A right strawy epistle!
Well that was what Martin Luther thought of James.
But this week I'm going to go with the reading from it (James 1: 17-27) as my main text.
Some of you might groan at that – you may agree with Luther that James is just a list of suggestions of things that Christians should or should not do, that doesn’t add much to our understanding of what it means to be loved by God. Others of you might be quietly cheering inside: at last a sermon full of practical advice about how to follow Jesus, how to actually live our lives, tips for what to do and what not to do, uncluttered by too much questioning of who Jesus was.
I have bad news for you, whichever camp you fall into – I think James is determined to hold together both the theological understanding of Jesus and the practical outworking of discipleship.
Luther’s difficulty with James’ letter was that he felt that in James’ insistence on the importance of works rather than faith alone, he was in danger of supporting the idea that human beings can earn or deserve the love of God. For Luther the message of grace was vital – the love of God reaching out to all of humankind to embrace and to change us.
Even today’s verses from James’ letter are open to question. ‘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.’.
So is James saying that what we believe is unimportant and that we should pay more attention to what we do?
I don’t think so.
Today’s passage began with 'every generous act of giving, every perfect gift is from above'. The starting point for James is the gracious generosity of God, and not the activities of human beings at all.
And did you notice that he isn’t just saying ‘everything we have comes from God – every gift is from God’ – James says ‘every act of giving is from God’. Even when we think we are acting on our own initiative, from our own generosity or because of our own goodness, we are actually acting as agents of God.
I love this idea that we live as creatures of grace. The more open we are to receiving God’s love, the more loving we can become. Love isn’t something we achieve be gritting out teeth and trying really hard – it is a free gift of God. I’m sure Luther thoroughly approved of that bit of the letter!
But – and you just knew there had to be a but, didn’t you - James doesn't let us get away with sitting back and letting God do all the work. He makes it clear that we should 'be doers of the word, not simply hearers of it'. So James makes it clear ‘be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’.
There is no place in James’ teaching for trying to get away with bad behaviour because God is going to love and forgive us anyway. We receive God’s grace.. and so we’d better behave like God’s people.
But just in case this starts to sound like pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps, James tells his readers ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.
We’re back to relying on the grace and power of God to change us into the people God has created us to be. The life of a follower of Christ is not meant to be a horrendous effort to live in a way that won’t disappoint God – it is meant to be a grace-filled dance, made possible by God’s spirit within us.
Jesus seemed to have to spend a lot of his time trying to teach people this. We’ve heard one of those episodes from Mark’s gospel today.
The Pharisees – who far from being the pantomime villains we sometimes paint them as, were actually very concerned with trying to live good, God-filled, faithful lives – question Jesus. Why don’t your followers follow the ritual of washing their hands before they eat ?
Jesus calls the crowd to him – he has something important to say – and says ‘there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile’. There’s actually an important bit left out of the lectionary reading, where immediately after Jesus says this he leaves the crowd and enters a house and the disciples ask him to explain the parable. Then and only then do we get the explanation ‘it is what comes out of a person that defiles, for it is from within that evil intentions come’. This is a parable – it is a saying of Jesus to be chewed over.
So Jesus leaves the crowd pondering what constitutes right behaviour – keeping yourself free of contamination from outside, or watching out for what comes out of you. Is Jesus just talking about washing, or is he talking about the contrast between trying to be good, trying to act like we should, and getting our hearts right.
And what can make your heart right, what can make you full of love and not hate, full of generosity not selfishness, full of kindness, not wickedness?
If we go back to James, he would say ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’. Only God’s love can change hearts. Only the grace of God can so fill us with love that love spills out of us in all that we say and do.
‘Be doers of the word, not simply hearers of it'.
Allow yourself to bask in God’s love for you – come and receive his love shown in Christ in this bread and wine – and strengthened with the food of your pilgrimage become more fully the creature of grace and the child of love that God created you to be.
Through God’s power and to God’s glory. Amen.