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Sermon ~ Faith & Action

Content

James 2:1-10, 11-13, 14-17
Glengowrie Uniting Church
6 September 2015

Reading of Epistle James 2,1-17 (ISV): Do Not Show Partiality

1 My brothers,
do not let your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus, the Messiah, be tainted by favoritism.

2 Suppose a man wearing gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly,
and a poor man in dirty clothes also comes in.

3 If you give special attention to the man wearing fine clothes
and say, “Please take this seat,”
but you say to the poor man, “Stand over there” or “Sit on the floor at my feet,”
4 then you will have made false distinctions among yourselves
and will have judged from evil motives, will you not?

5 Listen, my dear brothers!
God has chosen the poor in the world to become rich in faith
and to be heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who keep on loving him,
has he not?

6 But you have humiliated the man who is poor.
Are not rich people the ones who oppress you and drag you into court?
7 Are not they the ones who blaspheme the noble Name by which you have been called?

8 Nevertheless,
you are doing the right thing if you obey the royal Law in keeping with the Scripture,
“You must love your neighbour as yourself.”

9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin
and will be convicted by the Law as violators.

10 For whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
11 For the one who said, “Never commit adultery,” also said, “Never murder.”
Now if you do not commit adultery, but you murder, you become a violator of the Law.

12 You must make it your habit to speak and act like people
who are going to be judged by the law of liberty.

13 For the one who has shown no mercy will be judged without mercy.
Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Faith is Shown by Actions

14 What good does it do, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith
but does not prove it with actions? This kind of faith cannot save him,
can it?

15 Suppose a brother or sister does not have any clothes or daily food
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! Stay warm and eat heartily.”
If you do not provide for their bodily needs, what good does it do?

17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it does not prove itself with actions, is dead.

 

1.

I could not resist looking more closely into our sermon text today: The rich and the poor! It is just so much a topic in the public media and all around us, and increasingly also in the individual lives of many people: Can we still afford how we live and who we are?

If we look around us, perhaps not yet so much here in Adelaide but in other major cities in Australia and around the world, people these days don’t seem to mind showing off their wealth in posh cars, fancy clothes, expensive restaurants, and huge mansions. And walking at night through the city centre, even in Rundle Mall, you see more and more people sleeping on benches, in front of shops or other places providing some shelter. We literally look down on them, perhaps feel sorry, perhaps drop them a coin, but most likely we walk past as quickly as possible.

Scots Church, of which I am a member and whose service I attend, is often visited by such “street people”. During the open-door times on weekdays between 10am and 3pm they are welcome like everybody else, in particular during winter. But often on a Sunday morning an unkempt man, perhaps slightly drunk, with his backpack over his shoulders, comes into church late and makes some heads turn. Nobody says anything at the time, but later on some of the elderly church members might invite the visitor to stay for coffee, which some may accept but rarely stay on. Scots, by the way, hosts a regional office for the street journal “The Big Issue” which is sold by homeless or impoverished people around the CBD …

 

2.

Unfortunately, the letter of James belongs to a number of least known texts in the New Testament. How many of you have read it? Perhaps not many, possibly because it is at the end of the biblical corpus and is considered by some to be one of the oldest books in the Bible (although other Biblical scholars claim it may be one of the earliest …). Whatever the reason, the letter by James is grouped amongst other letters by John, Peter and Jude as not Pauline but “Catholic”, i.e. addressing the whole of the Christian Church and not particular communities, and it is placed just before the Book of Revelation.

New Testament theologians don’t really know who the author, James, really was. Some claim he may have been the brother of Jesus (Mt 13,55) who played an important part in the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem (e.g. Acts 12:17f). According to the Roman historian Josephus he was killed by Jews in about 62 AD. If so, his letter would give us a rare glimpse into the life of the early Christian church. It would also explain the reference to many Jewish traditions still prevalent at his time. Others scholars argue, however, that the authorship could also indicate a group of people around the turn of the first century AD following the teachings of James, the brother of Jesus.

While addressed to early Christians around the world, the Twelve Tribes, the author(s) may have had in mind Christian converts from Judaism living near Palestine, in Syria and Egypt. The letter promotes two main themes: First, it threatens the rich, and praises the poor as God’s favoured people. It thus follows the Old Testament teaching and in particular the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5,3. Secondly, James insists that Christians must do good and not be content with a faith that produces no results. Here may be the third reason why the Letter of James is hardly known: for exactly this argument Martin Luther, my fellow-countryman, dismissed the letter as a “veritable epistle of straw”.

 

3.

