James 1:17-27, Deuteronomy 6:1-9
September 3, 2006
This is perhaps the most famous passage from the book of James. If we were to ask believers to tell us something they remember from James, most would probably say, “Be doers of the word.” And that’s good. Because that might be the most important thing he ever wrote. I think we should remember that when we think of James.
That was also the passage that got him into trouble – with Martin Luther of all people. Remember him? That “young upstart priest!” He didn’t like the book of James. He called it “an Epistle of straw!” In other words, it had no value. He said that because he felt that all James’ emphasis on “doing good” sounded too much like “works righteousness.” That means “trying to work our way into heaven.”
Luther didn’t like it when James wrote later in chapter 2, “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17) Luther said that the rest of the New Testament, most of which are Paul’s writings, were all about “faith righteousness.” He wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is a gift from God.” (Ephesians 2:8) Luther thought those two were in opposition. He was so adamant about this, that if you look in an early Luther Bible, you won’t find the book of James!
I think it’s a shame. Because I don’t think Paul would have any argument with James. If you put them in a room together, I don’t think it would have been a matter of them “fighting it out.” I think they would be in compete agreement! (They’d have a great time together!) Paul would be glad to echo the words of James, “Faith without works is dead.” And so would I!
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” he wrote. Oh, and by the way, be sure not to miss that last word. It doesn’t just say, “Be doers of the word and not hearers…” No. We are to be hearers, but not hearers only. So I’m sorry to say, you need to hear, too. But this is not just about me saying it and you hearing it. And folks, a lot of Christians think it is just that. They hear, but they don’t give much thought to actually doing. But James would tell us that this is all about us doing the word! And I’ll be the first to admit that that’s the hardest part of the Christian life. (Who’s going to join me?) It’s much easier just to hear. It’s much easier just to evaluate the message. “That was a good sermon. That makes good sense!” It’s easier to do that and then to leave and forget the whole thing, and live life “as usual.” We need to do more than just hear!
Think about this. When I was in High School, my favorite subject was (what do you think?) physics. And there are two reasons for that. First of all, my teacher was great, and he made learning fun. I’ll bet that’s a big reason why many of your favorite subjects were your favorite subjects! There’s a lot of in-spiration needed in edu-cation, isn’t there? But there’s another reason Physics was a favorite of mine. It was this.
In Math, we learned how to work with numbers. And I was fairly good at it. But frankly I would have rather been out playing baseball! I was a kid! I was a teenager!! But I liked getting out and doing things. But I also knew education was important, and I was starting to think about the future, and I knew Math was important to learn. So I took it in stride. But when it came to physics, all of a sudden a whole new world opened up for me!
Up until that time, I knew how to do the math, but all of a sudden math had meaning. Now, the workings of the world could be described in mathematical terms. We could explain and predict such things as motion, force, acceleration, gravity. This was amazing to me! And of course, we still had to use the math! We still had to use the formulas. But they came alive to me. They meant something. I could see them in the world around me. I could see them in the way things happened!
It’s the same with our faith – in a big way! It’s not enough just to learn the formulas. We need to see and to do the application of our faith! Luther would tell us “Formulas with out the Physics is just Math!” Faith without works is useless. Faith learning without faith living – is just learning. It’s all about the practice of faith, isn’t it? The learning helps us to live more Christ-like lives. That’s the whole point of learning!
This is always the challenge of Christian Education. Christian Ed. is great. Next week, we’re going to recognize and commission the Sunday School teachers. I hope you’ll be there to take part. They are the backbone of our congregation! In our passage from Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs us to talk about our faith, to teach it diligently to our children. We are to “talk about it when we rise up and when we go to sleep.” This is the great “Hear O Israel…” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) That is so important. We are to teach the faith. We are to learn the faith. But above all, we are to live what we learn! We are to do our faith! That’s the most important part. It’s like using the formulas in Physics. If it’s just the formulas, there’s no substance.
Somewhere the Church got sidetracked. As one of my favorite authors, John Eldredge put it, “Too many Christians have substituted knowing the right things for knowing God.” Too often people of faith think that “being a good Christian” means knowing and “believing in” the right things. But you can believe the right things without having a relationship with God, can’t you? Being a good Christian is about following Christ. As I said a few weeks ago, it is about continuing Jesus’ ministry.
Yes, we have to be “knowers of the word.” Absolutely! But we must do something with that knowledge. Or it’s useless! “It profits us nothing!” as Paul would say. We must be doers! And that is always the hard part. It’s much easier to retreat into knowledge and the doctrine of the faith than it is to live the faith!
James gives us an example of this in the second chapter. He says in verse 15, “if a brother or sister is in need, and you say to them “go in peace and be comforted, without meeting their need, what does it profit?” And that’s just one example. Think of the other ways that could apply to your life. How many times do you do things that are not pleasing to God? How many times do you fail to “take every thought captive to obey Christ?” How many times do you go along with the world’s attitude of “I can’t help who I am, or what I do, or what I think?”
We know in a congregation that we are to love and support one another in the body of Christ, even though we don’t have to agree with everyone. But how often do we fail to do so? How often do we hold onto our own opinions, and our own desires, and we hurt one another, and hurt the spirit of unity in the body of Christ? Remember Ephesians. That’s the book we just looked at for a couple of months. And unity was such a big part of that book. Are we just hearers of the message of Christian unity? Or are we doers of that message?
I know this is a big challenge. But I give it because I believe we have such amazing potential here. Patty and I both believe that. And at this Church we have something for everyone. But of course, not everything is for everybody. And that’s ok!!!! But we need to be thankful for what we have. Those who worship in one style may never like the other style. And that’s ok. But still we need to keep working on being accepting of one another. We need to keep working at being encouraging of one another. We need to keep working at upbuilding the body of Christ. That’s what we need to be about here. Otherwise, we might as well just pick out the church we like on television and just watch that! But that’s not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about sharing this life of faith with other believers!!
I’ll tell you another important thing about that. We need to be promoting the growth of the Holy Spirit among us. How do we do that? Think about it this way. As Christians we talk about the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Paul talks about “Christ in us, the hope of Glory.” What does that mean? Does that mean the spirit of God dwells in us when we feel it? Does it mean the spirit dwells in us when we are worthy? Think about it. Does that mean the spirit comes and goes? Does it mean the spirit comes in us only when we ask? Sometimes we think that, don’t we. For a lot of believers it seems as though we live this life apart from God until such time that we pray and God enters us again somehow. But that’s not what the Bible teaches us. The Bible teaches that God is with us (when?) always!
So what happens then during those times when we don’t feel his spirit? Is it that God has left us somehow? Or is it that we have forgotten, or sometimes even chosen to forget, his presence? It’s been suggested, and I think it’s true, that the times we feel God’s presence are the times we have chosen to surrender our lives to him. He has been with us always, but we feel him then because we have said, “God, help me to focus on you, not me. Help me to see more of you not myself.” When we can’t see any world but our own, we certainly cannot see God, can we. But he is always with us! We need to pause and recognize that.
So, be doers of the word, not hearers only. And be practical about it. Think of the ways you need to be doers of the word. In what ways do you need to be more Christ-like? Do you need to be less insistent and more gracious? Do you need to be less judgmental and more forgiving? Do you need to be less critical and more encouraging?
God’s spirit is right here in our midst. It is in you – right now! All you need do is focus on his spirit, and focus less on yourself. All you need do is surrender to him! You have all my every encouragement in doing so.
Eternal God, you are with us and your spirit is in our lives. Help us to focus on you. Help us to surrender to your will and your spirit. Inspire us to follow Christ in all we do. This we pray in his name, Amen.