James 1:17 – 27: James’ Argument with Paul


A sermon preached on September 2nd, 2012 based upon James 1:17 – 27.  

Oftentimes people assume that the various books of the Bible, and the people who wrote them, are all pretty much in agreement with one another.  But that’s not really the case.  When I read the Bible, it often sounds to me that the various writers are arguing with one another.

That may sound like a disturbing notion, but part of why it disturbs us is because the word “arguing” generally strikes our ears as a rather un-Christian thing to do.   We figure arguing is something Christians shouldn’t do.  But arguing can be a good thing if it is gone about the right way.  James in his letter today gives some good advice when engaging in an argument:  “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Arguing at its best is a pursuit of truth.  It’s an ongoing process of putting forth opposing points of view that brings us closer to the truth.  Unfortunately in this world arguing too often isn’t about getting at the truth, but rather about winning the argument.  The presidential campaigns are a good example.   The arguments between the two candidates aren’t about pursuing truth, they’re about winning, and winning only.

So when we read the Bible, sometimes what we’re doing is listening in on an argument.   The various Gospel writers, for instance, are arguing over what happened when Jesus was among us, and in particular, what it all means.  One of the most overt arguments in the New Testament is one that took place between James and the Apostle Paul.

Next to Jesus, Paul has had more of an impact on how we understand Christianity than anybody else.  You may know his story.  He was a Pharisee, devoting his life to keeping the laws in the Torah, busting his butt to live a holy life.  When he heard the first Christians proclaiming that this guy named Jesus who had died on a cross was actually the messiah, the risen Lord, Paul took this to be blasphemy, so he did all he could to shut them up.   Then one day he encountered Jesus himself, alive, and instead of zapping Paul dead, which Paul figured at that moment was what he deserved, Jesus loved him, forgave him, and in fact called him into His ministry.  It was all extraordinary grace, a gift of love from God, and so grace became Paul’s big thing.

We can’t save ourselves, he realized, no matter how hard we try to keep the law.  We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  Sin has a hold of us too deeply.   In our depths we grapple with the dark power even when we look all clean and fresh on the outside.    But the good news for Paul was that the salvation that can never be won by works of the Law is given to us freely by the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, which we receive by faith.

We’ve been freed from the requirements of the Law.  Any attempt to try and justify our lives by our good works is misguided.

For Paul, if you truly encountered this amazing grace you would be so full of gratitude that in your freedom you would just naturally want to do what pleases God.  But your works wouldn’t be about earning God’s love; they would arise out of gratitude.  Paul’s insights about sin and grace have been at the heart of how Christianity came to be understood.

James was writing a little later than Paul.  Enough time had passed for the Church to settle in some, and as it did, the dynamic meaning of faith that Paul had in mine sometimes got lost.  People began to assume that if they simply believed the right things, well, that’s all that mattered.    James noticed that oftentimes the Christian community wasn’t looking a whole lot different from any of the world’s communities.   For instance, people were showing favoritism to the rich, and ignoring the poor and vulnerable.  They were giving rich people more attention and respect, as though the soul of a rich man were somehow more valuable than that of a poor man.

So James takes issue with Paul’s statement that we are saved by our faith and not by our works.  In one passage, he declares that faith alone can’t save you.  Faith without works, he said, is dead.  You’ve got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  You’ve got to care about the poor and vulnerable in this world.  You‘ve got to treat people equally.  You’ve got to watch your tongue and keep from saying mean things.  You’ve got to do more listening than talking.  If you’re not doing these sorts of things, it doesn’t matter how often you say you love Jesus.

Not counting the standard mention of Jesus Christ in the greeting at the beginning of his letter, James specifically mentions Jesus only one time. The impression you get from James is that he’s tired of hearing Jesus’ name thrown about as though that was all that mattered.  In his one reference to Jesus he says that if you show favoritism to the rich, then you can’t possibly believe in Jesus.  Believing in Jesus means nothing less than living the kind of life He lived.

This argument between Paul and James is a good one to have, because they sort of balance each other out.  James could have backed his argument up pointing to the time Jesus himself said that just because we call him, we shouldn’t think we’re necessarily headed to Kingdom of Heaven.  Nope, he said, you got to do the will of His Father.  But Paul could have found plenty of things Jesus aid to back up his argument, because Jesus’ parables tend to be just full of grace.

As much as James emphasizes what we’re supposed to do as Christians, grace isn’t altogether missing in what he has to say.  In fact, he’s got that exquisitely gracious line that began our reading:   “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”

Which is to say whenever any act of generosity occurs in this world, God is behind it.  Whenever someone, anyone, lives graciously in this world, they are being a sign of God’s presence.

In our Men’s group Friday we watched this short film that Len called my attention to called, “Change for a Dollar.”  In it, this homeless man who lives on the spare change people give him spends a whole day giving away all he has to people in need.  He buys a hot cup of coffee to a cold, homeless women.   He buys a flower that he gives to a man who has just had a fight with his wife in the Laundromat so he can go back inside and give it to her as a peace offering.  He gives matches to cold, homeless folks so they can start a fire by which to warm themselves.  He gives a dime to runaway teenage girl so she can call her Mom and tell her she wants to come home.  Quietly, without calling attention to himself, he goes about living in this world in a way that bears witness to the grace and reconciliation that Jesus brought into this world.  living graciously, bringing blessing and reconciliation to all he meets.

If you think about what James is saying about how every generous act of giving comes from the Father of lights, it’s kind of humbling for us Christians.   It means an atheist who is living with kindness and generosity might well be more of a sign of God’s presence than we are when we’re failing to live graciously with those our lives touch.

I’ve been told a number of times by people that I have a very hard job – even the hardest job.  They say this because I often listen to people as they tell me their troubles.  I appreciate the sentiment, but the truth is, I think you all have the harder job.  That is, if you realize that you’re ministers too.  Every Christian is called to ministry.  I’m called to a specialized ministry of word and sacrament, which means my primary setting is the Church itself.  You folks, though not perfect, are a pretty loving bunch in so far as you are trying to follow Jesus.  It makes it a pretty nice place to serve.

What is the setting of your ministry?  In your homes, yes, but large out there in the world.   This is a good topic for Labor Day Sunday.  For those of you who have jobs you go to out in the world, your work place is your primary setting.   It can be tough out there.   Brutal. It’s tough to be kind to people when they are playing hardball.  It’s not easy to be an agent of reconciliation when people are feuding all over the place.  It’s a struggle to live honestly, truthfully, keeping in mind what matters and what doesn’t in places where dishonesty is commonplace and getting ahead is the thing that matters.

I think James would agree with me about this.  He has that line in our lesson this morning about how when people listen to the word but don’t do it “they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”  We come to Church on Sunday to gaze into the mirror dimly, and in doing so catch a glimpse of who we really are.  We’re God’s beloved children, who God has set free that we may be in this world as those who can return good for evil, peace for hostility.  My job is to help you have a mirror moment.  You’re job is then to go out there in the world and remember who you are.   I get to spend more time by the mirror.  You are the ones with the challenge of going far from the mirror and needing to remember what it was you saw there.

In a few moments, you will come forward to gaze into the mirror that is found in the bread and the cup that reminds us of Jesus’ great love.  As James would say, rich and poor alike are invited to come on equal footing, and as Paul would say, we’re all sinners saved by grace, so again, we’re all together on the same level.  And having received such graciousness as Jesus offers us at this table, we go forth to live lives of generosity and grace.