Introduction to James

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on September 6, 2015)

One of the greatest critiques of religion is hypocrisy– when someone doesn’t act in line with what they believe and teach.

I think the reason hypocrisy drives us all crazy is that we want faith in God to make a difference in how we live. Something inside us…I might even say, something God wove into us…something inside us just knows this is how it supposed to be. Faith in God ought to produce something useful in our lives today.

In the book of James, it’s summed up like this: “Faith without deeds is dead.”

For the next several months, we are going to immerse ourselves in the book of James. Today is an introduction to the whole book, and then we will take two Sundays on each chapter. We’re encouraging everyone to read the book of James regularly, asking God to give insight and application to your life; so before next week, read chapter 1. There will be an opportunity soon on Wednesday nights to gather with others and study and discuss James more in depth. We’re hoping this will be a helpful thing for our whole community to be letting these words shape us.

Steve Fawver was the one who suggested James as our focus.

There are several good reasons to look at this book right now in the life of our church. James is sort of like the New Testament version of the book of Proverbs–it gives a lot of practical wisdom about a whole variety of topics, things that we face day in and day out. Wisdom is a key theme of the book, and that’s something I’ve been praying for often this summer, as we try to find direction and unity as a church and a Yearly Meeting as we wrestle with our disagreements over human sexuality.

James gives challenging advice about how we use our words, how we speak about others. And in almost every verse is a strong care for the poor and neglected among us, calling us to match our faith in Jesus Christ with tangible care for “the least of these” that Jesus often taught about.

As with most parts of the bible, it’s not without its challenges. To our modern ears, it can sound harsh and in places joyless. But I think we’ll find a way through, a helpful way through. And I believe it has many things that we need, not least its emphasis on our faith being lived out with deeds, our lives being consistent with what we believe.

One of the things I realized as an adult is how important this issue of hypocrisy was in my dad’s faith journey.

I’m sure it affected me in many ways growing up. He worked at a large Baptist church, in charge of the newsletter and other publicity stuff. He saw a lot of things behind the scenes that were troubling to him, pastors not living up to what they taught. More than that, he told me at one point 15 or 20 years ago that until that point in his life, he had never seen someone live what they believed with integrity.

I remember that was deeply troubling to me, and it also made me appreciate that the experiences of my life were so vastly different. Not that I’ve lived around perfect people, but I have had so many examples of people of integrity in my life…people who showed me what it looks like to have the walk match the talk, to have deeds clearly expressing the faith they profess.

When people don’t have those experiences, it’s damaging. It’s like, as we will see in chapter 2, the ridiculousness of telling someone without food and clothes that you wish them well… “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed”…but without doing a thing tangibly to help. A faith that only lives in the head, that matters for eternity but not for how I act now, is not one that others want to embrace.

This is the challenge and the hope James puts before us: to live with integrity, so that following Jesus involves our head, heart AND our hands and feet.

Today, I want to give some background and an overview to this letter to serve as a starting point for our journey over the coming months.

For being a practical letter about wisdom and practicing what you preach, James has quite a bit of controversy around it. James is named as the author, with no other identifying details. That’s a problem, because the bible references at least 7 different people named James. Probably the biggest consensus of scholars is that the letter was written by the James who was in charge of the Jerusalem church, who may have been Jesus’ brother. A later editor, possibly from Antioch, got the letter into the final form that we have today.

It was one of the last books to be included in the New Testament, in part because several different heretical groups in the years of the early church loved to use it, and that made it suspicious to some in the orthodox church. Martin Luther, the one who started the Reformation in the early 1500’s, famously called James “the epistle of straw”. He saw it in tension with, and much inferior to, Paul’s letters.

Luther’s life changing message was discovered in Paul’s letters: God saves us by grace, not by the things we do. When Luther read James, he believed (mistakenly, I believe)… he believed it muddied the waters, making people think good works are what saves us.

It’s interesting that Luther saw conflict between the letter of James and Paul’s letters…because if we are right and the author James is the leader of the Jerusalem church, there’s evidence of conflict between the persons Paul and James as well. While Paul gives James a rightful place as one of the pillars of the church, there is evidence of strain. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells about men sent from James whom Paul confronts strongly, because they tried to make Gentile Christians observe the Jewish law.

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem near the end of his life, Acts chapter 21 tells us he is a controversial figure. Many Jewish Christians, as well as non-Christian Jews, are suspicious of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, believing incorrectly that Paul had illegally taken Gentiles into the temple area where they should not have been. So James and the other leaders encourage Paul to sort of mend the fences by asking Paul to take some purification vows that would show his Jewish holiness.

In one way, you could see this as James being a mediator; in another way, you could see it as James asking Paul to compromise his freedom in Christ so that others wouldn’t be angry.

It’s fascinating to me that the conflict between the persons Paul and James, as well as the writings of Paul and James, seem to still affect us today.

We have difficulty holding things in tension, holding on to paradox. Are right actions and good deeds a fruit of our faith in God, or a mistaken attempt to earn God’s favor? When is an emphasis on our behavior a legalism that kills, and when is it a proper expression of integrity with our beliefs?

I think our challenge is to recognize James and Paul can both be read in ways that crush us, or in ways that give us life. May we find life as we journey through this book of James!

I’d like to look at three of the major themes we are going to discover in James’ letter. Each of these themes are powerful and life changing…but they are not without their dark sides.  I’d like to highlight the themes and give us a heads up to the pitfalls, in hopes that we can avoid them.

