asked to chair the council convened to resolve the biggest controversy of the early church – what to do about non-Jewish Christians. He knew the importance of listening.
Quick to listen. And the other side of the coin. Be slow to speak. That requires humility and confidence. There are times when it is important for our voice to be heard, but there are also times when actually our voice doesn’t add very much. Our words aren’t always essential, whether that is in a conversation amongst friends, or at a meeting at work. It is good sometimes not to speak, or only to speak once everyone else has had their opportunity. Our identity does not need to be wrapped up in what we say or in making an impression on others. It comes from a much more secure place – from being loved and valued by God.
Being slow to speak also helps us to keep a tight rein on what we say. As we will see in a couple of weeks time, James speaks about the extraordinary damage careless words can do. Being slow to speak just gives us a bit more time to weigh up whether we really want to say something before we do so.
Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Anger is rarely constructive, especially the type that just suddenly explodes. It may feel cathartic at the time, feel good to express it and let people know how you feel, but the reality is that on most occasions anger just makes things worse in the long term. If anger is to be expressed, it should be after thought and deliberation, and reluctantly. Be slow, James says, to become angry.
And finally, in this passage of the letter, James 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 theme – putting faith into action – is key to understanding this 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, how we listen, how we are slow to talk and slow to anger.
This month, let us take time to read James’ letter and ask ourselves: am I putting my faith into action?
Remember: quick, slow, slow; quick, slow, slow.