Wednesday, July 20, 2011


James with Jimmy in July has now concluded!  Thanks to everybody for the great questions, comments, and insights over the past three weeks.  This has been a very holy study.

Yesterday we discussed James as a letter addressed to a community.  It is vital to remember that James was originally addressed to Christians gathered into groups, not to individuals.  Reading and studying the Bible on our own is necessary, but it must always be balanced by reading the scriptures in community.  In a community we hear different voices, our presuppositions are challenged, and we learn to grow closer to one another.  

With this in mind, read James 4:1-14.  Instead of reading "you," try reading "y'all."  Remember, this is addressed to a community.  (For more on this, read my blog post.)

Conflicts and disputes are a part of who we are as the church community.  We can almost breathe a sigh of relief after reading this in James: "Whew, we've been fighting for two thousand years.  Maybe our squabbles aren't so disastrous after all."  Right now, the Episcopal Church is conflicted concerning human sexuality.  But before that it was women's ordination, then the new Prayer Book, then Vietnam, then civil rights, then fundamentalism, then the Civil War, then....The list goes on and on.  

The bigger problem is when we let our conflicts and disputes take the place of who we are; that is, human beings created for worship of God.  At our best, and at our very core, God created us for worship.  When we are distracted, by theological or political squabbles or even by the more mundane, like video games or crossword puzzles, we lose our capacity to worship and serve.  One commentator on this passage writes, "Pursuit of pleasure leads not merely to indifference to religion but to downright hostility to God, destroying the capacity for worship and service." 

Now read James 4:11-12.  There are two images of "judgement" that I would like to offer.  The first is that of a judge in a courtroom.  The judge weighs the evidence and then sentences or punishes criminals.  I believe this is the kind of behavior we are to avoid in the Christian life.  Now take an image of a Justice of the Peace.  A JP has to discern truth, weigh the good against the bad in light of the community.  

As a Christian, I believe that we must "judge" this way all the time.  For this is the only way that we can ever say "I should do x and not y."  Without any sort of discernment, or "judgement," then all becomes relative.  Without a standard (which, for a Christian, is the life of Jesus), our lives are oscillate between loss of faith and loss of love.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why James Matters

I would like to make just one more comment on the rich and the poor in James.  Please read James 5:1-6.

Again, James doesn't hold back.  The rich are blamed for persecuting, even murdering, the poor.  Now remember, murder doesn't necessarily mean an act of violence.  Murder can also take place through neglect or privation.

This understanding of James is periodically emphasized in Christian thought.  Some Christians read this and think of sweat shops, child laborers, or slaves in our modern world.  I believe that this is an honest reading of the text.  In fact, Christians have been reading James like this for centuries.

The Rev. F.D. Maurice
During the worst abuses of the Britain's Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century, many Anglicans were horrified at the working conditions of the poor.  One priest, F.D. Maurice, was so incensed that he decided to form a school for these working class men so that they could receive a religious education.  The Working Men's College is still standing as a legacy to Maurice's vision that all of God's people should have access to Christian education.

Here is a long quote from Maurice that speaks to the heart of James 5.  His words were powerful in 1850, and they still ring true today:

“But if you accuse us of being idle, visionary dreamers who abhor statistics, we must plainly tell you that our object will be to deal with the commonplace details of human misery, to inquire not how the world may be cut into parallelograms, but how you and I may buy our coats without sinning against God, and abetting the destruction of our fellow creatures; to show how our little acts of inconsideration may cause far more physical and moral evil than great crimes; to point out a way in which habitual acts of deliberation and reflection upon our relations to our brethren may avert or relieve wretchedness, which grand charities, magnificent subscription-lists leave untouched or perhaps aggravate.”

– F.D. Maurice, Tracts on Christian Socialism, 1850.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Rich and the Poor

The line between the rich and the poor
C.S. Lewis once wrote, "If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity."  We need to keep this in mind as investigate what James has to say about money and faith.

Money is one of those topics that can stop a conversation or create awkward moments.  But Jesus wasn't afraid of talking about wealth, money, and faith, so neither should we.  Here are a few snippets from other parts of the New Testament:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth" (Matthew 6:19)
"Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor" (Luke 18:22)
"...but everything [the disciples] owned was held in common" (Acts 4:32)

Now read James 2:1-7.  You can click here to read it online.

The beginning of this passage emphasizes the glory of Jesus ("do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Christ?" [2:1]).  When we show greater respect to the rich, we are in fact opposing Jesus in all his glory.  The line between the rich and the poor is often very narrow (this picture is an amazing representation of that), but it is one of great importance.  When we care more for the wealthy part of the line, we oppose Christ.  When we care more for the poor, we are in fact living as Jesus himself lived.*

In the Kingdom of God, all these class distinctions should be flattened.  We might add another phrase to Paul's baptismal formula: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer rich or poor; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28, emphasized phrase mine).

Question for reflection: How can we, as a church community, show mutual love rather than partiality?

* I would like to make one theological point here.  God's extraordinary care for the poor is characteristic of God's behavior.  God cares for the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten.  In fact, in the great paradoxical nature of God, it is in the powerless that God's power is most vibrantly displayed.  This was shown on Good Friday, when God himself in Christ dies on a cross.  The most powerful being, in fact the Creator of all beings, surrenders power and is powerless.  From that powerlessness, we are made heirs of God's Kingdom on Easter morning.

