The Epistle of James is an often overlooked letter in the preaching cycle. A few of my clergy friends were talking this week about how few sermons we had heard and given on the letter. I suppose the rarity is due to the opinions of some of the prominent figures in our church history who questioned whether the letter belonged in the canon of Scripture. Beginning with Eusebius and working its way through Martin Luther, some luminaries in the Church have wondered if the letter belonged. I expect James is ok with the slight. When speaking of James, it probably serves us well to consider his mindset. How many of us ever heard from our parents how they wished we were as smart as or as hard a worker as or as respectful as or as diligent or as clean or as whatever as our brother or sister? How many of us as parents have uttered those words? Now, imagine that you are the half brother of the son of God . . .
Part of the reason some in the Church were less than thrilled with the letter’s inclusion is its simplicity. All of us here know a bit about soteriology, christology, theology of other specialized areas of learning mostly because of Paul, John, and Peter. Both Paul and John especially spend significant ink and parchment teaching us about their understanding of God and His ways. James, on the other hand, spends very little time discussing such matters. His letter is easily broken down into a discourse of true religion, true faith, and true wisdom. There are other ways to break down the letter, to be sure, but all who study the letter tend to notice its total unremarkableness. James is less concerned about explaining the faith and engaging detractors than he is in making sure those to whom he writes live a life worthy of the call upon them. Put simply, James want Christ’s disciples to live a life worthy of His Lord and half-brother. It is not that James does not want us to be able to explain the whys and whats of our faith. He recognizes that our best witness to those outside the faith will come from how we live our lives.
If we are going to being to speak of good witness and amended behavior, we would do well to start, as does James, with the result of our faith. Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. How many times do we come into contact with people who claim to be Christian but are uninvolved serving others or in any kind of Christian community. Oh, to be sure, there are some walking wounded out there. There are people out there who have harmed by the Church. Some have been hurt terribly by “people of faith” and have every reason to want to keep their relationship with God more private. But far too many people use the Church’s mistreatment of others as an excuse to stay away. I don’t go to Church because they are a bunch of hypocrites. I worship God in my own way. I don’t need church to pray, to worship, to be saved, to be whatever purpose they think church serves. I don’t need to serve others because God says I need to take care of myself first.
Notice that James says that those who are not doers deceive themselves. He goes on to compare their behavior to narcissists. You and I have probably forgotten the story of Narcissus. Narcissus was a hunter in Greek mythology who was renowned for two things: his stunning good looks and his utter disdain for those he felt were unworthy of his looks. As with all those who became too proud, Narcissus attracted the attention the gods. In particular, he attracted the attention of Nemesis. So put off by Narcissus’ vanity was Nemesis that she caused him to stumble upon a still pool of water. In that pool of water he saw his handsome reflection and was smitten. So enamored of is reflection was Narcissus, that he languished by the pool gazing upon his striking reflection until he died of starvation. Talk about the ultimate self-deception! A hunter starved himself to death gazing at his own reflection.
James, of course, intentionally lumps hearers of the word (but not doers) with those who practice self-deception like Narcissus. For, like those who stare at their own reflection ever five minutes, hearers of the word are concerned with their own needs, their own comforts, their own lives. Such a mentality is reflected in their sentence structure. When’s the last time a hearer of the word started a sentence in your presence with “God does not want me in church” or “God does not want me serving others”? More than likely, their sentence focused on themselves. “I don’t want to worship with hypocrites.” “I don’t have the time to serve others.” “I’m too busy working on me to worry about others right now.” Their excuses are plausible, but they result in self deception and, following James selection of the myth of Narcissus, their own death.
James exhorts us to action. Those who follow a God who served us cannot help but implant a joy and thankfulness in our hearts and a desire to share that Good News. How do we best share that Good News with those whom we encounter? By serving them as He served us. By encouraging them when they are down, by tempering their enthusiasm when things are going well, and by teaching them more of the saving works He has done. In short, we are called to be doers. We are called to be a people who serve, who encourage, who exhort, who support, who mourn, and who do whatever is necessary to help others in their search for Christ who loved and served them.
It is certainly a weighty responsibility being called to worship and serve others that they might find themselves embraced by their loving Father in heaven. Notice, though, James goes on to remind us that we are not graded on our effectiveness. No. You and I are judged on our faithfulness and perseverance. Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing. We are blessed for doing, for acting. No matter how badly we might mess things up from our perspective, no matter how insignificant our work may seem by comparison to the problem we face, no matter how ill-equipped we might think we are for the work, James reminds us that our Lord cares only about our doing and our perseverance.
You see, and this is really important for us to remember, He has already accomplished the victory. You and I can add nothing to His work; better still, we cannot take anything away from His work. Ultimately, we cannot fail so long as we do. All we can really do is testify to His work. What better way to testify than by worshipping the Author of our salvation and by serving others in His name. How will people know we believe? By how we love each other, others, and Him. By our perseverance, even unto death, certain in the knowledge that He has redeemed all things and that we will live for ever with Him when He finally restores all things.
So, are you a hearer or a doer? What call is He placing upon your life right now that you are trying hard to ignore? What is He demanding of you that His name might be glorified? Are you being called to serve St. Alban’s in a new, unexpected way? Are you being called to become more active in the service of those imprisoned in slavery? Are you being called to serve in the jails? A shelter? To witness better in your family? Your workplace? Brothers and sisters, quit making excuses. Quit seeking to deceive yourselves. Follow where He calls you. He promises, promises, you will be blessed in the doing. . .