A Sermon from Sherborne
Faith Works – Compline Address 1
Faith works: Compline addresses preached during Lent 2017 to accompany the Sherborne Churches Together Ecumenical Study Groups exploring the Epistle of St James
- James 1.1-18: preached on 6 March 2017 by The Reverend Dr Richard Wyld
As we begin our series on the letter of James it’s worth pausing to consider the ways in which this can be quite a challenging letter, presenting a challenging task for our reflection this Lent. Tucked away behind the letter to the Hebrews, and at times in history much maligned, this letter is hard to pin down. We’re not totally sure which James wrote it, when, or even why. And the question about why it was written is even more complicated because of the manner in which the letter takes in a wide range of topics, and jumps from one to the other without much warning (except in using wordplays to connect different sections together). That is fairly typical of the wisdom tradition on which James builds, but it’s still not unreasonable to ask whether there is an overarching theme to this text that will help us to get a handle on the individual parts. I want to suggest that there at least may be, by picking up just three verses from this opening section: the first verse, and then two verses in which some of the disparate themes come together.
Verse one offers a simple opening greeting, and names the addressees of this text as ‘the twelve tribes in the dispersion/diaspora’. I have to confess that when some of us gathered together to discuss the Lent groups running in parallel with this series, we touched on the question of who this letter is addressed to, and my mind got rather carried away with it. I was distracted for the rest of the meeting, because to me, asking to whom this letter is addressed raises one of the most significant questions about how we read the Bible as Christian Scripture. On the one hand, as part of our scripture we receive these texts as gifts in some sense from God, to be continually read and wrestled with over the ages. In that sense they are absolutely addressed to us as a community of faith in Christ. Yet at the same time, and particularly with the New Testament letters, there remains the very real sense that we are reading somebody else’s post; we are not Corinthians for example, yet we read letters written to them as though written to us. Similarly then, does the way James addresses this letter tell us anything about the world in which it emerged? Possibly; at face value, ‘the twelve tribes in the dispersion’ refers to Jews and Jewish Christians dispersed across the world, and primarily around the Mediterranean. James could be using this phrase symbolically, so that his letter becomes a kind of encyclical to all the people of God at all times. But if taken literally, then James addresses his words to particular people living in a particular context, and that might be important even for us today. For Jews and Jewish Christians throughout the diaspora (the dispersed region around the Mediterranean), life was sometimes comfortable, and sometimes hostile, but which way things went was generally on somebody else’s terms. In other words, as a dispersed people they lived to a lesser or greater extent as strangers in a foreign land, often regard with suspicion or downright hostility. That meant also that at times, becoming wealthy was not just something that happened, but might have involved being a little too cosy with the powers that be. Against that backdrop, much of what James has to say gathers round the need to reflect on what it means to remain committed to God and to the community in a situation that challenges such commitments. From that, in this more specific way, the text remains significant to us today.
The other two verses I wish to consider come as a pair, and draw together the themes of speech, on the one hand, and wealth and poverty on the other. These are both major themes for James, but in verses 9-10 of chapter one they come together in the peculiar exhortation that the lowly brothers and sisters should boast (or exult) in their being raise up, and the well-to-do brothers and sisters should boast in being brought low. James is fairly consistently negative about the dangers of thoughtless talk, and yet in this, one of the few positive things he says about speech, people are told to boast, not a form of speech that we tend to find congenial. But more than that, the wealthy are told to boast in being brought low; and so we are bound to ask why anyone would take such words seriously. Perhaps these verses are rhetorical overstatements, built around the theme of reversed fortunes that characterises Jesus’s own fulfilment of Old testament hopes. But I think that there is good reason to take James’s words here more seriously, perhaps even more literally than that, if we are prepared to grapple with the power of speech.
