Sermon: Avril preaches to herself

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
19th of September, 2021

James 3:1-4:3, 7-8a

This morning we hear an extract from the Letter attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, and addressed to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,’ – the Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire. We first hear of James in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, when people are scoffing at the idea of Jesus being anyone special. ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?’ (Matt 13:55, also Mark 6:3) There are few references to James in the rest of the New Testament. Paul refers to him in his first letter to the Corinthians and in his letter to the Galatians. He is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter is released from prison by an angel and goes to the house of one of Jesus’ followers. Peter then says: ‘Tell this to James and to the believers’. (Acts 12:17) When Paul and Barnabas inform the Jerusalem church about their ministry to the Gentiles it is James who decides how these new Gentile followers of Jesus need to live. (Acts 15:19-20) Despite only being mentioned these few times, James is obviously a person of importance in the Jerusalem church.

From the History of the Church written by Eusebius in the fourth century we hear more of James. Eusebius quotes from a second century source:

Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time till our own has called the Righteous, for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people.[1]

Apparently the scribes and the Pharisees asked James to declare that Jesus was not the Christ. Everyone would believe James, they said, because of his well-known righteousness. But James instead stood on the parapet of the Temple and told the people that Jesus was now ‘sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and he will come on the clouds of Heaven’.[2] So the scribes and the Pharisees stoned him. As he died James prayed, ‘I beseech Thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing,’ and when they heard this the descendants of one of the priestly families called out for him to be saved. But James died and Eusebius says that many intelligent Jews believed that the siege of Jerusalem was punishment for his martyrdom.

This is the James to whom the letter is attributed. Martin Luther, as the pre-eminent Reformed theologian of salvation by grace alone, absolutely hated it. We are saved, Luther said, not by any works that we may or may not do, but purely and simply by the grace of God which we receive through faith. So Luther did not appreciate a letter that says, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. (James 2:17) Further, there is a surprising absence of Jesus in this letter. In the very first verse James describes himself as, ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1) and he later asks, ‘My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?’ (James 2:1). But there are no other mentions of Jesus, and no reference to his crucifixion and resurrection. James does make other mentions of ‘the Lord’ throughout his letter, but it is unclear whether he means the Lord Jesus Christ or the Lord God the Father. For Martin Luther, the value of books of the Bible was what they revealed of the good news of Jesus Christ, and reading James’ letter we see that it could have been written by a Jew who revered Jesus as a teacher of wisdom. It is no wonder that Luther described the letter as an epistle of straw.

I, of course, completely disagree with Martin Luther. I absolutely love the letter of James, with its demand that those who follow Jesus must live out their faith in their care for others. When James says: ‘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,’ I applaud loudly. (James 1:27) But then we come to today’s reading, and I must hang my head. James tells his readers: ‘the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy;’ and I confess that I am frequently not peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield. So in this Reflection I am preaching first to myself.

James’ letter is the only book of wisdom in the New Testament. The books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures are other examples of wisdom literature, books of wise sayings that taught people how to live, and in them we see the same sort of warnings about the dangers of conflicts and disputes, and the importance of gentleness. Proverbs tells us that ‘fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult’ (Proverbs 12:16); that ‘whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly’ (Proverbs 14:29); and that ‘a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1). Ecclesiastes says that ‘words spoken by the wise bring them favour, but the lips of fools consume them’. (Ecclesiastes 10:12). In the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus we are warned that ‘anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them’. (Ecclesiasticus 27:30) James is following wisdom tradition when he tells us about the ‘wisdom from above’ which puts aside disputes and conflicts.

In telling his readers to ‘show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’ James seems to be drawing directly on Jesus’ teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his followers: ‘I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matthew 5:22). The Apostle Paul also warned the Corinthians against ‘quarrelling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder’ (2 Corinthians 12:20). Christians are to be known by the love we show one another and our enemies. I do not know about you, but I frequently find it very difficult to put aside my anger and show love.

George Herbert, the seventeenth century poet and Anglican priest, wrote in his poem The Church-Porch:

Be calm in arguing; for fierceness makes
Errour a fault, and truth discourtesie.
Why should I feel another mans mistakes
More, then his sicknesses of povertie?
In Love I should: but anger is not love,
Nor wisdom neither: therefore gently move.

‘Anger is not love, nor wisdom neither’. I struggle every single day with my anger. I have a horrible suspicion that my eulogy will describe me as someone ‘who did not suffer fools gladly,’ which is the funeral euphemism for being a cantankerous git. How will I be able to show by my good life that my works are done with the gentleness born of wisdom? James’ answer is, of course, to turn to God: ‘if any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. (1:5) I know that I am certainly not capable of living peaceably and gently, of being willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy, in my own strength, but James assures us that with the help of God even that is possible. At the very least, I can pray for God’s help when I feel the anger that causes conflicts and disputes welling up in me.

Your besetting sin is probably different from mine; there are, after all, seven deadly sins. Wrath is only one of them. But whatever your own persistent fault might be, whether pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony or sloth, I suspect the solution is the same. ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,’ writes James. So let us do that; let us name the sin to which we are most prone and ask God to help us overcome it. In the name of the God who is always near us, just waiting for us to turn to Him. Amen.

[1] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, Penguin Books, London, 1989, p. 59.

[2] The History of the Church, p. 60.

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1 Response to Sermon: Avril preaches to herself

  1. Pingback: The wisdom from above (James 3; Pentecost 17B) – An Informed Faith

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