Text: James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
It’s a little bit ironic that the theme we are given to consider prayerfully today, right at the end of the season of summer vacation, is the dreary theme of work. We are invited by the collect, the Epistle, and the Gospel to reflect on how exactly a Christian disciple should be known in the world, what it is that should distinguish us or make us recognizable; and the answer is as clear as it is uncomfortable.
The Epistle of James has had an impact on the history of Christianity way out of scale to its small size. The whole letter weighs in at just five chapters, only four and a half pages in my bible and likely in yours, too. And yet the ideas in this little letter have been the source of contention and confusion almost since the moment they were written.
The reason for this is maybe a little hard to get, until you start reading this letter side by side with the letters that Paul wrote. If you do that you begin to see that there’s something of an argument going on between them, an argument about how Christian people should live in the world. And even though the argument itself took place just about two thousand years ago, the terms of us really affect us, here and now.
So I’m going to spend the next few Sundays, these five weeks out of a three-cycle that we hear from the Epistle of James, to look at that argument, and situate us in it. It’s important for us to remember and reflect on this basic disagreement that goes to the very beginnings of our faith, this difference of views not so much about the why, but about the so-what.
Let’s clear away one small obstacle at the very beginning. The Epistle of James was probably not written by someone named James. It was written by someone who disagreed with Paul, and who ascribed it to James—not either of the Jameses who were disciples of Jesus, but James the brother of Jesus, a person who became revered among the Christian community, particularly in Jerusalem.
In many ways the letter of James is a very Jewish document—a Jewish document of a particular type. It reads like other writings emerging from the Jewish community at the time, in a genre we now speak of as “wisdom literature”—writings that include some of the writings of the Apocrypha, the books in Hebrew tradition written at roughly the same time as the earliest Christian writings.
One of the critiques early commentators made of the letter of James was that it only mentions Jesus twice, once in the first line and once at the beginning of the second chapter, which we’ll hear next week. Much more emphasis is given to God the Father, the God the Jewish community would recognize as Yahweh, the God of Abraham.
But that’s really a detail. What’s not a detail is the theology of the letter. Because that’s where the argument really starts.
Paul has a very specific view about not just how Christianity works, but what it’s supposed to mean at the level of each individual Christian. For Paul the power and promise of Christianity was that it meant we no longer had to earn our way into God’s good graces by means of observing the laws of the covenant code. It meant that the expectation of observance—an expectation that had become a means by which the Jewish authorities exercised power over the people who only wanted to be right with God—was replaced by the gift of faith, and specifically faith in the redeeming work of Christ.
Most of us know that for Saint Paul the covenant of laws had been replaced by a covenant of faith. Things like the laws about diet and about the things that made you clean and unclean, all of that was water over the dam. All that mattered now was to understand, and to believe, that Jesus was the promised messiah of God, and that he had restored our relationship with God through the work of the cross.
But the author of James sees this idea as good only as far as it goes. We are still set in the world, and we are still actors in it. We don’t suddenly sit back because of Jesus and spend the rest of our lives in contemplation of the work of Jesus. Our lives are meant to have purpose, and the purpose of a Christian life is to bear the fruit of our faith in the works we do in the world.
It may seem like a small difference but a lot comes from it. There’s a very difficult and complicated history that comes from the idea of the works of faithful people. It doesn’t take long for the central idea of James’s epistle to become a bit convoluted, turned into the argument that our works gain us favor with God. We all know the critique Martin Luther leveled against that idea. But it’s not a fair reading of James to say that this little epistle is defending a doctrine of salvation by works.
It’s more to understand James as arguing that Christians are meant to be people of action, not contemplation (or at least not only contemplation). If our faith means anything at all, it should change us; and that change should bring about something from us. It should get us to get up and do good things in the world, to care for the people who are vulnerable and needy, to look after the people who are hurting.
Seen in this way, those of us who gather in church are not supposed to be here for our own comfort. We’re supposed to be here to equip ourselves for work. We’re supposed to be here to condition ourselves so deeply as people who live in gratitude to God that our acts, our work, our way of being in the world will be a reflexive, spontaneous act of praise.
We do this little bit by little bit. When we are children we are made to do good things, even when we might want to do otherwise. Our parents create opportunities for us to do good works and help us understand how those acts connect to the character they hope we will build in ourselves.
Eventually we take these tasks on for ourselves, even though it may not be because we want to; it may be to burnish our reputation, or strengthen our college application, or win the admiration of someone.
But in the end, as our faith deepens and shapes us, these things become, quite literally, second nature. We don’t even have to think about them; indeed, the less time spent thinking about them the better. They come out of us almost spontaneously, and if we really get it right even joyfully, because we begin to understand that our whole lives are meant to be lived as a response, a grateful response, to God’s love for us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty attracted to the contemplation idea. I love the idea of sitting back and thinking about all of this. The whole idea of the Christian faith is so compelling and so challenging that if you think about it even for a little bit you quickly find it’s worth thinking about a lot.
But the warning from James is that this just isn’t enough. The hallmark of Christian faith is meant to be something that has impact in the world where actions make change. God’s gift to us is our faith. Our response in return is to do the work in the world God needs done. Amen.