I’m going to talk today about the Epistle of James. This New Testament book is important to me because, hey, it has the same name as me, and I can guess that James is my long term namesake. You have heard me mention before about my love of history, and there is some interesting history concerning this man James who probably wrote this book. We have for the past 5 weeks and finishing up today read our 2nd lectionary reading from the book of James, and I thought I would tell you more about this book, this person James, and why he is important to the Christian Church and to us today.
Who was this James? The author of the Epistle of James identifies himself in the opening verse of the book as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ". Even though there is confusion about the author, from the middle of the third century, most scholars have cited this book as written by James the Just, a relative of Jesus and who became the firstBishop of Jerusalem. Although he is not believed to be one of the Twelve Apostles, James is believed to be the first of the Seventy Disciples.
Paul met with James during his first visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion and again perhaps eighteen years after his conversion. At that time James gave to Paul and Barnabas "the right hand of fellowship," comfirming Paul’s role as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul said that James and Peter had the responsibility for the leadership of the Jewish believers, and refers to James and Peter as the "pillars of the Jerusalem church". In Acts 15 James supported Paul's view on how to incorporate Gentile believers into the church. In Acts 21, James also met with Paul during his visit to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, and advised him to take steps to appease those Jewish believers who were "zealous for the Law" and suspicious of Paul. [Just a note--We actually are reading and studying about Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and James in our bible study of the Acts of the Apostles on Wednesday mornings.]
Some early church historians go further and point to the writer of this book as actually being James, the half-brother of Jesus. This James is first mentioned as coming with his mother and his other brothers to meet Jesus as He was preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth; He was rejected in his hometown, even by his family. After Jesus had risen from the dead, He appeared to a number of people. One of those appearances was to James, His unbelieving half-brother. James saw the evidence of the resurrection, and he was confronted by the risen Christ. This is what turned James into a believer. Over the course of the next several years, James rose to prominence as a leader within the Jerusalem church, along with Peter. As James wrote this epistle to the Israelites who were scattered among the nations, he did so as one of the leaders of the entire Christian church.
Some scholars believe that this book of James was written as early as 45-50 A.D., making it one of the first New Testament books to be written. It contains no mention of Gentile believers or the controversy that eventually arose in the church concerning Gentile Christians and the Law. So it was possibly written before this had become an issue in the church. The first of Paul’s missionary journeys would not yet have taken place and the church was made up almost entirely of either Jews or Jewish proselytes -- Gentiles who had undergone circumcision and who had become Jewish. If you read the full book of James, he does not once say that he is quoting the words of Jesus. This may have been because his readers were not familiar with the Sermon on the Mount or with any of the other sayings of Jesus. It is entirely possible that James is written before any of the other Gospel accounts had been composed. The stories of Jesus had up to this time been circulated only by word of mouth.
James was called "the Just" because of his preaching about and living a life of righteousness and piety. His writing is described as: “The Common Sense of Christianity”, or “Christian Morality in and out of the Church”. The Message introduction to the book of James says: “When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does.” James in his writings provides help for the early churches in openly confronting, diagnosing and dealing with misbelief and misbehavior. This book is very popular due to its down-to-earth teachings, and there is much we can learn from it. This book is not really profound theology, but rather it provides moral commentary for Christian living.
The book of James is basically an ancient sermon, of the varied and conversational kind popular in the early church. His appeal in James 1:22 is, "Obey the message; do not merely listen to it". The people are in a sense listening to a sermon in church, and are told to act on what they hear.
The overall message of the book of James is that faith must include a living reality. James writes that faith cannot exist without works. Many people have misunderstood James to say that he contradicts the teachings of Paul -- that he is teaching a gospel of works for salvation. But James does not teach works for salvation. He teaches works WITH salvation.
In the previous readings from James the past 4 weeks, listen to these messages he presented on Christian living: (Let’s just say many of these hit really close to home with me.)
1) Every gift comes from God. We are given new birth and are connected to Christ as “first fruits of God’s creation”. This gives us our basis in dealing with others; we are to be slow to anger, and resist evil and sordid behavior. We are to be doers of the word and not just hearers. And, our true faith requires us to care for others in need.
2) True believers in Christ should show no partiality to those who have power and riches in the world. We are to love our neighbors in fulfillment of the scriptures. And, it is by our actions that our faith is manifested in the world.
3) Live in a manner that is acceptable to God. It is very difficult to keep our words in check; our tongue needs to be controlled as it shows our entire human nature.
4) In community, true wisdom is pure and peaceable, and has no partiality or hypocrisy. It is shown through living a good life with “works” done with gentleness born of wisdom. This wisdom will yield the fruits of serenity, mercy, kindness, and the assurance of God’s presence in our lives if we seek it.
In all of this message the overriding great lesson which James teaches us as Christians is patience: patience in trial, patience in good works, patience under provocation, patience under oppression, patience under persecution, and patient prayer. His own grounding for all of this patience was his belief that the coming of the Lord was near.
Looking at our James reading from today in Chapter 5, he talks about how a Christian community should act together in faith. A congregation should be committed to sharing each other's burdens and joys. Previously, James has talked about a community where class and poverty do not divide disciples; here, he applies the same logic to grief and illness and sin. If one member is sick, the whole congregation is weaker. Anyone who is afflicted should feel confident to ask for help from their neighbors, and the congregation's leaders will pray on their behalf and treat them with oil in the name of the Lord. (Hey, this is something we actually do the 3rd Sunday of each month with our healing service.)
This next part is tricky to carry out, but was very important to James. He writes that the Christian community should have a high enough degree of mutual trust with each other to confess their sins to one another. James considers this very important to the kind of common life he proposes for all Christians. Secret sins hurt our souls, but they also hurt our relationships with others. The more fully we can trust others with even our painful failings, the more readily we can share with them in the forgiveness that releases us from the power our sins hold over us.
James writes that our faithful solidarity and sharing are effective in remedying our weaknesses. This is true in plain, common-sense ways; we care for one another by paying attention to the symptoms of illness, by providing resources for health, by guarding against irresistible temptations, and by living up to each others' high expectations of us.
Most congregations in the past 2000 years have not been as fully transformed as James would hope for them -- but rather than writing off this reading as unrealistic or impractical, we would do well to work with the kinds of community practices James proposes. As a Total Common Ministry community we have a unique opportunity based on our model of operation to not be hung up or locked into a hierarchy of ministry that leaves most/all of this to our clergy to carry out. We should think of everyone in our entire church community as being equals in terms of our Baptism and our common call as Christians, whatever our roles here are. This means being as open and listening to each other as possible, figuring out how we can truly be supportive to each other as we deal with all that our everyday lives produce.
Let’s dedicate ourselves to doing more to be the Christian community that James talks about—we’ll all be better individuals for it, too! AMEN.