I’d like you to remember that question. I’ll try to keep asking, to remind you and me. What if?
For the past several weeks, we’ve been hearing snippets from the biblical book we call the Letter of James. If you’re like me, you’ve listened during the reading, and maybe followed along on your service sheet insert, and then promptly forgotten what you had heard. It’s not that what the lesson said was so forgettable. But there aren’t many stories to stick with you, and only a couple of images that jump out, and basically there are a lot of sayings and bits of guidance that are fairly non-controversial. Nothing, really, for us to argue about. And not too many hooks to hang a sermon on.
But today we are finishing the Book of James, and so we need to go back and listen again, and pay attention, and ask “what if?” There are two really big “what ifs” about this book. What if it is actually the earliest text in the New Testament? And what if it really was written by the brother of Jesus himself?
Both of these questions have been heavily debated. Over the centuries, a lot of writers have said “no” to both questions, but some of the very best New Testament scholars right now are raising the questions again and trying out an answer of “yes.”[i] So we’ll try them out, too. How might it affect the way we think or the way we live if the answer were “yes”? What if this letter were actually the earliest text in the New Testament? What if it really was written by James, the brother of Jesus? What if?
The Letter of James has rather taken a beating throughout Christian history. Martin Luther was responsible for a major share of it in recent years, because he famously called this letter “the epistle of straw.” Apparently in a later edition of his work, he edited out that expression, and even praised the letter for the way it dealt with God’s law. But the phrase has stuck, anyway.
What was Luther’s problem with this epistle? Basically, it was because of the part of it we read a few weeks ago. James says this: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas. 2:18).
Remember that Martin Luther’s key theological insight was that human beings are justified, or saved, by God’s grace through faith, and not by anything they have done. Remember what Luther was reacting to: the church had developed a system of sacraments and indulgences that people were expected to use, engage in, and pay for, and by doing these things they would ensure their own salvation and even the salvation of loved ones who had already died. Luther saw these practices as abuses, and today we would say they evolved to maintain the power of the church hierarchy over the people. When Luther talked about “works,” those were the kinds of works he was getting at.
But like so many theological ideas, this one has been exaggerated. There’s an old joke that goes like this. You know, three clergy persons—a Roman Catholic priest, a rabbi, and a Lutheran pastor—found themselves in hell. And so they asked each other what they had done to get there. And the priest had had a secret love affair, and the rabbi had eaten pork. “But what did you do?” they asked the Lutheran. His answer: “I committed a good deed.”
This may sound like a long way of just saying that Luther had a hard time with James. But Luther’s influence has been profound. Luther built his own theological understanding on the epistles of St. Paul, with their strong insistence on God’s grace. Luther is not the only piece of this evolution by any means, but the point is that the western church has been a Pauline church pretty much since very early in the story. And because Luther and others set James’ letter against Paul’s theology of grace, James tended to get pushed to the side: “Oh, that’s the ‘works’ epistle.” In the 1928 Prayer Book, we heard only two snippets from James on a Sunday. Now we hear five. All in the same year—this one. So this is our chance to give James a chance.
It is true that James is urging his community to certain kinds of behavior, deeds, works. At the very beginning of his letter, he invites his listeners to ask God for wisdom, asking in faith. But that is as close as James gets to saying anything about what a believer is supposed to believe. Don’t be “double-minded,” a doubter tossed this way and that, he says, but he doesn’t then go on to tell us what a single-minded person would believe. James is not interested in doctrinal purity; James isn’t interested in litmus-tests of whether his listeners are orthodox or not. He is interested not in belief, but in faith. Faith isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s a way of life, a way of life in grace. And much of the rest of the letter is James spelling out some implications of that understanding. Faith is a way of life, and our behavior reveals what our faith really is.
What are the behaviors James talks about? Here are a few:
“Beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness…Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…”
Do you remember the story James tells about how a person wearing gold finery is received in an assembly, versus a poor person in dirty clothes? Do you make a fuss over the rich person and ignore the poor? “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters,” says James. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?…You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
(Let me add that having arrived here about 7:30 this morning and walking through the breakfast in your parish hall, it appears to me that the people of this parish have heard that part of James’s message!)
Another section discusses the dangers of a loose tongue, and the perils of being a teacher (or a preacher, for that matter!). James urges his listeners to avoid envy and selfish ambition, because they lead to disorder, and urges them to receive the heavenly wisdom that leads to a willingness to yield, to peace and gentleness, mercy, and good fruits.
And finally, today, he speaks of prayer: songs of praise when you’re cheerful, the prayers of community representatives over the sick. He speaks of forgiving sins as a means of healing. He urges his brothers and sisters to confess their sins to one another and pray for one another, because the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective.
Nothing in there about an individual’s relationship to Jesus. Nothing about Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, in the whole letter, Jesus is only mentioned twice. Instead, James calls on his community to be God’s “friends.” Friendship with God means turning away from all those behaviors that come from our human craving to be first, to be best, to be comfortable, to be strong. In fact, it means turning away from the behaviors that tear a community apart. Instead, James calls on his community as a community to trust, to have faith, in God’s mercy, and embrace life.
So what if? What if this strange letter was really written by Jesus’ brother James? And what if it really was the oldest text in the New Testament? What might that mean for us today?
I will take a bit of a risk here, and suggest that many of us are nervous about whether we really believe, whether we believe right, and how much it matters one way or the other. Where do you stand, for example, on the Virgin Birth? How about Jesus walking on water? OK, let’s name it: how about the Resurrection itself? Our secret answers to those questions probably range across a very broad spectrum. We say things like, “Well, it depends on what you mean by this or that.” Or we become defensive and turn away from the conversation because we don’t want to offend, or we don’t want to upset ourselves.
So what if James, the brother of Jesus, really wrote this letter, this letter that doesn’t get into any of those things at all? What if this was really a very, very early expression of what it means to be a community that is faithful to the Lord Jesus? What if believing the right things, or believing the right way wasn’t all that important, but caring for the poor and others in distress was? What if our Lord’s brother James is really describing for us the way of faith? Might that allow us to relax, maybe allow us to be more forgiving of one another, to be more generous with those less fortunate, more ready to assist the sick and the dying, more confident about telling the truth?
It’s an appealing question, this “what if?” Something to ponder. It’s an invitation to listen to someone who has left us a practical and manageable guideline for a community’s life in faith. It’s an invitation to listen to someone who knew Jesus intimately, personally. It’s an invitation to listen to one of the people who knew Jesus best.
[i] See William F. Brosend, III, James & Jude (The New Cambridge Bible Commentary), Cambridge, 2004.