Back to Basics with James: Who is God? Who are We?

James 1:17-27

Over the next several weeks, we're going to be working through the letter of James.  Every Sunday in September, the lectionary has us in this letter, and it's great timing.  I always feel like this is such a fresh time of year.  I remember at the beginning of a new school year being just thrilled with the possibilities.  As a kid we'd get a new package of pencil crayons, and new notebooks and I would believe that maybe this year would be the year that I'd become a really good student.  That ambition often lasted into the second week.  Even though I never quite made it as an academic star, I still think that this is a great time of year--a time for newness and possibility.

The reason I think James is a great place in Scripture for us to be right now, as we move into a new season together is that it's a sort of back-to-basics letter.  It's a letter that instructs and reminds Christians about who we are and what we're about, by the grace of God.  It's practical and straightforward and encouraging.  It's perfect for a beginning, to get us moving together in the right direction. 

We're not quite sure just who the author of James is.  Some scholars suggest that it could be James the brother of Jesus. That James was converted after Jesus' resurrection, and became a significant leader in the church in Jerusalem. There are good reasons to believe that he's the author, but we just don't know.  And we don't really know to whom it was written.  Unlike many of the other letters in Scripture, it's not addressed to a particular congregation or person, it's not concerned about one particular problem in the Church; it doesn't give us much insight about what's going on outside and around the Church.

It's addressed simply to the Twelve tribes in the Dispersion.  Commentators and scholars have all kinds of thoughts about what that means.  It's clearly a nod to Israel, and the Church's new participation in the work of God's people and God's plan for the world.  But what I want to pay attention to, as we get into it, is this idea of Dispersion, or diaspora.  James is writing to a diaspora people.  A diaspora is a scattered people, people who are far away from their true home.  They live in a place and under conditions that they wouldn't choose, if they had a choice.  Because of that, they have a different set of commitments, a different orientation than the culture that they find themselves in.  They are strange to their neighbors.  And maintaining that alternative orientation, that cultivated strangeness, takes focus and diligence.  Theologian Willie James Jennings describes diaspora as a people of "shared obligation and hope."  Diaspora is a people committed to living in a way that looks not like where they are, but where they would be, where their hearts long to be.

So James begins his letter by drawing our attention to the fact that the Church is a strange people, resident aliens.  Our true citizenship is not where we happen to live, or where we were born, it's God's kingdom, St. Paul would tell us.  We are a diaspora.  The Church is a people of shared obligation: Christians are expected, by definition to live in a different sort of way, the way of Jesus; we are obligated by our calling to do what he does, and what he calls us to do.  And we are a people of shared hope: we have our eyes and our hearts set not on the way things are, but on the way they really are and will be when Jesus gets the world that he wants.  James is not naïve about how difficult this is.  He's not blind to the fact that there are other options for how to organize our lives and get on with things, many of which are awfully seductive.  And so he draws us back to the basics.  He reorients us to the ways and means of God for us and for this broken and beloved world.

There's nothing quite as basic to the Church (I would argue for us as humans) as the questions "Who is God?" and "Who are we?"  And these questions are at the heart of the passage for today.  If we're going to get our witness to the world right, if we're going to figure out how to live nimbly in the will and way of Jesus in strange and sometimes hostile surroundings, how to be what Eugene Peterson calls "a colony of heaven in the kingdom of death," then we have to work out the answers to these questions.  If we're going to live adventurously and joyfully as ambassadors for God's way in the world, for the kingdom that is our true home, we don't want to be making it up as we go along.

Of course, the first problem when we start to ask these questions is that God always eludes our perfect grasp.  Theologians sometimes speak as though they've "walked around God and taken pictures," and will not report what they know--and they'll use big words so we know they must be right.  But, as my friend Jason Byassee says, "If you understand it, it's not God."  And yet, one of the remarkable things that we say is that God chooses to be known--not contained, or shrunk down to our understanding, but known nevertheless.  One of the wildest things that Christians believe is that God is so eager to be known that God showed up in Jesus, and moved into the neighborhood.  And what we come to know about God, especially in Jesus, has everything to do with how we live and move and have our being wherever we are. 

In today's passage, James points us to three things about God that we need to get into our hearts and minds, if we'll live as we're meant to.  The first is that God is generous.  God is lavish.  Our God is the One in whose presence feasts are set and cups overflow.  We only need to pay a bit of attention to the world around us to see how boundlessly giving God is.  Creation teems with God's generosity.  Our lives are an outflow of God's generosity.  Every good gift comes from God, James sings out: your life is a good gift.  God is generous to the point of complete self-giving.  In Jesus we see the One who though he was equal with God, didn't see that as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself for love of the world, the ancient hymn proclaims (Philippians 2:5-11).  God is generous!

Second, God is relational.  James calls God "the Father of Lights."  In the United Church of Canada, and here at U Hill, we often try to avoid gendered language for God, as a reminder that our images for God are always too limited.  And "Father" is a particular challenge for some, because some of our fathers have fallen rather short of their God-bearing image.  But, consistently, in the Scriptures, and particularly in the testimony of the Church, following Jesus' example, God is referred to as Father.  And if we keep that alongside the huge list of other biblical images for God, including ones like Mother and Mistress, what we see is that it's not about rendering God as a man, but recognizing that God is God-in-relationship.  "Father" is a necessarily relational image.  Fatherhood is more than the ability to make a baby, and more than masculinity.  True fatherhood is a way of being in relationship. 

