Monday, August 31, 2009

Pentecost 13 - Year B

“...be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” the apostle James tells his parishioners.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Warms the heart of every Christian who wants to see churches living and active. It lights a fire underneath us when we get spiritually lazy.

“...be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

But Martin Luther HATED the letter of James. And there was a reason that Martin Luther HATED it. And when I say, “hate” I mean a viscous, hostile, anger towards this part of holy scripture. Martin Luther called this letter “the epistle of straw, whose only good is to light my fire.”

Tearing pages out of the bible and using them for kindling isn’t exactly what pops into our heads when we think of the great church reformer, the great defender of the bible, the one after whom we name our “Lutheran” church.

But he did say this. And he wasn't joking.

“...be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Luther was worried that folks would hear this passage and become confused. After all, Luther staked his salvation and those under his care on the idea that we are put in a right relationship with God not through any good works, not through obedience to God’s law, not through praying the right prayers or even by going to church.

Luther believed the apostle Paul who said that we are put in a right relationship with God by grace through faith, and not by any doing good works or believing the right things.

Then along comes James seemingly singing a different song, in direct contradiction to Paul:

“Therefore RID yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and WELCOME with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But BE DOERS of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Notice the verbs. It was the verbs that made Luther want to reach for his lighter fluid. “RID yourselves.” “WELCOME with meekness.” “BE DOERS...not merely hearers.”

Luther didn’t like verbs when it came to the Christian life. And probably for good reason. For him Christianity isn’t about “doing” but about “being.” The Christian life isn’t about US and what WE do. Christianity is about GOD and what GOD has done and is doing. And here James seems to have his Christian priorities turned on its head.

James seems to be more worried about how people live than what God has done for them in Jesus. James seems more interested in peeking behind peoples’ closed doors than offering the good news of salvation in Jesus. James seems more concerned with proper moral behaviour than with God's transforming power.

And because James missed the gospel point in a colossal way, Luther worried that people would be burdened down by religious duties and moral obligations rather than liberated from sin and death.

Because of James, people would be checking over their shoulders for the sin-police rather than living in the freedom that God wanted for them and gave them in Jesus. People would be worried about proper behaviour than about loving their neighbours as themselves.

If we listen to James, faith is replaced by duty. Love with morality.

At least that’s the way Luther understood what James was saying. And for good reason. That’s EXACTLY how many people read James.

And it doesn’t matter which side of the theological fence you land on. On the left side of the fence, people point to James’ condemnation of rich folks, exposing economic and corporate sins, demanding a wholesale change to how the economic world is organized if they want to be part of God's saving plan.

On the right side of the fence, folk take aim at peoples’ personal moral foibles and failures, making sure they feel sufficiently guilty about their sins and demand that they clean up their moral act before thinking that they're Christian.

No matter what side you're on, the point is this: stop sinning. If you think you're a Christian and you still have sin in your life, you're wrong! To be a Christian is to NOT sin!

That's when Dr. Phil would chime in and say, “How’s that working for you? This whole not sinning thing? You getting anything out of it?”

Some call this guilt inducing finger wagging, “Sin management theology.” As if WE’RE the ones who are supposed to manage our sins. As if WE’RE the ones to cut sin out of our lives.

But I hear this all the time. Turn on the radio and listen to pretty much any radio preacher, or even from some our Luther pulpits, you'll hear folks who seem to hate sin more than they love grace. They see Christianity as a bunch of do' s and don't rather than Jesus forgiving, renewing, and restoring us.

They want to make sure that this grace thing doesn't get out of hand, making sure that people don't abuse God's love with sinful living.. Making sure that folks don't sully the good name of Jesus by living just like everyone else.

They seem to say that we have to put fences around peoples' behaviour, we have to corral folks together, and lock them in a moral prison. We have to determine the absolute RIGHT and the absolute WRONG, and find ways to make sure that people stay on the correct side of that absolute.

It's as if they're saying that human sin is stronger than God's grace. It's as if they don't trust God to change people. It's as if they don't believe that God has the power to renew the world, starting with us.

It's like they don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

While Luther’s heart and head were in the right place, I don't think he understood what James was saying any more than those who would use James as a hammer to beat people with did.

I think Luther was too caught up in the church fights of his day to really hear what James is saying. “...be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

I think James snuck the good news in when we weren't looking. It's buried in the second half of verse 21, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

It's the “implanted word” that has power, not any of the other verbs. God has implanted that word within us. God has placed God's renewing power and presence within our hearts.

I think James was DESCRIBING how Christians live rather than PRESCRIBING a formula for faithful living. I don’t think he was saying “Prove you are a Christian by not sinning.”

I think James knew that people are sometimes weak. He knew that living a life of faith is a life of both failure and success, that sometimes we come close to God, and other times God doesn't seem to be in our time zone.

James knew that a life of faith sometimes means climbing to the mountain top before tumbling down and landing on our heads. James knew that sometimes a life of faith is a sprint. Other times it's a marathon. Other times it means you stay home in bed.

James knew that life is messy. PEOPLE are messy. People fight. People hurt themselves and each other. People forget who God is.

But God doesn't forget. God remembers that we can be small, sinful, frail human beings. And God remembers that we need God to save us, to heal us, to renew us. That's why God implanted God's word within us.

So, I think we can read this passage in a way that would make good 'ol Martin Luther smile: welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. THEREFORE be doers of the word, and not merely hearers...”

Another way to say this is: God has saved you. God has made you a child of the Almighty. God has washed every sin away and sees you as clean and well-loved. So, go and live your salvation. Go and live in the love that God has for you. Be doers of God's word, because God's word is inside you. God planted it there, and will make it grow.

May this be so among us. Amen.

2 Comments:

Blogger Sean Bell said...

Kevin... how could you miss the chance to preach on the Song of Solomon? One time in three years! :)

5:59 PM  
Blogger Ritewinger said...

Luther on James: "I praise it and consider it a good book" Luthers Works AE:35.395

8:02 PM  

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