A reflection on our next sermon series
James is one of my favourite New Testament books. It is also surely one of the most controversial. The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, famously referred to it as the ‘Epistle of straw’, because at some points it seems to contradict the Apostle Paul’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’ as the means of salvation. Debate still rages in scholarly circles as to the authorship, date and location of its writing. Some historians have even challenged the notion that it is a ‘Christian’ document at all, because of the traditional Jewish language, content and literary style that it contains. But as intriguing as some of these controversies are, I think the main reason I love James so much is that he sounds just like Jesus. Rather than mincing words, and skirting around the issues – he simply calls a spade a spade. And for those of us who would rather be called a ‘shovel’ – this can be pretty disconcerting indeed.
The Book of James begins with the following: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings”. The name ‘James’ is actually the Greek version of the name ‘Jacob’, so some scholars claim that the name James/Jacob is actually a literary device used to give the letter ‘patriarchal’ authority. Others claim that the author is none other than the brother of Jesus himself (Matthew 13:55). If the author was actually Jesus’ brother (which is a pretty exciting possibility), then this is probably one of the earliest Christian documents we have. Perhaps that’s why it sounds so much like Jesus – it was written by his brother!!
Initially the first chapter of the James’ Epistle can seem a bit all over the place. It almost reads like a collection of proverbs or wisdom sayings. But in many ways it is also like a table of contents for the rest of the letter. In chapter one James gives a general introduction on the importance of seeking Godly wisdom (vs 2-8), economic injustice and community life (vs 9-11), how to endure trials and temptations (vs 12-18), how to deal with anger (vs 19-21), the dangers of a loose tongue (vs 26), and caring for the vulnerable and marginalized – what he calls ‘true religion’ (vs 27). Throughout the rest of his letter, James revisits these themes with greater clarity and insight.
So – perhaps James is giving us a ‘Christianity for Dummies’ guide for all the believers who have been scattered throughout the world. Or – perhaps James is giving us an insight into the life of his brother that cuts through the theological imaginations and political agendas of the ‘church’. Either way – for James, ‘true religion’ is quite simple. It has nothing to do with the piety of the songs we sing, the doctrinal integrity of the church we attend, or the moral purity of the people we associate with. Rather, we are called to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).
How about we get ourselves some true religion here at Albert Street Uniting Church? Who’s with me?