Be doers of the Word
James 1: 17-27
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. Of his own will he gave birth to us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; or he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
A couple of weeks ago I remember commending Ken and Fiona for choosing, from the list of readings for that day from the Lectionary, a difficult passage on which to reflect - the story of David and Bathsheba from Samuel.
Well when looking through the choices for this week, I thought I’d take the easy option, avoiding the reading from the Song of Solomon, and honed in on the verses from the Letter of James. There were some phrases I recognised and full of ‘good’ things.
Of course, when you look at it in more depth it’s not as straightforward as it seemed to me at first but here goes.
There may be further reflections on James in the weeks to come so I must avoid stepping outside my verses but some background and context may be useful
The letter starts ‘From James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ: Greetings to all God’s people scattered over the whole world - but there seems to be agreement that this is addressed to the Jewish Christian diaspora of the early Church - so scattered outside of Israel.
It’s a collection of practical instructions - guiding them on their attitudes and conduct- on faith and wisdom, how it’s better to be poor than rich, pride and humility, not to judge others: on boasting, patience and prayer.
Today’s verses talk about testing and temptation but, perhaps most famously, or infamously for some, James focuses down on hearing and doing - accepting the word that God places in our hearts and then acting on it.
For some this is difficult because it implies that the promise that we are saved by faith alone is not enough there must be deeds as well.
Martin Luther in particular seems to have relegated James to a second tier of scripture largely because he was not an Apostle and he doesn’t mention Christ’s death and resurrection.
So who was James? We’ve met a James already this Summer with paths or ways of pilgrimage, Camino in Spanish, to Santiago de Compostela in North Western Spain. Sant Iago - Iago being James - Saint James. This is thought to be Saint James the Greater and was one of the 12 Apostles and the son of Zebedee and Salome.
Our James is thought to be the man known as James the Just and, whilst in some degree down played by Martin Luther, was likely to be the brother, or half brother, of Jesus and head of the Church in Jerusalem so became an apostle - and was described as a pillar by Peter - and may have witnessed Jesus’ resurrected body in the same way as Paul who also singles him out for mention and acknowledges his authority as leader of the church at ‘headquarters’ as it were.
It was probably written down in AD 45-48 - so possibly one of the earliest of the NT books.
So the context is of James writing to early Christians who would be converted Jews, well versed in the Old Testament scriptures but also well versed in the teachings and message of Jesus.
Talking about the Letter of James, John Calvin said that not everyone will cover all the ground - this is a letter to believers, albeit a diaspora, so James is picking up on issues and problems, correcting certain sins not necessarily all the fundamental beliefs. James would assume that these people had faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, even if they had not observed it themselves, and that ‘the perfect law, the law that gives freedom’ was not in the law of Moses rather that Jesus had fulfilled that law by obeying it himself.
The perfect law was the Word implanted in us by Christ- it’s the law of the love of Christ. But, by implication, the early Church needed guidance and correction - some things don’t change.
James explains who God is: the unchanging creator of all things - Verse 17 - “every good gift and every perfect present comes down from heaven”. God is truth and light and, implicitly, love. These were difficult times for these people and we could reflect that these are difficult times for the world now. James explains who God is but also, earlier in the chapter, who we are and how we are tempted by darkness and sin - but it is not God that creates that darkness and sin rather that we should have faith in facing up to evil and rejoice in it - Verse 12 says “Happy is the person who remains faithful under trials because when he succeeds in passing such a test he will receive as his reward the life which God has promised to those who love him” and verse 21 “Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts which is able to save you”.
So James teaches that we can be saved by the Word planted in our hearts and we simply need to have faith - but he goes on to say how the people in the early Church, and implicitly us, should behave.
We should listen.
Then he tells us what not to do:
1:19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
He explains that ‘“man’s anger does not achieve God’s righteous purpose”
Implicitly, we should instead seek to achieve God’s righteous purpose by listening and loving others, even our enemies, and then when we do speak we speak and act in a way that reflects what Jesus has taught us - love the Lord your God and love your neighbour - who is my neighbour and on and on.
We should not be hypocritical
There are messages here for those who think they are being properly religious and ‘good’
We should not just listen to the word without putting it into practice and James gives an analogy of looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you are and then going away and forgetting what you look like. Rather he says “who ever looks closely into the perfect law that sets people free, who keeps on paying attention to it and does not simply listen and forget it but puts it into practice - that person will be blessed by God in what he does” (verse 25)
So James introduces the concept of faith underpinned by deeds and he talks more about this in later chapters. But here he talks about putting faith into practice by taking “care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world”. Perhaps he was responding to specific issues of members of the Church not caring for widows and orphans but the message is clear.
For us, we should indeed be radically welcoming to all who seek the Lord and we should worship God and follow Jesus whilst also impacting on the world - as our vision and values would have it. But we should also take care to not be like the man looking in the mirror - we should live and mean those actions.
So we should live our lives in faith yes but our faith “implants’ in our very being actions that live out that faith
So as we come to the week ahead, let’s think how we can use the gifts that God has given us including love, peace, faith itself, grace, listening and prayer, saying once we have listened and then receiving a power divine.
So taking the words from the the song 'This little light of mine':
Monday, (He) Gave me the gift of love
Tuesday, Peace came from above
Wednesday, Told me to have more faith
Thursday, Gave me a little more grace
Friday, Told me to watch and pray
Saturday, Told me what to say
Sunday, Gave me the power divine
Every day, Every day