I’d like to begin by giving you a little bit of background on James, a book on which I don’t think I’ve ever preached in this congregation. So bear with me...
While we don’t know exactly, most mainstream scholars imagine James to be written in the 2nd century, most likely under the psueudonym “James” -- perhaps paying tribute to James the apostle (brother of John, son of Zebedee), or James the brother of Jesus, or James son of Alpheus -- we don’t know. The letter was addressed to the “12 tribes of the dispersion” -- that’s a reference to after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD and Christians were scattered all over the ancient world.
The book was almost always under critique because of its content...as to whether or not it should be included in the Bible! Luther definitely didn’t like it -- I’ll get to that in a second -- but it was under question long before Luther (Eusebius). It wasn’t added to the cannon (i.e. this shelf of books in the bible) until the 4th century, which is fascinating!
We might understand James best if we understand that James assumes the Christians living in the diaspora already knew/have the story of Jesus (mentioned only 2x). We can only imagine that James assumes those early Christians spread out all over the Mediterranean world already have the Gospels -- M, M, L, J, the epistles of Paul -- and therefore James is giving them -- not the basics, not a 101 class, but rather -- a more specific course in Christian living, a 300-level class.
There’s great stuff in James! We’ll only be here for 2 Sundays, but you should read it. James may be, however, seemingly problematic for Lutherans...which makes it even more interesting and drives home a unique feature to Luther-an theology:
Luther did not see all of scripture as equal. Some parts of the bible are more important than others! ...
We stand up, for example, only for the reading of the Gospels -- M, M, L or J. Luther elevated those higher than any other books in the whole bible (displayed differently on our shelf). And the Gospel of John, he lifted the highest because Jesus is most clearly described there as God...in the Gospel of John. Luther called the Gospel of John “the eagle”, because its view of Christ soars above the rest. Similarly, at the heart of Luther’s theology was Paul’s letter to the Romans. He lifted that higher than any other letter in the bible.
As to the letter of James, Luther called it the “epistle of straw”. It could be thrown out, as far as he was concerned. Straw was a reference to the manger scene. What did Mother Mary lay Jesus in? Straw is just the stuff you lay the baby Jesus down on; it wasn’t the baby Jesus. Epistle of straw. Get it? Epistle of bath water, not epistle of baby.
But, why? What is the book James missing, according to Luther? For Luther: the Old Testament was the law, and the New Testament was the freeing the world from the law with the Gospel, with the baby, born in a stable, killed on a cross and risen from a tomb. For Luther, the New Testament was freedom in Jesus Christ.
But James hardly mentions Jesus. James shakes a finger at us and tells us how to live. From our text today: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” All that does -- a Luther-an way to look at this -- is bury me and you in the law, in a command to take care of widows and orphans, and keep ourselves unstained by the world. That’s important stuff (about which we may talk about at a 300-level class), but it’s not core, it’s not Christ. It doesn’t tell me about what we learn in the 101 class: Christ frees me from my brokenness and my sin.
What do you think of all this? I’m so glad for James and for Luther because they both force us to wrestle with these ideas.
Maybe these are discussion or journaling questions for you this week. Maybe have some friends over and talk about this. Talk about this Luther-an faith: Do you believe and claim, like Brother Martin, that there is a hierarchy in scripture, that some books are more important than others? That some authors even contradict others? (You’ll see this with James vs. Paul -- Paul says we’re saved by grace through faith apart from our works, but James says, “Faith without works is dead.”) What do you think, people of God? Are you willing to be as bold as Luther? Did you know this about Luther? Great stuff to sit around and discuss over a beer.
Let’s get into this specific text a little more. “Be doers of the word,” James says, “and not merely hearers.” James shakes a finger at us. James calls us out.
You know, it’s not like Jesus didn’t do that too. I’m glad this book made the cut, although we do have to wrestle with it, and ring out some Gospel. But Jesus calls us out too. We saw this all this past year in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is always wanting us to mean well. Are our hearts in the right place? Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. Be doers of the word. This is a great challenge for us, but what a great gift too: to line up our actions to our understandings of scriptures. What do we see in the bible about how we treat the poor, the immigrant, the stranger...AND THEN how do we actually treat the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, the widow and the orphan? Do those line up? If they do, great! Here’s what I see in Scripture, and here’s how I live my life, here’s how I vote, here’s how I spend my money, here’s what I teach my children...
If they don’t, James says, it’s like we see something, and then we walk away and forget it. [pause]
I’ve gotta tell a Lois Hellberg story that’s always stuck with me as very James-ian:
Lois once told me a parable that she had heard, but as far as I’m concerned it’s her parable. She told me once:
“Imagine a little child who suddenly gets caught in the undertow and starts drowning out past the breakers. And there are two men who see this as they’re walking along on the beach. The first man (who is very capable of swimming) instead falls on his knees in the sand and starts praying, ‘Please God, don’t let that child drown!’ The second man yells and starts running into the water, ‘Goddamn it, that child is drowning!!’ Pounding through the waves to try to make a rescue...
“Now,” Lois asks me, “which of these two men took the Lord’s name in vain?” Or in terms of this text: which of these two is unstained by the world?
We are called to put the Word into action, to care for those in need. We might be a little (or a lot) uncouth, impolite and certainly imperfect doing this (cussing and running out into the waves), but is our heart in the right place? We don’t even know if the man successfully saved the child. We’re just called to try. James was inviting those early Christians, spread out all over the ancient world, pulled and tempted and lured by all kinds of forces and voices and vices, to try, to line up their words and actions.
This might be a hard word for us; it means risk and sacrifice, like a man pounding up against the powerful waves. I mean, who wants to go running out into the waves to save someone we don’t even know?
But sisters and brothers in Christ, don’t forget how this passage starts: Every generous act is from above, from God who gave birth to us, who has made us the first fruits of the whole creation. Even though we’re challenged here, we’re God’s beloved, children of God, cherished and held. And so our good works come -- not as a ploy to gain God’s favor -- but only as a response to God working in and through us. God works through you. And grace still abounds. AMEN.