This is why I believe Christianity is true.  All other worldly religions speak of a powerful god or gods that gather power from followers.  God in Christ is different.  God shows deference to the weak.  God gives life through death.  With these precepts in place, it is clear that no human could have constructed Christianity, for all humans want more power, wealth, and prestige.  Christianity is of God, because only God would dare dream of requiring us to be so vulnerable.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Faith and Works - Part 2

Excellent!  Let's move along to another discussion on faith and works.  Pull out your Bible again and read James 1:19-27.  Or, you can read it here.

Pretty stern stuff, huh?  Look at verse 22: "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."  Essentially, James is telling us that we need to walk the talk.  Remember, Christianity is not an intellectual endeavor or an academic pursuit.  Christianity is a lifestyle, and a radical one at that.

Now it is very easy to convince ourselves that what we are doing is right.  To counter this, James is holding up a mirror to our Christian discipleship.  Are we doers or hearers?  This is a severe and potentially disturbing question for self-reflection.  But then again, if we never ask ourselves the hard questions, we will never grow.

This is beautiful, but is it true religion?
Now take a look at verse 27.  The word "religion" here means "ceremonial observance" or "ritual worship."  In other words, true worship of God is taking care of the unprotected and forgotten.  Please note: "orphans and widows" are examples of who we should take care (that is, the poor and the lonely), not just technically orphans and widows.

This a stream of thought running throughout the Old Testament.  In Psalm 50 God asks, "Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?"  Also, check out Micah 6:6-8.  Click here to read it.  Time and again, we, as the people of God, are called to put our faith into action.  Faith is not enacted in churches or at worship services.  Faith comes alive when you assist the needy, remember the forgotten, and give to the poor.

Question for reflection: Where do you see opportunities to care for the widows and orphans?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Faith and Works - Part 1

Let's get started with the good stuff!

First of all, read James 2:14-26.  If you don't have a Bible near you, click here to read it online.

Abraham and Isaac
For starters, let's look at Abraham and Rahab.  The stories of Abraham are told in Genesis chapters 12 - 25.  Abraham is used as an example throughout the New Testament as the man who embodies righteousness and justification before God.  Rahab, on the other hand, was a prostitute.  You can read about her in Joshua chapters 2 - 5.  Even though she may not have been morally pure, she assisted the people of God in their quest to enter the promised land.  So by her works, she was a righteous woman.

Let's compare this with Paul.  Now on the surface, it appears that James and Paul disagree with one another.  Paul says, "Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:15).

But pay close attention: Paul abhors works of the law, not works in general.  Paul is simply arguing that justification before God does not come from ritual purity (circumcision, appointed sacrifices, etc.).

James takes this one step further.  Faith in Jesus Christ is only fruitful and alive when it produces good works of charity and trust in God.  For James, faith is not something you possess - it is something you do.

Question for reflection: Where have you seen works of charity enlivened by faith in Jesus?

Intro - The Nuts and Bolts

James with Jimmy in July has begun!

Here is a brief introduction to the book.  Enjoy!

1. Before we get too far, we need to ask ourselves "who is James?"  Now there a lot of James's running around in the New Testament.  James son of Zebedee, James son of Alphaeus, and James the Lord's brother.  Traditionally, James the Lord's brother was viewed as the author.  This probably is not the case, though, because it is hard to imagine a peasant from Galilee with the Greek language skills needed to pen this letter.  Essentially, we don't know who exactly wrote the book.  Don't fret!  Even though we do not know the identity of the author, we trust that the author was inspired by the Holy Spirit and wrote this letter for the benefit of the Christian community (that's me and you!).

2. Along those same lines, James is addressed to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (1:1).  Now the twelve tribes of Israel, as they are described in the Old Testament, had ceased to exist by this time.  The author most likely envisioned the Church as the continuing community of Israel.  In other words, he saw no distinction between Israel and the Church.  So by addressing the letter in this way, he is really addressing us, the community of Jesus followers.

3. James is unlike any other book in the New Testament.  If we were to classify its genre, we would probably say it is "Christian wisdom literature."  Rather than having an overarching story or narrative - or even one continuous stream of thought! - James is composed of a series of ethical and moral exhortations.  (See also the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 - 7).

Don't hesitate to post a question or a comment on this material!

The first lesson from James, Faith and Works, will come up in the next blog post.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Appetizer

Get it?

James with Jimmy in July starts in less than two weeks!  I'd like to whet everybody's appetite with a few brief remarks on the letter of James.

James is unlike the other epistles in the New Testament with its emphasis on ethical and moral purity.  These exhortations, however, take two forms, inward and outward.  "Pure religion" is "to care for orphans and widows in their distress" but also "to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27).

This epistle also describes faith differently from Paul and other New Testament texts.  For James, "faith without works is dead" (2:26).  Faith cannot save us if that faith is not enlivened and acted upon.

Compare this to both the letter to the Hebrews and to Paul.  "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1), and  "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).

Now I am not trying to say that for these three authors, faith in Jesus Christ is different.  What I am saying is that these three authors emphasize different parts of faith.  This should not be disconcerting, but rather heartening.  Faith is trust in God, the fruit of the forgiveness of our sins, as well as the inspiration to live holy lives.

I'll see you in July!