Song of Solomon 2:8-13 – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 – Observe my statutes/ordinances as you enter the land. Teach it to your children.
James 1:17-27 – Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Giving. Slow to anger. Be doers of the word, not just hearers. Pure religion: Care for orphans and widows.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Jesus: It is not what goes in, but what comes out that defiles. Jesus eats with unwashed hands.
A Series on James
In the preface to his commentary on this coming Sunday’s gospel from Mark, Pastor Don Carlson pointed out that the second reading for the next five weeks comes from the Epistle of James (September 2, 2012). He suggested a possible five-week series on James. So, for the next five weeks I’m going to take up the challenge.
We just finished five weeks in John chapter 6 that included the Feeding of the 5000 and the “I am the bread of life” texts. We talked about the feeding story as a microcosm for the whole world, which is a hungry community as well, even though that we know there is plenty of food for everyone on the planet. The miracle begins with a little boy sharing his lunch. Then Jesus says, “Do not strive for food the perishes, but for the food that indoors to eternal life.” Don’t just strive to satisfy your physical hunger. Strive for food that will satisfy your spiritual hunger. Or, as Jesus says in Matthew, don’t worry about food and clothing seek first the kingdom of God. Finally Jesus reveals that he is the bread of life. If you want to find true life, eternal life, follow him. “Eat of his flesh.” It’s such a striking comment that he loses some of his disciples over it. That will happen you know. Eat the food that endures to eternal life. What is eternal life? It is spelled out in John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
It will be perhaps a bit jarring to move from John’s Christological rhetoric, to the epistle of James, which doesn’t teach anything about Christ. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John is not as much interested in how to be a disciple as proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God. James is less interested in proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, but he gives advice on how to live a moral life in his current time and context. I’ll come back to this in a minute, when I take up Luther’s preface to James and Jude, but for now keep in mind that you will have to be intentional about breathing gospel into these sermons if you take up James.
One other caveat: quite a few of our congregations are doing the Five Practices starting on September 27. If you are using James as a bridge between John 6 and the Five Practices, you will only be able to do four of the five passages of James. Pick and choose what your congregation needs the most. I would have a hard time leaving off James 5 on healing. For those who don’t use the lectionary as strictly, these next five blog posts on James could make a five-week series any time of the year.
So let’s jump in. First, some background: James is the 20th book in the New Testament. The author claims to be simply “James.” There are a number of James’ mentioned in early Christianity: James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, James, son of Alpheus (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 12:6-16, Acts 1:13), James the Less (Mark 15:40) and James the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55-56). Paul mentions seeing James, “the Lord’s brother” when he went to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19). The “brothers of the Lord” are also mentioned (along with their wives) in addition to the apostles in 1 Corinthians 9:5.
So which James wrote this? The fact is we don’t know. It could be any one of them. The author simply says, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Most modern scholars believe it is a pseudonym, a pen name, like Samuel Clemens writing as Mark Twain. What further complicates things is James the son of Alpheus and James the Less could be the same person. Tradition held James the Less to be the author.
The epistle is in the form of a letter, though somewhat chaotically organized, but it appears not to be an actual letter to an actual church, but rather more of a general sermon. It is written to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”
The first manuscripts we have of the Epistle of James date to the middle of the third century. The Greek is polished; therefore, modern scholars doubt it was written by a Jerusalemite Jew. Others suggest it may have been polished up later, but, historically, editors were reluctant to polish anything they believed to be apostolic. Origen, born in AD 184, quotes and mentions James, and there is an uncited quote in Irenaeus (b. 130) that could possibly be from James. The content of the letter suggests a 1st or 2nd century context. It did not appear in the earliest versions of the Bible, but was approved as canonical in the 4th century. Below is a 12th century Byzantine-style text on parchment.
Eusebius, in The Ecclesiastical History (II, xxiii, 25), said, “Such is the story of James, whose is said to be the first of the Epistles called Catholic. It is to be observed that its authenticity is denied, since few of the ancients quote it, as is also the case with the Epistle called Jude’s.”