“Given that”, James writes to his fellow Christians who still gather in a synagogue, given that a man of wealth and glamour joins you in your assembly, you would provide him with the best place and take care of all his wishes … wouldn’t you?, he asks rhetorically. At the same time, you would ignore or belittle the poor man who joins you as well. This ptochos, as James labels him, the really poor man, is thoroughly frightened and would prefer to hide himself, not to be seen, a beggar in tattered clothes. The Greek word used here to describe the poor man signifies the opposite of being wealthy, and not just for a peasant from the land but a person in extreme poverty.

So, there you have the case of two completely different people joining your worship service. They just come in, uninvited, but apparently both are known to you.

And by telling the poor man to hide in the corner or sit on the floor by my feet, James points his finger at us: “You have judged this poor man from evil motives”, he admonishes his congregation. And then he pulls out the hammer argument so well known throughout the times of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, ever since Moses: “You must love your neighbour as yourself.”

It is, as James emphasises, the “royal law”, supreme above all.

James clearly recalled here the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. Being asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied true to the tradition of Moses and the prophets (Mark 12,29-31):

“The most important [command] is,
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One,
and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

The second [command] is this:
‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’

No other commandment is greater than these.”

With just one line, “Love your neighbour as yourself”, James reminded his readers of these two core commandments of the teaching and the preaching of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, and of Jesus Christ and the Gospels.

In this debate with the Pharisees, Jesus links two important Biblical passages with the Great Command of Love:

The first is the famous “Sh’ma Yisrael”, one of the most important prayers or confessions of the Jewish faith, in Deuteronomy 6,4-5:

.אֶחָד יהוה ,אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה :יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמַע
Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai E
ad.
“Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”

 And every Jewish child learns the following lines (from Deuteronomy 6,6-9):

“Let these words that I’m commanding you today be always on your heart.

Teach them repeatedly to your children.
Talk about them while sitting in your house or walking on the road, and as you lie down or get up.

Tie them as reminders on your forearm, bind them on your forehead, and write them on the door frames of your house and on your gates.”

 

Following this confession, secondly, Jesus points us to the “Golden Rule” or the ethic of reciprocity:

“Love your neighbour like yourself!”

This command is inherent to virtually all religious and philosophical traditions and throughout all ages. In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Leviticus (chapter 19), the “neighbour” can be many different people: Your children, the stranger, the poor …

Not surprisingly, James refers back to what were the most important expressions of faith in his Jewish community AND for Jesus, his brother and teacher. At the same time, this rule reflects the most basic pattern of human life: A baby trusts her mother instinctively, and the mother will forever be connected to her own child. Love is the most personal form of a relationship and the most mysterious at the same time. While we can say, “I love you” what it really may be is beyond all words, but like the mother to its child, you show it in your deeds.

 

And at exactly this point James is challenging us. As the children of God, and those who profess that we love him, do we really express our faith in our daily way of life?

14 What good does it do, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not prove it with actions? This kind of faith cannot save him, can it?

15 Suppose a brother or sister does not have any clothes or daily food

16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! Stay warm and eat heartily.”
If you do not provide for their bodily needs, what good does it do?

17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it does not prove itself with actions, is dead.

This last line of our sermon text today has made the whole of James’ letter famous for Martin Luther’s verdict: It is an epistle of straw. For Luther it is faith alone that justifies us in the eyes of God.

However, it is not only Judaism that has always been a religion of action: Study of the Torah, worship service and good works belong together because without a thorough understanding of the Bible, worship service is a hollow ritual; and without being connected to prayer, the work of good deeds remains a superficial, if not egocentric, action. ((Schalom Ben-Chorin, Jüdische Ethik anhand der patristischen Perikopen: Jerusalemer Vorlesungen, 1983, p 8 <Google Books>))

Interestingly, at least in Germany, it was exactly those people we call pietists who were most concerned about the spiritual AND the social wellbeing of their neighbours. They created what we call now Diaconia, the Christian social service of charity, or what you in the Uniting Church of Australia call, amongst others, “Uniting Care”. In this they follow Jesus the preacher and healer who approached all people without any partiality.

And a final thought for today:

I don’t know how often you celebrate Holy Communion, but in the Lutheran Church that Liz, my wife attends, and myself occasionally, communion is distributed each Sunday. You may recall the words of Institution we use in the Evangelical churches, taken from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:

Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said,
‘This is my body which is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.’

In the same way also he took the cup, after supper,
saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

What do we remember of the life of Jesus? The forgiveness of sins in the Cross and Resurrection, or also what the people of Jesus’ time could not keep to themselves:

“He does everything well! He even makes deaf people hear and mute people talk!”   Amen.

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