Sermon notes for Proper 17
XV Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2018
Scripture: James 1:17-27
The sermon audio begins at 4:29.
Today we hear from the epistle of James in our second lesson. You may already be aware that this letter is one of those New Testament texts that has taken a steady amount of criticism over the centuries, with some folks even questioning its presence in the canon. Mostly these criticisms have not arisen from questions of authorship, which in comparison with some other texts of the New Testament, is relatively clear. The main arguments being whether the letter is the result of teachings collected by disciples after his death, or the direct work of James the Just of Jerusalem–a brother or other close relative of Jesus, and first bishop of the Jerusalem church, and “decider” of the Jerusalem council. The consensus is that the letter represents legitimate teachings of James, one way or the other.
Rather than questions of provenance, it is a question of theology that has prompted the most heated critiques. The book is too focused on morals–it’s legalistic, moralistic, focusses on works! It doesn’t mention Jesus enough!
As is often the case, I think those books or pages that we would most like to see torn out of the Bible–the passages we’d most like to see redacted with black ink like some top secret document–are often the very ones that we ought to spend some time in reflection about. I have some of those passages myself. Nothing in James is among them.
If it’s appropriate to use such language about books of the Bible or biblical authors, when it comes to the Epistle of James, I’m a fan.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, at least as I’ve read, the epistle echoes the words and teachings of Jesus more than any non-gospel text in the New Testament.
In any case, I think it’s a beautiful letter. And one that seems to have been composed for the benefit of the whole church–perhaps to help prepare people for baptism.
The collect for Proper 17 has a particular resonance with our epistle. Listen to it again, and consider the imagery that is used:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.Collect for Proper 17, Book of Common Prayer
Both begin with a statement about the origins of good things and gifts. In the collect, God is “the author and give of all good things,” while James says that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” it becomes clear that James isn’t saying that God gives all good things directly, but rather, that whatever is good, whatever goodness there is within people, whatever gifts they give, are dependent upon God. Generosity as a virtue and the gifts that we give come “down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
“Father of Lights” is a poetic reference to God with an interesting history. It’s attested outside the canon of scripture in a book called The Apocalypse of Moses. This demonstrates that James wasn’t manufacturing a poetic image to refer to God, but was rather using a term that the recipients of his letter, or those he was speaking to would likely have understood. The description bears some unpacking.
In calling God “the Father of Lights,” James is drawing our attention to God as creator, specifically as the one who placed all the “lights,” i.e. the celestial bodies–Sun, Moon, stars, planets, etc.–in their places and courses. But while these marvelous gifts of God to humanity and all of creation change–they wax and wane with the seasons–their origin, “The Father of Lights,” does not, for in God there are no “phases,” no times of lesser light, no “variation or shadow due to change,” or as the King James put it, in a way slightly more evocative of heavenly bodies, “neither shadow of turning.”
This poetic imagery undergirds and supports the insight that every good thing has its beginning and origin in God–everything, including the good that we do. The fact that this is a foundational premise of James’ entire letter puts paid to the idea that the letter forwards some sort of works righteousness. Instead, the letter is a reflection on how we can engage in those works through the power of God in us.
James does want us to understand that a lack of those good things and good works–is indeed indicative of problems we need to be aware of. It’s indicative of the fact that we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are, and that we might be depending upon ourselves rather than on God. James does indeed say–as we will hear next week–that faith without works is dead, but it’s dead insofar as we have not experienced the life that God gives us in Christ.
Consider, James begins by telling us that all good things find their beginning and origin in God, and then moves directly into talking about how this connects with our lives of faith. “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” (James 1:18). This passage leads some scholars to propose that the letter may have been composed as part of an effort at catechizing people, with this section highlighting the effects of Baptism. God has given us new birth by the word, by the waters of baptism, by the gospel.
And just as God enlivened the first creation by the Word, so too we are new creations by the Word. If we’ve been made new and–to quote Paul who is unfortunately and inappropriately held up as a counter example to James–it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that new life will bear fruit, both individually and corporately. It is from this fundamental stance of God’s gifts and graces that James moves into the expectations for those who would follow Jesus: “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” (James 1:19-20).
Our anger–like any work motivated or empowered only from ourselves–cannot produce the righteousness of God, because everything that is good comes from God. So, when James writes that in order to be faithful, we must rid ourselves “of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,” he recognizes that there is only one means by which we can accomplish this, by welcoming “with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls” (James 1:21).
I hope that by now you can see that, while James may not write Jesus’ name all that often in his letter to the Church, Jesus is all over what he’s writing. Christ the Word is fundamental to and presumed by everything that James is telling us.
Because of this, when James writes “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” the actions he’s describing are actions that have their origin in the Word of God, which are empowered by the Word in us. We’re utterly dependent.
But if this is the case, how do any of us who claim to follow Jesus end up stumbling? How can we fail to do what we’re called to do if indeed it is Christ who is doing it through us? Does that mean that Christ has somehow failed? Not at all. James gives us a way to consider these failings:
“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” (James 1:23-24).
When we forget who we are and whose we are, when we turn away from the one who is reshaping us in his image, then it’s like looking in a mirror and not recognizing ourselves. We’ve forgotten something fundamental to who we are: that we belong to God and Christ dwells within us. To counter this, when we struggle with intellectual assent to the faith, or emotional excitement about our faith, we can instead look into “the perfect law, the law of liberty,” and imitate the actions of Christ in his earthly ministry, and in being reminded what and who we ought to look like, we can find the strength to “persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act” and we “will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:25).
Finally, James closes this section of his letter with a clear example of what being a doer rather than simply a hearer would look like, writing that “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). Briefly, imitate Jesus as best you can, and trust in God to do the rest.
We know that we would not long be able to carry on with such imitation on our own power. And I believe James knew this. I believe he never expected that we would be carrying on under our own power, because every good thing is from God, and while we might vary and change, while our faith may wax and wane, God’s faith in us never does–for in him there is no variation or variation due to change.
Considering this, when we find ourselves at a loss, when we don’t know how we can continue, we find ourselves back at the insight so central to todays collect, and we can pray:
Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; and with James, the Brother of the Lord, we pray this knowing that it can only come through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.