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.
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 – Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Psalm 15 – Do not lend money at interest. LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? (Ps. 15:1)
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. For some reflections on this passage, scroll down about half way through this post by Pastor Don Carlson.
EPISTLE OF STRAW: A 5-week Series on James
- LISTENING – September 2, 2018: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.
- WORKS – September9, 2018: James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 – Don’t show favoritism to the rich. Faith without works is dead.
- TAME THE TONGUE – September16, 2018:James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers. Tame the tongue.
- CONFLICT – September23, 2018: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a – Why do conflicts arise among you?
- HEALING – September30, 2018: James 5:13-20 – Healing text. Are any of you sick? Elders should pray and lay hands on you.
The five weeks of September, James 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. James is writing a manual for church conduct, or rather synagogue conduct, as we shall see.
Bear with me, this will be interesting.
Luther called the Letter of James an “Epistle of Straw.” He contended that the Bible was like the manger which held the Christ child. In the manger you have two things: baby and straw. The baby is the gospel: God’s grace, received by faith, apart from works of the law. The straw is the law itself: do this; don’t do that. The baby is laid in the straw. You need to learn how to tell one from the other. Discern law and gospel.
Luther has a point. This letter of James makes no reference to Jesus as the Son of God, his atoning death on the cross, or his resurrection (all Pauline theological frames). In fact, James even directly contradicts Paul’s theology of justification by grace through faith alone.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
– James 2:14-17
You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
– James 2:24
This may, however, be one of the hints that this book represents an early Palestinian form of Christianity that preceded Paul and his gospel. Keep in mind that the first disciples were not baptized in Jesus’ name. They were products of John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Andrew and Peter began as disciples of John. The first disciples did not preach Jesus’ atoning death for our sins and resurrection to eternal life. Their gospel was that the kingdom of God was at hand. Furthermore, there is no indication that they ever got re-baptized in Jesus’ name after John’s baptism, as did the Ephesians Paul encountered. More on that in a moment.
In his book Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, (a recent gift from my brother-in-law David), author James Tabor points out that James refers to the meeting of Christians as a “synagogue,” not a “church.” One feels the Jewishness of James’ Jesus movement. Also, Tabor considers how much James tracks the sayings of Jesus in the gospels (what scholars call the Q Source), especially Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. There are something like 30 direct references. Watch how closely James follows the teachings of Jesus:
- Luke 6:20 – Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
- James 2:5 – Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?
- Matthew 5:19 – Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments… shall be [called] least in the kingdom.
- James 2: 10 – Whoever keeps the whole Torah, but fails in one point has become guilty of it all.
- Matthew 7: 21 – Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom . . . but he who does the will of my Father.
- James 1: 22 – Be doers of the word and not hearers only.
- 7: 11 – How much more will your Father… give good gifts to those who ask him.
- James 1: 17 – Every good gift . . . coming down from the Father.
- Luke 6: 24 – Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
- James 5: 1 – Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
- 5: 34, 37 – Do not swear at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by earth for it is his footstool . . . let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No.”
- James 5: 12 – Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no.
Tabor, J. (2013). Paul and Jesus. New York: Simon & Schuster, p.42.
It’s almost as if the author was right there… like he heard Jesus saying these things over and over again.
On the other hand, there are hardly any quotes of Jesus in Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh. Paul’s gospel comes from a visitation (vision?) by the resurrected Jesus, seven years after the crucifixion. Paul says “his” gospel is not of human origin, and even brags that he didn’t consult the apostles.
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)
Paul didn’t meet Peter and James, the pillars of the Jerusalem church until a full decade after Jesus’ death. Even then, he did not meet any of the other disciples. In fact, he didn’t meet or speak to any of the other disciples until his next trip to Jerusalem ten years later, around 50 AD, a full twenty years after the crucifixion.
