Monday, July 6, 2015

A Servant of God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  We began a new series on the Letter of James, and the text was James 1:1-11:

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at the Book or Letter of James, which is found nearly at the end of the New Testament.  But for most Protestants it is not a book that we spend a lot of time in or talking about.  I have never preached from James before, and I have never heard anyone preach on James either.  Just wondering if anyone here has heard sermons from James?  I think it’s a shame that James has been ignored because James has a lot to say to us, and important things.  So for example, some good advice for any time, but especially for the past few weeks, James says, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  But there is one line that has sort of cursed James within the Protestant tradition, and that is when James says that faith without works is dead.
At the time of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther began to proclaim, using the letters of Paul found in the New Testament, that we are saved by faith alone, a tenant that we still hold.  So if we are saved by faith alone, and if James is saying that we need works, then Luther needed to reject James.  In fact, Luther wanted to remove James from the cannon of scripture entirely, and while he was obviously not successful in that, in Luther’s own writings, which never included a commentary on James, he moved the book of James to a section of lesser, disputed writings.  He also called James a book of straw, in comparison to the true gold found in the gospels and the works of Paul.  Now I don’t believe that Paul and James were actually saying different things, and we’ll get to that much later, and even though the other reformers did not agree with Luther’s distaste for this letter, which is why it remained in the Bible, Luther did have a huge impact on James’ place within the Protestant tradition, mainly being that it was ignored for large periods of time.  But in recent decades James has seen a revision in how it has been viewed and interpreted and its place in the tradition, and so we’re going to build on that a little bit over the next six weeks.

While James is a letter, it is also different then most of the other letters we find in the New Testament.  I would invite you to look at James versus some of the other letters, but there is no full greeting, no opening prayer, no commendations, nor does James mention anyone else.  It is known as one of the general or catholic epistles, catholic in this sense meaning universal.  James addresses it to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, meaning those who are living outside of Palestine, and in particular Jerusalem.  It’s not clear who James means by this, but the tradition has tended to believe that he is specifically addressing Jews who have become followers of Christ.

Besides being a letter, James’ work also takes the form of more of wisdom literature, something like proverbs, but rather than being teaching points like Benjamin Franklin gave us in Poor Richard’s Almanac, which are often about manners.  Instead James is about morals.  When we think about morals today it seems to be almost solely about sexuality, but that is not what James is concerned about either, and obviously there is a lot more to morality.  But James’ work differs even from other works in this genre of the time, because James is talking about intentional communities, that is the church, versus the household, a primary concern of the Roman world and its writings.  Nor is he concerned about hierarchical relations, but is instead much more egalitarian.  Indeed, he refers to others as brothers and sisters, on the same plane, as there is only one father, and that is God.  Which leads into one of his other major concerns is that is about community versus the individual.  James wants to talk about what we do together and how we live together.  The individual instructions play itself out in relationship to the other.

Finally, James’ letter also takes on the ancient form of a diatribe, but again this is different than what we think of a diatribe being about.  This is not like Bill O’Rielly going on some rant about something.  Instead, it’s a sort of give and take with questions posed by an imagined interlocutor, or a series of rhetorical questions, which are then answered, often in an imperative and incisive manner.  If you read through James, and I would strongly encourage you to do so, and it’s only five chapters so it can be a quick read, you’ll see these styles as they present themselves.

So who is the James who is writing this letter?  There are several different James’ that we find in the New Testament.  Two of them are disciples of Jesus, James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, and James, the son of Alpheus or Cleophas, but neither of these are that James.  Instead this James, the brother of Jesus, who is often referred to as James the Just.  (and if you were paying attention that was just a portion of a diatribe.  A question was posed, and then answered).  This James appears several times in the gospels, including in the passage we heard this morning from Mark, but there is no indication that James was a follower Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime.  It is after the resurrection that James becomes a follower and a leader in the church.  In fact, James becomes the first bishop of the church.  Everyone thinks it’s Peter, but the actual facts are that it is James.  When Paul goes back to Jerusalem to seek a decision, in what becomes known as the Jerusalem council, in whether Gentile converts need to be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws, it James who makes the decision that they do not need to follow Jewish law.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that James, and he is listed first, Peter and John were the three pillars of the church.  James became known as James the Just because of his piety.  It is said that his knees became as calloused as a camels knees from all the time he spent kneeling in prayer.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, in the early 60’s James was stoned to death by the high priest who called together the Sanhedrin while the Roman prefect was gone, to try him on the charge of breaking Jewish law, and killed him.  He was just one of the leaders of the church who were martyred around this time.

