This month, our New Testament readings are from the letter of James. The entire letter of James may well be an essay or a series of sermon notes on the subject of ‘salvation’ and the endurance required to attain it. James is convinced that Christians live in a world full of trials or temptations and these constitute a genuine testing of one’s faith. For James, being a Christian is tough and we should expect life to be full of ups and downs. James is a challenging document full of the ethical implications of following Jesus Christ. James, for example, is very critical of the rich and those who speak falsely against their neighbour.
Martin Luther once said that James was the ‘Epistle of Straw’ for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it and back in the 16th Century the letter was found as a supplement in the English Bible. In fact, Luther had placed four books, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, all of which he considered to be ‘doubtful’ and so placed them at the very end of the New Testament.
Calvin in 1551, said that this letter contains nothing unworthy of an apostle of Christ. I quote, ‘it is indeed full of instruction on various subjects, the benefit of which extends to every part of the Christian life; for there are here remarkable passages on patience, prayer to God, humility, holy duties, the restraining of the tongue, the cultivation of peace, the repression of lusts, the contempt of the world, and the like.’
‘You must understand this,’ says James, ‘be careful what you say to one another – be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.’ James is very concerned about practical – as opposed to merely professed – religion. James tells us to ‘receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls’.
Surely, he is talking about humility, patience, being a good listener, being thoughtful and not over-hasty or jumping to conclusions.
He often compares the keeping of the law to looking in a mirror. The first man’s glance in the mirror has no effect on him because he goes away and forgets what he saw. The second man stays contemplating so that what he sees can take effect in his own life and ‘will be happy in all that he does’. It is not enough merely to know what the law is: only the one who practices the law truly attends to it. According to James, the Christian should look ‘into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act. The law of liberty means the ‘word of truth’ or the gospel.
This parable makes the same point as a story we are probably more familiar with from the gospel of Matthew in chapter 7 – that of the two men who built houses, one on sand and the other on rock. The house on sand has no firm foundations and falls with the first wind, but the house on the rock survives the storm. The contemplations of the second man lay down a strong base on which he builds his Christian life.
The ‘word’ that James speaks of refers to the ‘perfect law, the law of liberty.’ James interprets the law, following Jesus, emphasizing its moral requirements and treating the commandment for us to love each other as pre-eminent. The gospel must be read in terms of social and personal ethics. For James, Pure Religion is defined in ethical and not in ritual terms – ‘to care for orphans and widows’ is a common command in the OT and was practised with care in the community.
Going back to our passage for today we are put to the test – Who do we welcome? Who do we welcome – the rich in fine clothing or the poor in shabby clothing. For surely we are all equal in God’s eyes whatever we look like, wherever we live.
We must love our neighbour – that’s the Christian rule – Jesus says all who need help in any way are to be regarded as neighbours – often this is called the ‘royal law’ – the law of the Kingdom of God – the law that governs all other laws concerning human relationships.
The question this country (and others of course) is facing at the moment is ‘Do we welcome more refugees – those fleeing persecution in Syria? Do we accept people of other faiths to come to our country – Hungry and Slovakia think not!
Surely, We must love all in any kind of need. Full stop!
In our prayers today here and throughout the country and throughout the world, we pray for the thousands of refugees fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in Syria and other places – for all seeking asylum from troubled areas – for all escaping a vicious war with the Islamic State Militants – we pray for those who lost their lives in recent days especially the children found on the beach in Turkey – a horrendous scene from hell that has shocked the world.
I finish with words from James:
Let us too strive to be doers of the Word; to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. May God give us strength to receive with meekness the implanted word of God and to grow in humility and wisdom.