We often hear that actions speak louder than words. Perhaps there is some wisdom in that, but I increasingly think that words are often incredibly powerful, for good or bad, and that a greater appreciation of the power of words will help us here. For words do not only describe the world, but can actually shape it too. There are lots of highly formal examples of when certain words are used at specific times to do things (sports umpires do it all the time, for example), but consider this more everyday example. If I verbally promise to take the rubbish bins out one night, those words actually change something; this is shown by the fact that I can’t verbally unpromise to do so without cost, and if my actions don’t then conform to my words, there will be trouble. So a promise sets me on a course of action, it points the one who promises in a particular direction, and it can be problematic to change direction after making a promise. Words shape the world, relationship, and involve us in certain patterns of life. Bearing that in mind, I suggest two things that might be important in the boasting or exaltation that James approves here.
The first is that such language would be self-involving for the ones who boast. Self-involving language reflects certain commitments and, like the promise above, sets us on a certain course. For example, the sentences ‘Steve made the tea’ and ‘God made the world’ share the same basic structure, but entail very different things. The first is a fairly flat piece of information, but to say that God made the world is not simply to pass on information, but to say something about one’s view of the world, and to commit oneself to a particular sense of value and so on. In that sense, ‘God made the world’ is a self-involving statement. I think that when James talks about boasting in being raised up or brought low, a similar kind of self-involvement is in view, if such raising and lowering is understood to be the work of God in bringing his kingdom into the world. For those who may feel lowly, to boast in being raised up is to celebrate the coming of the kingdom of God in Christ, and to take a stance of involvement in that work of God. And more so, it is to verbally assert a new-found identity in God which may have been denied and downplayed in a hostile and unjust environment. Such language is to reassert the truth about one’s humanity that has been conferred by God’s work in Christ, over and against the oppressive definitions of who matters or doesn’t matter that have been wrought in the wider world. Does it make sense though, in the same way, for the wealthy to boast in being brought low? Certainly the gospels speak of the mighty being brought low, but why would anyone boast if it happened to them? Again the answer may be in recognising what God is doing and getting involved. For the content, it is to recognize the cost of following Christ and to use forms of speech that assert the sense of hope that remains in that cost. For those who have been used to being self-sufficient, and not thinking that they need God, such boasting becomes a means of reforming oneself in memory of one’s dependence on God’s grace. To boast in being brought low would be to set a new course in life, to take a stance shaped by the recognition that one is not self-sufficient, that one does truly need God.
As well as reflecting a self-involving stance towards God, I would secondly suggest that the kind of speech James condones here would also serve to shape a communal life that seeks to follow God’s work in the world. Part of the reason that we might recoil from the language of boasting is that it generally refers to a particularly unpleasant kind of speech that serves to place ourselves above others. When people boast, it can often assert their sense of superiority, partly for their own ego, but also in relation to others. And more than that, some forms of language, such as boasting, can in turn solidify social hierarchies by reinforcing the idea that some people are better than others. Again, speech is powerful, and boasting can be destructive. But I want to suggest that what James is suggesting is precisely to try and develop habits of speaking that do the opposite of what boasting normally does. The kind of speech that James might have in mind serves to level an unequal society but undermining patters of superiority and inferiority, and by reasserting a radical new sense of equality as people of grace. So for communities living faithfully in a challenging world, forms of speech are needed that break down the social hierarchies that may have been imported, and from there send out a new message to the world around. I often complain about the way Churchy language can be exclusive and alienating, but in a very real sense there is a need for us to continue learn a new language, one that is shaped by the work of God in renewing the world. In this sense, Christians should talk differently, because we should talk in ways that foster mutual love, the full value of human persons, and the hope of the kingdom of God.
These are just a few thoughts about what James is seeking to do here, and there may be other ways of looking at the letter that shed light on other themes. But I hope it offers one of thinking about what it means to live faithfully as strangers in the world, offering new patterns for living together that bring hope to those around us. Let us enjoy the text of James together, and allow its challenges to form us further in the likeness of Christ.