Last night, I gave a talk at St. James’ Church in Manhattan. Tomorrow night, I start a Bible Study on the Letter of James in North Carolina. I am privileged to serve as an Associate on the staff of St. James’ in Wilmington, N.C. And today is the Feast of St. James. So I guess someone is telling me it’s time to write about St. James.
The brief letter attributed to James comes near the end of the Bible. It has staked out a unique place in the collection of books of the Bible. Martin Luther is getting a lot of attention these days as we near the 500th anniversary of the day he nailed 95 Theses to the cathedral door, sparking a reforming movement. Luther was big on scripture, but he wasn’t sure James’ letter was up to snuff. He described it as an epistle of straw. His beef with the letter was that it seemed to pile on virtuous acts/good works to the notion that we’re saved by grace.
If the scripture is like a symphony, we hear many voices for sure, sometimes wonderfully dissonant. And we need them all, including the voice of the Letter of James. It articulates what I call the so-what factor. What does the gospel look like when it goes to work in real life? Why does the gospel make a difference?
So I’m going to go all-directive on you this morning and suggest that you read the Letter of James. There are five chapters. Perhaps you might read one a day. It won’t take long. Ask yourself what it has to say to you in your journey of faith. There are many gems in the letter, but here’s one that sticks out for me. It’s one of the few places in the scripture where the word religion is used. It reads like this:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 2:27)
Three thoughts on this verse:
Religion: It’s a word that’s not always in good favor these days. What do you make of the word? Many prefer to speak of being spiritual rather than religious. If someone asks you if you are religious, what does that mean? Pious? Puritanical? Hanging out in some place where fun goes to die? Break the word down and it means to bind again (re-ligio), maybe even to put back together. Granted, you don’t have to look far to find ways that religion has messed up, ways it is defiled and impure. At the same time, we sure could use some ways of bringing things together in a time when the center does not seem to hold.
Care for widows and orphans: It’s a commitment to help all those who need help, those pushed to the margins, those without defenders, those without resources, those who seem to be increasingly under attack. That kind of care is a mark of religion. Such attention binds us together. It’s hopefully helpful for those who are served. It’s transformative for those who serve, seeing that we are all in this together.
Keep oneself unstained by the world: Again, this may sound priggish, but we live in a world where, for instance, it would seem ludicrous to some to help those who are helpless. We live in a world that often says that to win, someone else has to lose. We live in a world that often thinks of scarcity rather than abundance, of merit over grace, a world that tilts toward resentment and covetousness, a world where others as seen as objects.
Read the Letter of James. Find a gem in your reading. Let it help you put faith to work in the world this week.
A prayer for the Feast of St. James, which happens to be today:
Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.
God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.
St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.
– Martin Luther
After reading it, do you agree?
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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