And of course, in the culture that James and Jesus lived in, who someone's father was really mattered.  It defined who a person was.  The reason we can say confidently that Jesus was a carpenter, even though we never see him swing a hammer or cut a board, is that his dad was a carpenter.  And the father of the household was the one tasked with providing and caring for not only his immediate family, but everyone under his roof--servants and adopted children, extended family, even slaves.  So, to call God Father is to know that God is not distant, vague, or indifferent, but that God is God-in-relationship, God present and personal, God the protector and provider.  It reminds us that we have been adopted into a new family--a family that expands way beyond our biological one; we share in a new name--the name above every name, Jesus the Son; which means we have all the rights and privileges of the household of God.  "Father" reminds us that, as preacher Roger Owens puts it: the Christian life is "learning to live in the household of God's love."  We're learning to live what it means to say that God is the source and sustainer of all that we are. 

God is generous.  God is God-in-relationship.  And third, God is faithful.  This might be the most important thing that the Bible and the witness of saints in every generation tell us.  God is faithful.  God is the One in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change, is how James says it.  And if we're going to be a people committed to a strange obligation and hope, we need to know that the One who got us all mixed up in this is faithful.  We need to know, as the psalmist puts it, that when the earth shakes and the seas roar that God is an immovable rock, a strong shelter.  We need to know that God isn't going to cut and run when things get difficult or worse, but that God is the shepherd who goes ahead of us even through the darkest valley, leading us in hope and life to the other side. 

If we don't know that, it will become impossible to keep our commitment, impossible to sustain our hope.  But we can know it.  We can look at Jesus and see that there is nothing that God won't give, no lengths to which God won't go, to be with us and for us, to heal this world.  Jesus on the Cross is testimony that God is faithful to the end.  Jesus alive, Jesus risen from the dead means that God is faithful past the end and beyond our imaginations.  God is faithful.  God is going to finish what is begun in Christ: every tear dried, every belly filled, the nations healed, the world made new.

And so, if all this is true about God (generous, relational, faithful), what does it mean for us, for who we are?  James gives us a familiar biblical image.  He says that we're "a kind of first fruits," a sign of God's new season.  "First fruits" is a beautiful image.  It echoes with the ancient worshiping practices of Israel, being shaped as God's people.  First fruits are a reminder of God's generosity--the first harvest holds the promise of more (that first ripe tomato is just a hint at the bushels to come!).  But Israel's practice was to take those first fruits, and offer them back--to offer them to God both as an act of thanksgiving, and trust that there would be more.  Any fear of scarcity is undermined.  God didn't get what was left over, if there was enough; God got the first fruits.  The pattern of life with God is giving and thanksgiving, generosity and trust, a holy back-and-forth. 

To say that we are the First Fruits of God's promise and purpose is first a reminder that by grace we are made to be a sign of what God is doing in the world.  We are meant to bear witness in our lives to God's new season that began in Jesus, crucified, risen, and reigning.  We participate in and we are a part of God's generosity.  Our lives point the world to heaven's feast.  We read in Acts about the way that people began to live in response to Jesus' resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  And what blossomed was a community of radical generosity.  It's possible that the writer of this letter was a part of that community; that he saw firsthand how in Christ women and men came to understand God's generosity in a new way, and that shaped how they lived with their neighbors, how they related to their stuff. It's summed up beautifully with the news that nobody among them had any need. 

To say that we are First Fruits also reminds us that our lives are not our own.  They are meant to be given back, gladly and joyfully to God and God's purposes.  To be First Fruits is to know that our lives are pure gift.  We are not only what we've made of ourselves; we are what God has made us (the Father gives birth to us!), "by the word of truth"--the promise of God's dream for all things.  Our lives are meant to mirror that dance of generosity and thanksgiving at the heart of Israel's worship.  We recognize our lives as God's gift, and we give ourselves fully and freely in return, trusting that when we give ourselves, when we entrust our lives to God, we don't lose them: we gain them in a most magnificent way. 

Understanding this First Fruits image can really help us to hear Jesus' call to give up everything for his sake and the sake of his kingdom in a fresh way.  He's not commanding us to negate or belittle ourselves, but to take ourselves with divine seriousness.  God, giver of every good and perfect gift, delights so much in us, that God wants our whole selves--all we are and have committed to the will and way of Jesus for us and this broken and beloved world.  And the wonder is that when we offer that, we get back 30, 60, 100 times more than we give! And the dance continues.

The First Fruits image leads us into the rest of the passage, which is pretty practical instructions for showing the world what God is up to, what it means to know God as generous, relational, and faithful.  (A lot of it is about how we speak, which we're going to come back to in a couple of weeks.  This is a big deal for James.)  Getting caught up in the cycle of giving and thanksgiving is what makes us not just hearers, but doers of the word, people who live the truth we've come to know about God.  We sell ourselves and God dramatically short if all we do is show up to hear that God is good and generous, loving and kind, that God will hold nothing back when it comes to making heaven and earth one, us and all things new. 

If all we do is hear that, and then go back to letting the world determine who we and our neighbors are, if we leave hear and let our culture tell us what's really valuable and how we ought to live, let ourselves be defined as consumers and numbers, by our accomplishments and failures, then it doesn't make any difference at all.  When we don't live out what we hear, what we've come to know about God by the word, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, that's been planted in our hearts, it's like we forget who we really are.  We forget that grace makes us strangers and aliens.  We forget our true hope.  When we hear and don't do, we live distorted lives--lives not nearly as beautiful as we actually are.  James wants the Church to be a place where we learn to live beautifully, with one another and in the world. 

He wants the Church to be a place where each person comes to know that you are the apple of God's eye, the First Fruits of God's new season: we are meant to live together in the beauty of God's generosity, God's love, God's faithfulness for all things in heaven and earth. 

May we have ears to hear this beautiful news, and courage to live it with everything we've got.