Luther was well aware that there had been some controversy over whether to include James. He understood that the apostleship of this author was a big question. On top of this, James negates Paul’s theology of justification by grace through faith. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) Luther stand squarely with Paul and his theology of justification on this matter.
I’m not easily finding Luther’s Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (1522, 1546) online, so for those who don’t have Luther’s works, I’m going to quote some passages so you can get a feel for what he’s saying. Non-Lutherans should keep in mind that Lutherans do not consider Luther’s writings to be authoritative, on the level of Scripture, or even the Lutheran Confessions, but rather texts worthy of study as all teachers in the church.
Luther begins his Preface on James by saying, “Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle…”
More quotes from The Preface to the Epistle of St. James and St. Jude (LW 35):
In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works…
In the second place its purpose is to teach Christians, but in all this long teaching it does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ. He names Christ several times; however he teaches nothing about him, but only speaks of general faith in God.
And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate [teach, German “treiben”] Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.
We see in this last passage, that Luther is no Bible fundamentalist. The Bible is a gospel book for him. When it speaks law we should ignore it, even if it comes from St. Peter or St. Paul. So, when Paul talks about what people should wear in church or how long their hair should be, Christians are not bound by these things. They can be interesting and instructive to understand how Christianity was lived out in one culture and time.
In his more general Preface to the New Testament, Luther says,
Just as the Old Testament is a book in which are written God’s laws and commandments, together with the history of those who kept and of those who did not keep them, so the New Testament is a book in which are written the gospel and the promises of God, together with the history of those who believe and of those who do not believe them.
For Luther, the New Testament is about gospel, not law. The gospel is that which preaches the good news of grace in Christ. “Do not make a Book of Moses out of Christ,” Luther says. No doubt there are many Lutherans who have returned to a legalistic understanding of religion, and would find Luther’s ideas bothersome.
The gospel does not demand adherence to the law according to Luther. It only demands faith in Christ. The apostles do not demand we give to the poor, they “entreat” and “beg.” “Moses compels, threatens, strikes and rebukes terribly,” says Luther.
Continuing from the Preface to the New Testament (LW 35):
That is what Christ meant when at the last he gave no other commandment than love, by which men were to know who were his disciples [John 13:34–35] and true believers. For where works and love do not break forth, there faith is not right, the gospel does not yet take hold, and Christ is not rightly known. See, then, that you so approach the books of the New Testament as to learn to read them in this way.
Luther likes John and Romans best, because they have the highest gospel content.
In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. But more of this in the other prefaces.
One last quote, from The Preface to the Epistle of St. James and St. Jude. Continuing to question the apostolicity of James, Luther even begins to sound like a modern scholar:
Moreover he cites the sayings of St. Peter [in 5:20]: “Love covers a multitude of sins” [I Pet. 4:8], and again [in 4:10], “Humble yourselves under the hand of God” [I Pet. 5:6]; also the saying of St. Paul in Galatians 5[:17], “The Spirit lusteth against envy.” And yet, in point of time, St. James was put to death by Herod [Acts 12:2] in Jerusalem, before St. Peter. So it seems that [this author] came long after St. Peter and St. Paul.
In a word, he [the author of James] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love.
The above paragraph exemplifies the theology upon which I landed in my own study of the Bible, Patristics, and scholars. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Loving God and neighbor are the greatest commandments. The law has no power to save.
Interestingly, James 2:24 does not appear in our lectionary. “Faith without works is dead” does however, next week, in James 2:1-17. I will save my comments on this important passage for next week.
That’s a lot of background. Let’s get to our first text, James 1:17-27.
Here is the second reading in its entirety:
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.
Robert Gundry calls James a “manual of Christian conduct that assumes a foundation of faith.” This comes from his Commentary on James, in Baker Academic’s Commentary on the New Testament Books, copyright 2010. Gundry is solid. You can get the Kindle version of this commentary for $1.99 right now on Amazon. Gunrdy is a retired, octogenarian, Baptist professor of New Testament and Koine Greek. He got his PhD from Manchester University, where he worked under F. F. Bruce. His scholarly commentaries on Matthew and Mark are outstanding. This inexpensive commentary might be a nice addition to your library if you are considering doing a sermon series or study on James.