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:15-19)
It is this “James the Lord’s brother” that may be reflected in the Epistle of James. More on the brother of our Lord in a minute. When was James written? This is complicated. The impeccable Greek and syntax of James are not likely to be that of a Palestinian Jew, but the ideas and the Aramaic expressions in the letter very much reflect a mid-40’s Palestinian cultural context. James writes “to the twelve tribes in the dispersion.” He is writing to Jews in the Roman Empire who don’t live in the homeland. It may be that a late-first-century Greek-Christian is dusting off and polishing up an older letter by a Palestinian Jewish disciple of Jesus, and maybe even the brother of Jesus himself. The letter does not mention that James is the brother of Jesus, but this may have been edited out as Pauline Christianity squeezed out Palestinian Christianity.
When reading James, we must be careful not to read Paul’s theology, or even our own concepts of Christianity into it. Grasp this: Luke records that 25 years after the crucifixion, Paul bumps into Jewish Christians, followers of Jesus, in Ephesus, who are still practicing the baptism of John (repentance for the forgiveness of sins), and not baptism into Jesus, and who have not even heard of the Holy Spirit.
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. ~Acts 19:1-5
25 years! A quarter of a century after the crucifixion these Ephesians are practicing a kind of Christianity that we might scarcely recognize. No Trinity. No baptism into Jesus. Simply a Jewish community that practiced the teachings of Jesus the messiah in the Sermon on the Mount, that believed in John’s repentance and forgiveness of sins, and that taught the kingdom of God was near.
Hear this book afresh. Forget what you know. There is a different version of Christianity here. Luther saw that. So did the early church. Once Paul’s version of Christianity won the day, other versions were squelched. This may be why James is not identified as the brother of our Lord. The author is not James, the son of Zebedee. Acts 12:2 tells us he was martyred (around 44 AD). The James mentioned in Acts after that (21:17-18) is the leader of the Jerusalem church.
The only reason this letter would make the canon would be the author was a bigwig. James the brother of Jesus is the leader not only of the Jerusalem church, but the whole church. James was hotly debated when the Bible was being put together. It does not appear in the earliest drafts. At the end of the process, the team begrudgingly conceded that this letter appeared to have apostolic authorship.
Josephus tells us about James’ gruesome death at the hands of the Sanhedrin. It is not recorded in the Bible. There was such an uproar that Josephus tells us Herod Agrippa (Herod the Great’s grandson) had Ananus the High Priest removed after three months. Tabor says this dates James’ death to 62 AD. The martyrdom of James and then subsequent siege and destruction of Jerusalem (66-70 AD) may have led to the ebbing of this early version of Christianity.
The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, but was Mary just a virgin when Jesus was born, or did she remain a virgin the rest of her life? This church negation of sexuality (likely based on Platonic ideals) is curious, but it comes into play when we consider the high likelihood that Jesus had siblings. Roman Catholics believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, as did many early Christians, therefore, Jesus could have no brothers or sisters. Nevertheless, there appear to be sisters and at least four brothers, and they are mentioned several times in the Bible, in two gospels, in Acts and Paul:
- Mark 6:3 – “Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?”
- Matthew 13:55-56 “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”
- Acts 1:13-14 – “When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
- Galatians 1:18-19 – “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.”
- 1 Corinthians 9:5 – “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
Catholic theologians will concede that these are possibly cousins, step-siblings or half-siblings. Let us not quibble. They exist. Jesus had a brother named James, if they want him to be adopted that’s fine by me. I have an adopted child, and let me tell you, a daughter is a daughter. The clear sense of these texts is that James was part of Jesus’ family.
What is clear is that when James is mentioned in Acts, 20 years after the crucifixion, in 50 AD, he is the leader of the Jerusalem church. After a hot debate about whether Gentiles should be circumcised and follow Jewish laws, it is James who makes the pronouncement in Acts 15:13-21. “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…” (verse 19). I have reached the decision.
Luke does not mention James as Jesus brother in his gospel or in Acts. In fact, when Luke copied Mark 6:3 into his gospel, he omits the brothers and sisters of Jesus altogether. Already in 90 AD, there is a movement to downplay the siblings of Jesus in favor of a new, emerging theology.
