Back to Basics with James: What Do We Look Like?
All through September we're going to be working our way through the epistle of James. James is a great companion for this time of year, with all its newness and freshness and possibility, because he makes us do what we do at the beginning of a new season: he takes us back to the basics. James helps us brush up on stuff that might be familiar, stuff we might have been forgotten, and stuff we might well have been missed the first time around.
This past week, in the spirit of the season, I started auditing an intro to New Testament Greek class. I've already studied Greek once before. I have a transcript that says I know it. Now I just need the information. I'm kind of excited to be back in school, but the first class, I admit, wasn't the most scintillating. Because we learned the alphabet. Not only do I still remember the alphabet and how to write it and read it, but I did something I don't remember having done before: I did the readings ahead of the first class. So I knew all the stuff we were talking about.
Well, almost all. At one point, the professor said something that I don't recall having heard before, or just missed the first time around, that was really helpful and will immediately help my reading. So, although most of it was pure review for me (some of it was brand new for others) I'm really glad we had that class, took the time, and got the basics right. I think it's good for us as a community to do something similar every once in a while. And James is a great teacher. He says things a little differently than some of the other pastors in Scripture, which can help us hear more clearly what we're about.
So last week we began with the questions, "Who is God?" and "Who are we?" Briefly, James tells us, God is generous, relational, and faithful. If that's all we know of God, we're well on the right way. As for us, he says that we're to be "a kind of first fruits" of God's new season, a first glimpse of what's begun in Jesus. We're meant, together, to be a hint at what God is up to in the world and a promise of what's to come. Something about our life together points to God's dream for all things.
And because of who God is, and who we are by God's grace, James reminds us that we are a strange community. We're meant to be weird in the world. We're meant-- in our lives here together, and in our lives out there--to hold to a different kind of hope, to live according to a different kind of pattern. In short, we're meant to live in the will and way of Jesus, even when it causes friction with the culture around us. In fact, that friction is important. That friction is what sloughs off the rough and crusty bits that keep us from living beautifully for God; the muck that distorts the life God wants for us.
So this week we're asking, as a strange community "What should we look like?" What does it mean to live beautifully for God? What does it look like when God's glory and wonder, God's generosity, intimacy, and faithfulness come to life in our lives? What does it mean to bring to life, in our bodies, in this time and place, what we've come to know about who God is, and who we are?
In today's passage James tells us 1) that we are a people of grace, 2) that a congregation is part of God's boundary dissolving work, and 3) that at the heart of it all, at the core of who we are is mercy. These things add up to a beautiful life, with and for God.
When we live beautifully for God, we begin to mirror the way that God is, in and with the world; we reflect the love that we have received from God, into the world. You know why brides and grooms look so great on their wedding days? It's not the fancy clothes, or the professional make-up job. It's because they're in love. The day celebrates the love they share and they're allowed to be as affectionate and mushy and lovey-dovey as they want. And we get to bask in the glow. The very most basic claim of the Christian faith is that we are in a relationship of love with the most extraordinary Lover. And we get to indulge in that with unbridled passion. We don't need a special day. Our calling is to reflect the love of God back to God and out into the world God so-loves, whenever and wherever we are. And when we do, it's beautiful, immeasurably beautiful.
But of course, James reminds us that the way that God is beautiful is not necessarily what we have been trained to recognize as beauty. Let's not forget our strangeness! God seems to be at His most beautiful, in awfully surprising ways. God is radiant in outlandish promises to Abraham and Sarah, when they are well past the prime of their lives. God's beauty burns when Moses, a bumbling, cowardly murderer is chosen as the greatest of prophets. God is beautiful in the salvation of an enslaved people, chosen to be the ones who will shine divine light to all nations.
When we look to our ancient prayer book, the Psalms, as the psalmists lead us to sing God's praise, sometimes we're enrapt with power and majesty, with glory and victory. But for my money, God is most beautiful when found in the ash heap (Psalm 113), as hope for the hopeless (eg Psalm 123); God is most beautiful when desserts bloom, when the divine ears are open to the most pathetic cries, when God's heart pours out mercy and grace, when weeping is turned to laughing (eg Psalm 126). That's beautiful stuff, if we'll pause to see it.
In Christ we find God beautiful in a carpenter-rabbi from Nazareth (where nothing good comes from), with his ragtag bunch of nobody followers. We find God beautiful in love that gives up everything for the sake of the beloved.
Over and over in Scripture, God is shown to be beautiful in strange ways, in unexpected places, in the most unlikely of people. And James tells us that that's what we're after. He begins at the end of last week's passage, telling us that religion that is pure and faultless is care of the most vulnerable among us. In his context, that's orphans and widows--people without protection, without influence, without hope. The evidence of our faithfulness isn't in the extravagance of our liturgies, or the size of our budgets, or the beauty of our buildings. The evidence of our faithfulness isn't in how ready we are to impress potential donors for the cause. The evidence of our faithfulness, the true beauty of our love, is found in how we treat those who can do nothing for us. In other words, our lives are beautiful the way God is beautiful when, and only when, we are people of grace.
We get used to being treated according to our merits. Our culture prizes the successful and the strong. We're rated according to the size of our bank accounts, or the strength of our Grade Point Average, the trajectory of our careers, the fitness of our bodies. We learn on the playground how to divide and rank those around us, and we spend our adult lives being told that that's the way to get ahead. We learn to ask of each person (even of God), aloud or in the silence of our hearts, "what can you do for me?"
But the love of God begins to undo all that. With this God we come face to face with the One who loves us not when we are at our best, but when we are at our worst (while we were still enemies… Rom 5). In the company of the One who loves us not for what we can offer, but just because we are, we start to see more and more clearly that we are not (as we've been told) what we make of ourselves: we are what God has made us. All we are and have is because God chose creation. God didn’t need to. We cannot add to God. God creates out of pure delight, out of pure grace. Before we manage to do anything we are the objects of God's grace, of God's creative love, of God's desire.
