So what is all the fuss about? Well Martin Luther, one of the great reformers of the Christian Church, when he published his version of the New Testament in 1522 he placed the book of James (and Hebrews, Jude and Revelation) at the back of the Bible in their own section, the disputed section as opposed to the undisputed. Now for me this starts to get interesting. Disputed readings? Surely we need to dig into this a little more; this could get good.
As far as Luther was concerned the theology and thinking of the book of James were not fitting with the rest of the Bible. He wrote in 1522: “The author of James mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. The author tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books.” Luther notes that the book of James only mentions Christ a few times but does not go far enough. Luther says that whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic. So there you go. And yet the Book of James still stays with us and is still heard in our churches today. Have we simply missed the mark and are now doomed to fail? I think not and would argue completely against that. I think James, the epistle of James, really gets to the heart of faith.
The book of James, for me, points out that in fact the whole goal of faith is not salvation but a connection with the heart of God. Salvation occurred through the death and resurrection of Jesus but now we are called to put that grace into action. Faith is about inviting the God who breathed life into our soul into a deeper relationship with us. Faith is about growing in understanding the height and depth and breadth of the love that God has for us and that we are invited to be changed because of that and in the way we live in response to that. E.M. Sidebottom writes this: “James gets down to the question of the character of God. Paul does not get behind the acts of God to the nature of God; he does not dig down to the foundation on which he builds and so can leave many loose ends which have misled his systematizers. Paul is concerned with what God does, James with what God is… For James God is pure goodness.” Or as we heard today: Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change…. He wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Jesus was once asked, “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus said “go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven.” Our actions are what matter. Our connection to the holy presence of God in our lives is what transforms us. Living out the love of God is what we are called to do and as far as Jesus and James were concerned nothing should come in the way of that.
During World War II as Jewish people were seeking any and every opportunity to escape Nazi Germany and Austria, many were looking to Switzerland as a place of refuge. But Switzerland would not accept them and turned them back over the border. Switzerland did all that it could to block them from coming in, border guards and police officers were given very strict instructions that there were to be no exceptions. Paul Gruninger, the commander of the state police in St Gallen refused to follow these orders. He allowed Jewish refugees to stay in Switzerland even falsifying papers to ensure it happened. And for this he lost his job and was never able to find steady work for the rest of his life. In the book that I am reading, entitled Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, the author, Eyal Press, asks the question why would Paul Gruninger do this? Why would he risk everything to help out other people? Many people would not. He wondered if he might have been influenced by Aristides de Sousa Mendes who while stationed in Bordeaux was offering refuge for Jewish refugees and said “If I am disobeying orders, I’d rather be with God against people than with people and against God.” I think this nails it. Our faith in a loving God is not meant to be stored neatly away but treasured in our heart and affecting our hands.
Now when the Pharisees scribes gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. So they started to tut tut and mutter amongst themselves. Can you believe this, this is absurd. They call themselves religious and the more faithful ones and yet they don’t even follow the Law. They don’t wash properly before eating they are dirty and filthy people clearly not up to our standards. How dare they. They said to Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Listen, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile but the things that come out are what defile.”
Listen to this for I think this is vital for us to hear. Our world gets so caught up on labelling who is right and who is wrong. Who has the correct answers about the correct way to describe or define God or who has the best response to the economy or who has the best political platform or who has the highest IQ or who has the largest number of dollars in a bank account. No, Jesus says, get away from all that thinking that just drags you down. Focus on what is right and true and real: focus on God’s love for you right this second and here in this place. Focus on that and let it guide you. Don’t miss out on it. It is a message you must hear: focus on what comes out of you. Focus on what actions reveal God amongst us. Focus on how we care for orphans, widows and keeping ourselves unstained by the world.
Jimmy Carter is quoted as saying: “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” I can hear James and Jesus applauding these words. Hardly controversial is it. May they affect how you live out your faith on this day.