How much of this you share will depend on your context and audience. I only plead that we hear James independently. Take him at his word. Hear him as a reflection of his brother, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine a Christianity based on Jesus’ teachings. What if we are hearing the thoughts of Jesus’ very own brother, who 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, was the leader of the movement that took his name?
A Series on James
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 said, “Do not strive for food the perishes, but for the food that endures 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 so much about food and clothing. Seek first the kingdom of God.
Finally Jesus revealed that he himself 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 endure 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 high christological rhetoric, to the epistle of straw as Luther calls it. On the other hand, maybe after five weeks of allegorical bread texts, people might be ready for something more straightforward. John is not interested in ethics, how to live a moral life, or how to be a disciple. He is proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, and life in his name.
James teaches us nothing about Jesus himself. James never states Jesus is the Son of God. He mentions Jesus only twice: Once introducing himself as a servant of God and “the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then in 2:1 where he rhetorically asks if his listeners truly believe in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” Glorious may be a euphemism for resurrected, but its vague. The rest of his letter is 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 we must be intentional about breathing gospel into sermons on the Epistle of James.
The epistle is in the form of a letter, though somewhat chaotically organized. It appears to not be an actual letter, to an actual church, but rather more of a general sermon for “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”
The first manuscripts we have of the Epistle of James date to the middle of the third century. Origen quotes and mentions James, but Origen was born in 184 A.D. There is an uncited quote in Irenaeus (b. 130) that could possibly be James. James 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. Luther stood squarely with Paul and his theology of justification over James’ salvation by works.
Luther is not entirely negative about James. He 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 James 1:17-27, our second reading for this Sunday 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 this sermon series or study on James. At that price, your whole Bible study group, or even your whole congregation could get it.
Gifts from the Father of Lights
The first two verses of this lesson are the end of a previous section. Even though James has an emphasis on good works in his book, there is grace as well. James recognizes that all good gifts around us, come from heaven above. We hear clear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:11: “How much more will your Father… give good gifts to those who ask him.” (This text also calls to my mind the Godspell song from my childhood, 1973? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXVuBaXvcd4).
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 a 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. Yet even when we do generous acts of love, this also comes from God, as do all good gifts.
Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger.
When you read this, you have to wonder: What happened? Even though this is a general letter, it seems to respond to some kind of problem. Perhaps there is anger in the church over divisions, which existed even among Jesus’ disciples. Early church divisions over Jewish and Greek polarities are well documented in the New Testament. What divisions exist in our church today? How do we respond?
Our anger will not produce God’s righteousness, James says. Welcome with meekness the implanted word, which alone has the power to save your soul. Again, notice that here the word is the active agent.
Be doers of this word, not just hearers. This reflects Jesus teaching on the word in Matthew 7:24-29. Those who hear the word are like one who builds a house on sand. Those who do the word, act on it, build their house on rock:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
James is worried about what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” Christianity as a philosophical idea, rather than a way of life. He has good reason to worry. 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. How might we practice this in our lives?
In verse 26 he 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:
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 (our Lutheran Social Services of the South). Their mission statement on the webpage (http://www.upbring.org), is about ending the cycle of child abuse. Their work encompasses adoption, foster care, residential care centers and more.
What’s your strategy for caring for widows in distress as an entire 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 is announced 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. In fact we can’t. It’s like telling a car to have more self-gas. The power of a car comes from beyond it. We can tap into them by being in relationship with God. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Everything good, everything beautiful.
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 then shall we engage the orphan, the widow, 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?
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. Let us be quick to listen.
How shall we 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 it suggest? How is God calling us to do the word this season?
How might 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 them to actually ask the questions together and come up with some answers, real answers that imply action? 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. Let them impact your mission, vision and strategic planning.
Invite people to trust God the gift-giver so fully, that they are free to be doers of the word.