The first major theme is summed up in the original Greek word “teleios”.

It’s a rich word, translated in many different ways: complete, perfect, pure, fullness, finished. It’s found in five places in the book of James, the first two showing up in chapter 1 verse 4: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” This is our goal as human beings: for God to work in our lives, maturing us, completing us, perfecting us.

It appears again in 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” This reminds us that this maturity, this completeness, this perfection comes as a gift from God.

In addition to this specific word teleios, there are also an abundance of words that have been modified with the prefix tel-, meaning full. All things–works, wisdom, faith, the law itself–all things are brought to fullness by God. Actions and faith are brought together in fullness and maturity.

Ralph Martin writes, “The ‘perfect person’ is one for whom there is no disparity between word and act, faith and works.” This fullness, this wholeness and perfection, is marked by integrity. It’s a singleminded, whole-hearted pure devotion to God. The opposite of this wholeness and fullness is the divided person or the double-minded person. James doesn’t mean by this a wishy-washy person, but rather someone who has divided loyalties. Maturity, wholeness, and perfection come when we singlemindedly pursue Christ, not let ourselves be distracted by pursuing many things.

This singleminded, wholeness idea really helps me with the down side of perfection.

Perfection or maturity is not defined in James as we sometimes think of it. James doesn’t see a list of activities, perfectly achieved, with no mistakes. James sees life and integrity and good works as a pursuit, a singleminded pursuit of Christ in which God brings about in us maturity and wholeness.

This is the beautiful goal! We’re meant to be whole. We’re meant to have lives that line up with God, with our faith. We’re meant to be mature and have integrity, with our walk matching our talk. I love this call to completeness, wholeness, to maturity! Keeping that focus helps us fight off the dark side of holiness or perfection, this fear of measuring up, this focus on legalism and fear of punishment. God is the giver of good gifts, James reminds us. God is the one bringing us to maturity and completeness.

There are these places in James where he writes about not being polluted by the world, where he warns of the dangers of friendship with the world. There’s a danger for us to bring our ideas of pollution by the world and read it into what James has written. So often in Christian culture today, sexuality seems to be “the thing” we see as pollution of the world. But here’s the deal: James doesn’t address sexuality at all in this letter.

The only exception is one reference to the commandment not to commit adultery, and it’s one of those exceptions that proves the rule. If you keep yourself from committing adultery, he writes in 2:11, but sin in other ways, you are still a lawbreaker. The focus just is not on sexuality at all.

So if you are ever tempted on our journey through James to apply this to issues we are facing with human sexuality, you are in danger of reading things back into James that James did not intend. As we will see with the third theme, James has something besides sexuality as his defining lens for how the world pollutes us.

Our whole minded pursuit of God does not require us to avoid contact with people. We keep ourselves unpolluted by the world when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.

The second major theme of James is wisdom.

There are so many clear connections with the Old Testament focus on wisdom. In James, like in Proverbs and other parts of the Old Testament, wisdom is a way of life; it is discernment. Wisdom helps us to act in line with how God wants us to act. Wisdom is far more than knowledge; it is direction from God that affects how we live rightly in the world.

James is under no illusion that wisdom, that living rightly, is easy or will be rewarded. In fact, it’s the opposite. There is much in here about the trials and the persecution we will face. To walk the way of wisdom leads us to challenges and struggles. There are temptations to an easier path that must be resisted, but in this journey of obedience and wisdom, we are finding God maturing us, perfecting us, completing us. Wisdom leads through these difficulties to maturity and wholeness.

And the best news comes right in the first chapter: wisdom is a gift from God, available for the asking. I’ve been claiming this one in prayer a lot over the last few months!

The last major theme is what one scholar calls “the piety of the poor”. 

I’ve read James several times in the last few weeks, and you cannot miss this when you read it all at once. James sees the rich and powerful as sources of great injustice and oppression, and holds up the poor and powerless as the ones whom God cares for…whom we should care for, too.

James is like the Old Testament prophet Amos. His filter for most things is how wealth corrupts and causes so many struggles in life. The book of James also has many close parallels with the book of Matthew, and especially the Sermon on the Mount which we studied through much of last year.

The dangers of wealth are highlighted, along with the desire of so many people even in the church to show favoritism toward the wealthy and influential. But James, like the prophets and like Jesus, champions the side of the poor, reminding us of how much oppression and hurt the rich bring to the world.

If there is a main “pollution” that the world brings, according to James; if there is one main danger to “friendship with the world” as James sees it…the pollution and the danger is to let ourselves be deceived into pursuing wealth, power and status in this world. That is the way of destruction, selfishness, quarreling, wars, and ultimately death.

Instead, God’s gift of wisdom says that our wholeness and maturity comes when we serve God by tangibly caring for the least of these, the widows and orphans and the poor. Our maturity and fullness come when we avoid showing favoritism and pursuing what the rich and powerful do, but rather when our faith works itself out with actions of love and justice for the marginalized.

These are the messages of James.

As we go on this journey, may God help us to be not just hearers of the words, but doers. As we go on this journey, may God grant us wisdom to know how to live with integrity, our actions matching our faith in Jesus. As we go on this journey, may the trials and struggles we face be met with perseverance, so that God can bring us to maturity and wholeness.

May it be!

One thought on “Introduction to James

  1. Pingback: Wisdom in Action | Gregg Koskela

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s