When we recognize that, when we accept and learn it, when we get it into our bones and hearts, we begin to recognize it in others. We begin to reflect the grace we've received.
And that grace starts to dissolve the stuff that gets between us and our neighbors. A people living beautifully for God become a boundary dissolving people. This is the second way that we'll look strange and beautiful in the world. That's why James comes right out and questions our faith if we are people who separate and divide according to merit and worth. Do you, with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? he asks. This isn't a question about our ability to affirm the doctrines of the Church, as important as that is. It's a reminder that life with God, life in the grace of Christ, the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit doesn't just make us more religious, it makes us more human. We are our most beautiful when we are open to each other and to our neighbors in ways that honour our humanity, that honour the God-bearing image in which we are each created.
In the company of Jesus we start to see through all the stuff that we use as markers of status and importance--for James it's gold rings and fine clothes; for us it might be something else. The point is not what markers we use. The point is that our failure to love a person simply because they are there in front of us, bearing God's image, is evidence that we don't fully understand the height and depth, length and width of God's love for us in Jesus Christ. That love is so expansive that it shatters and eliminates the boundaries we set up between us and others.
The reason that I say that the point is not the particular markers we use, even though James is very clearly talking about how we treat the poor and the vulnerable (which we have to pay attention to--don't let me let us off the hook!) is that I think as a congregation, and as individuals, we need to let God show us what our own boundaries are, our own acts of favoritism that distort God's grace. Because, it's entirely possible to get very good at loving the destitute, which we must do, while becoming actively hostile to other groups of people.
One thing that drives people crazy about Jesus is his utter lack of sense and discernment when it comes to the folks he'll spend time with. He accepts dinner invitations from the religious and social elites, and then he loves to hang out in places like Bethany, which is essentially a shanty town full of misfits and outcasts. His followers include revolutionaries and political sell-outs, rightwing hardliners and foul-mouthed fishermen, Bible-thumpers and prostitutes. He is prepared to share God's love with them all; to challenge their inhumanity when he comes up against it (he loves us just as we are and way too much to leave us that way!); and to draw them, together, into the full humanity that God wants for all people. It's baffling, and infuriating, and beautiful. I really do think that a healthy church is a place where we end up with folks we might never end up with except that Jesus brought us together. The church, at its best, is always an exercise in overcoming ourselves for the sake of Christ's way of wild love.
And that brings us to the third piece in today's passage which is that we're to be merciful. The truth is, we can quickly turn our good works into spiritual weapons. We're easily tempted to self-righteousness. James reminds us that we do well when we follow the rules, when we fulfill the "royal law": You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But there's a tension. Because as soon as we turn loving our neighbors into a rule, an obligation, it becomes another way that we make divisions. We become judgmental of those who aren't sufficiently loving. We judge those who aren't as gracious and humble and self-giving as we are. We begin to limit the boundaries of neighborliness so that we don't find ourselves with people who aren't trying as hard as we are, who aren't as serious as us. And as soon as we start to do that we find ourselves to be "transgressors of the law." We break the rules by our good intentions (being human is hard). We forget the grace in which we stand, we forget the boundary breaking love of Jesus, and we distort the image of God in ourselves and others.
James reminds us that in the company of Jesus we live under the law of liberty. Isn't that beautiful? The law of liberty. In the company of Jesus, in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, we have a extravagant freedom. The psalmist puts it beautifully when he says that because God loves me, he rescued me and set me in a wide open space. He brought me into a broad space; he delivered me because he delighted in me. And we're back to God's delight. We don't love our neighbors, we don't care for the vulnerable, in order to earn our way into God's good books. We do it as a response to God's love, God's delight. We live in the law of liberty, the hallmark of which is mercy.
Mercy makes us strange. When we're merciful, we forfeit the right to look out for number one--one of our culture's prized virtues. We care more about the person standing in front of us than what they have done, or failed to do. In mercy we learn to see others as God sees them. The Lord is merciful and compassionate. Mercy isn't exactly the opposite of grace, but the way I understand it is that with grace we get what we don't deserve, and with mercy we don't get what we do deserve, and in both cases that's a good thing. In grace we have received more love and generosity and life than we could ever hope to earn. In mercy we have received God's tireless patience, God's compassion in our weakness, God's commitment to be faithful when we aren't or can't be. In mercy we look up to the cross and see the One who is praying over his enemies and persecutors, even his killers: Forgive them Father, they don't know what they're doing. That's the beauty we're after, the beauty that restores us and our neighbors; the beauty that triumphs over judgment and brokenness: the beauty that saves the world.
It's the beauty of the first fruits. Grace, expansive love, breathtaking mercy is first fruit stuff. It's what we're to be about. If we don't do this stuff, our faith amounts to very little, it may even be dead. When we do, it's how God's promises for the whole world break into this time and this place. The church needs to be the place where we come to pay attention to the extraordinary grace that surrounds our lives. The church needs to be the place where we are learning again and again how wide and long, how deep and high is the love of God for us in Christ Jesus, and to let that immense love stretch and break our boundaries. The church needs to be the place where we learn to receive and to give mercy--to become a people of repentance and forgiveness, of reconciliation, of love that is stronger than death.
In this fresh season, amidst all the busyness and details, I want to challenge you to take some time this week to pray with James. Let God make you aware of the grace that surrounds you--be still and know that God is God. Let Jesus draw you outside familiar and constricting boundaries and teach you to love in a new way. Let the Holy Spirit cover you in mercy, rid you of judgment on yourself and others. Let yourself be drawn you more and more into life that is truly life. God will do it.