Gifts from the Father of Lights
The first two verses of this lesson are the end of the previous section. Even with his emphasis on good works, James recognizes that all good gifts around us, come from heaven above. The “Father of lights” may mean the father of the sun, moon and stars. Calling God “Father” hearkens back to Jesus’ prayer, “Our Father…” God is a loving father, yet transcendent.
We are the first fruits of his creatures. Jesus is the new creation. When the church lives in him, we are a new humanity, characterized not by hatred, greed, and malice, but by generosity and love.
Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger.
When we read this, we have to wonder: What happened? Even though this is a general letter, it seems to respond to some kind of problem. Perhaps there has been some anger in the church over divisions. Early church divisions over Jewish and Greek polarities are well documented in the New Testament. Anger does not produce God’s righteousness, James says. “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Be doers of this word, not just hearers. I believe James is worried about what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” Christianity as a philosophical idea rather than a way of life. The preacher might challenge the congregation. Is Christianity a nifty idea, or is it a way of life? If it is a way of life, what kind of life is it? James would say it looks like being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Being meek, generous and active in doing the word.
In verse 26 he even takes it up a notch. If you think you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are deceiving yourself. Your religion is worthless. Here is James’ definition of pure religion. Perhaps this would be worth printing on a large poster and putting on the wall during this series:
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 1:27
Where does caring for orphans fit into your congregation’s mission and vision? What’s your engagement strategy? Perhaps you might have someone come from Upbring, the new Lutheran Social Services. Their mission statement on the webpage is about ending child abuse. Their work encompasses adoption, foster care, residential care centers, and more. What’s your strategy for caring for widows and widowers in distress as a congregation? How will you remain unstained by the world? How can we, as Paul puts it, be in the world, but not of it? How can we live into a Micah 6:8 vision for a world of generosity, meekness, and kindness that cares for orphans and widows?
Where is the Good News in this message?
Perhaps the framers of the lectionary included the first two verses in this text in order to give us a hint of the good news. The good news creeps in at the beginning. All goodness and generosity comes from God. We believe and teach that good works are not a human invention, but are a gift from God, the Father of lights, built into the very fabric of the universe.
Generosity is not a human invention. I’ve seen it in animals. Love is not a human invention; it is built into the fabric of creation. We don’t need to self-generate these things. We can tap into them by being in relationship with God.
Here is where we must import the larger thrust of Christian theology. Jesus is the door, the path, the source from which we tap into the Father of lights. The God is the immanent reality that reveals to us the transcendent direction of the universe. The Holy Spirit then helps us in our weakness, by filling us with the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. You don’t have to run around doing good works to justify your goodness, or to prove to God you are a doer of the word. Just love God and neighbor and see where that takes you. As Luther insinuated above, let us not harp on the law, but inspire people to love.
Open the newspaper. If we love fully, how do we engage the immigrant? What would Jesus do? If we love the world as God so loved the world, how would we respond to a hungry world? If we love fully, how do we respond to the spiritually hungry world in front of us? What does it look like to respond to the family of Sandra Bland with love and compassion?
If generosity is a gift from God above, what does that mean for how we spend our salaries? What does it mean for how we budget the collection of our tithes and offerings for the coming year? On what shall we spend our bounty?
What does it mean for us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger? What if all dialog, all moral deliberation began not with pronouncements, but with listening? I believe every congregation needs to do a deep strategic planning process every two or three years, to keep us always reforming, always renewing. That mission planning should always begin with listening. We call it the Tune-in process. It begins with the three great listenings: Listen to God. Listen to the community. Listen to the congregation. Before we plan, before we speak, we must begin by listening to God, one another and the community around us.
If we are going to be doers of the word and not just hearers, if we put the good news of the gospel into action, what kind of action does this suggest?
I wonder how we invite the congregation to wrestle with these questions and not, as preachers, offer either the standard, status quo answers, or our pet answers. How do we invite each person to listen for the movement of the Spirit in their life, and honor that?
Don’t let these texts become a passing ship in the night, another nice devotional that is forgotten the moment people leave. Take it seriously. Let it impact your mission, vision and strategic planning.