But the book of James is ultimately about what it means to be a Christian and what a Christian looks like and does, its about where the rubber hits the road when it comes to our faith, and that really begins with the first line of the letter, which says “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The rest of the passage we heard really sets up many of the themes that James will discuss in the rest of the letter, and that we will also cover, but I’m struck by James’ identity of himself that is found here.  The Greek word that is translated as servant, doulos, can also be translated as slave.  James is certainly not the only one in scripture to be described this way.  Abraham and Moses where both called “servants of God” and most prophets were also given this same attribution.  If you were here earlier this year, we talked about Paul’s claim that although he was freed in Christ, that he chose to make himself a slave, not just to Christ but also to the gospel.  Typically this term is given to people who are clear examples of putting everything else aside in order to do what God has called them to do.

Now Jesus tells us that we need to pick up our cross, how often?  Daily, and follow.  But I was wondering if there is a difference between being a servant and being a follower?  And I think there is.  Now the reason most translations translate doulos as servant instead of slave is because of our own history of slavery in the English speaking world.  But typically a slave has no say in what it is that they do, or even about the slavery itself.  A slave is totally dependent upon and answerable to their master, and to disobey can bring extremely negative and often violent consequences.  So maybe servant is perhaps a better translation for us to understand, because typically a servant is a positon that is chosen by the servant, and there is also the idea of being able to refuse to serve to walk away at their own choice.  And while a slave owner can demand loyalty, obedience and humility, they can’t ever really make the slave truly undertake those steps.  But a servant can take on not only servanthood but also the demands of servant.  In that sense it is like Paul choosing to reject total freedom, in order to become a servant of Christ.

So in this sense only, being a servant to God is actually, I think, harder than being a slave.  Sometimes it would be easier to just have someone else tell us exactly what to do and exactly what to think, it would save so much time and effort.  It takes more effort and work to have to learn to think for ourselves, to come up with our own decisions, including whether we are going to become a follower, a disciple, a servant of Christ.  And as Methodists we do believe that the choice is up to us.  We can either choose to accept Christ, or choose to reject Christ, and we can do so at any time, even after we have been following.  Thus our loyalty and obedience are not forced upon us, instead they are freely given, which really means that this thing we do is a constant struggle.  It’s an everyday decision, sometimes even an every minute decision to say, God I am going to follow you this day, help me to do the things that you are calling me to do, not the things I might necessarily want to do.  Help me to love you this day and may everything that I do might honor you.

That, James says is where we start our discipleship journey, because before we can begin to act in the world like a Christian, we first have to choose to be a Christian, a follower, a servant of Christ.  But there is one other key piece of information that will drive this process, and everything that James will have to say, and that is about humility.  James could start his letter telling us how great and important he is.  He could say, James, the brother of Christ, the bishop of the church, the pillar of the community, the one who commands, but he doesn’t.  Instead he simply says, James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The authority rests with God and with Jesus, not with him.

Today we come to the table, the Lord’s table, and we should come with humble hearts because we didn’t earn this meal, it was given freely to us, and as I say every month, this is out altar call.  This is the time in which we say to God, I want to follow you, I want to be obedient to you, I want to be loyal to you, but I also know it’s a struggle, and so thank you for showing me grace, thank you for showing me guidance, thank you for loving me more than I can possibly imagine.  This table is about humbling ourselves before God and saying thank you and saying here I am Lord, make me a servant.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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