Monday, January 19, 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different: An Introduction to the Book of James (James 1:1).... Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: Finding a Faith That Works In The Book Of James (part 1)

This is the introductory Message for a Series of Messages I'll be preaching on the book of James. I try and read through the Epistle once a day at the moment and still I find my self aware that it just feels so different than the other epistles in the New Testament or even the gospels...But despite that difference and yes even viva la difference it has a strong important message for us today... But first if I may a spot of Monty Python...

 ….“ And now for something completely different’… became a catch phrase in the TV show Monty Python’s flying Circus… They’d borrowed it from a BBC children TV show and made it their own… John Cleese would appear as a well-dressed BBC presenter behind a corporate BBC presenters desk, usually in some bizarre setting like the cage in the clip we just saw.  It would then segue into some crazy Monty python sketch…like the fish slap dance…” By the time the second series came out they used it to open the whole show. They made a movie called “and now for something completely different”  by cobbling together the best of the first two series to try and crack the American market.

When I came to reading through and reading about the book of James in the New Testament … “and now for something completely different” came to mind. You see James stands out as being different. Different from the other letters we have in the New Testament…  So much so in fact that it has been a focus for much controversy…  like Martin Luther calling it an epistle of straw.

It’s so  different because it is  by a different author… it’s a one off… But someone called James...My son James was born in Rotorua when we worked at St John’s and there were a lot of James associated with that church… the minister name was Jim, short for James his oldest son was James… one of my Youth group leadership team was James… We had several James in the Youth group… one we called little Jimmy till he grew to be a good six foot two… then it was just ironic. Another James got the nick name diesel when the tractor he was driving round the streets of Rotorua to quickly do his paper run before a youth group ski trip ran out of diesel and right in the drive way of a local hotel …  But When we called James, James I had to tell all these people that really it was despite them rather than because of them that we did it… At the time I didn’t know that Kris’ dad’s middle name was James… but can I just say that was a good way to get some brownie points as a son in law…

When it comes to the name James in the New Testament we have the same difficulty, you see there are twelve James mentioned in the New Testament, as the Greek version of the Hebrew Jacob it was very popular. Two disciples were called James. James who was John’s brother the son of Zebedee and James son of Alphaeus   One we are told was martyred very early on and the other one is never really mentioned that much. Scholars pretty much agree that the James here is the James Paul calls the brother of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. In the gospels we find that Jesus brothers did not believe that he was the messiah but Paul mentions the fact that Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. He is the James who as we read through the book of Acts we find is the head of the church in Jerusalem. He’s the James Paul comes to talk with when he comes and visits the apostles, He is the James who in Acts 15 who makes the decision and writes the letter at the end of what is known as the council of Jerusalem, about the question how Jewish do you need to be to be a follower of Jesus?  Later in extra biblical material he is referred to as James the just, in another tradition he is affectionately called James camel knees supposedly because of the calluses on his knees because of the amount of time he spent on his knees in prayer.  It adds real power to the impassioned plea for a life of prayer that James finishes his letter with.

In the greeting at the beginning of the letter to James, he does not use any of these indications of position or status or nick names but simply identified himself as a servant, a household slave, of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not his family ties or his position and office or even his reputation that is of any importance rather his relationship with God and with Jesus Christ as his Lord and saviour. One of the differences you will notice in the book of James is that he is not long of theology, but here we see that James has a clear understanding of the divinity of Jesus mentioning him in the same breath as God. And also we have insight to what James has to say to us that at the centre of who we are and what we do is that relationship with Jesus. In fact for James that relationship needs to be reflected in all we do. It’s not the feel good phrasing of a Christian form letter or a belief it is to worked out in how we face trials and temptations, what we say, how we treat each other, our attitude to the poor and much, much more that we will see as we explore what he has to say. To call Christ Lord is to serve Christ.

Another thing that makes James seem so different is that It was possibly written for a different audience than we are used to thinking about with the other letters in the New Testament, particularly from Paul. In fact if you look at how the books of the New Testament are put together James starts the section known as the general epistles, written for wide circulation rather than to one specific church, group, person or situation.  We are used to the story of the spread of the gospel outlined in Acts, with its focus on how the gospel came from its beginnings in Jerusalem to the centre of the then world, Rome. With its focus on the gospel being preached primarily by Paul to the gentiles… and the Pauline letters seem to fit very well with that movement… It fits with us because for most of us this is the beginning of our story. Greek thought, the Roman world, Europe.  The concerns of most of Paul’s letters are the concerns in those churches full of new gentile believers wrestling to understand their new faith and how to live it out in community. Hebrews and James seem to be written to a different audience.  The letter of James is seen to follow the style of what is known as a diaspora letter, written from someone of importance to Jews who had dispersed throughout the world exhorting them to keep the faith.

 James addresses his letter to the “twelve tribes” scattered among the nations. Some have seen this as a letter written to Jewish believers or even as a Jewish letter simply adapted for Jewish Christians. But from an early time the church would have had both Jewish and gentile believers. There is some evidence like the mention in James 2 of people coming to your synagogue that this letter was written very early before the destruction of the temple in 70ad and before Christians were exclude from Synagogues. In acts we see that when Stephen is martyred the Christians in Jerusalem scatter it’s the start of that diaspora of the Christian faith. James is writing then to group who have been believers been from early on and who now find themselves in different and difficult situations.  Some f the things that make it seem so different come from the fact it was written for a predominantly Jewish audience.

When you read it, it seems to go all over the place and not follow a nice linear argument. WE are used to our literature and our arguments and our logic being linear. I remember a Cook Island evangelist speaking in an evening service in Rotorua. The cook island people were very moved and absorbed by what she had to say. I found it hard to follow and I was amazed at how many of my youth leaders reacted negatively… they hated it… Where was the logic... where was the flow... the linear argument the three succinct points...  (if you have a look at the image beside this section it's kind of like  being given this picture in reply to the question is the glass half full or empty) … it was a good lesson for us that different cultures speak and think in different ways. She would make a point then talk around it and come back in a very cyclic manner. James does that kind of thing to us as well. He speaks for a very different culture in a very different way... which does not negate what he says it just means we have to listen a bit harder...

One benefit is that James tends to write very much like the wisdom literature in the Old Testament and it is full of these wonderful word pictures and pithy one liners and proverbs that are easy for us to remember.   (In New Zealand we are used to this kind of thing very much like when you listen to Maori speak they will often sum things up with a proverb)
We have a good example of this wisdom emphasis in the few verses we had read out to us today where James emphasis on suffering is that it is when our faith is put to the test that it grows character in us and brings us to maturity. I remember having a conversation with another James… Dr James Ukaegbu  a past moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and who was a missionary in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, who turned to me in a very James wisdom like manner and said “agh Yes It is suffering that matures a man.”

It is also different because for this audience his emphasis is different he is more concerned with the ethical teaching of Jesus, It actually feels very much like Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 and the sermon on the plain in Luke 6.  This emphasis is because his concerned is with a “disconnect” between what People believe and how they act. He is aware that away from Jerusalem they are also being influenced by the world views and behaviours around them. They may believe in Jesus as Lord and saviour, but don’t even the demons believe that, it needs to be lived out in how we speak and act. FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD. It’s not really faith…

These differences actually make it very relevant to us. AS a general epistle James speaks to all ages and all times and this message about faith being put into action is very relevant to our own time and our own lives. Because we too live in an age which has a disconnect between what we believe and how we live. One commentator talks about that disconnect coming because we live in the TV or in more correctly the Information age. We suffer from information overload we hear  so many good ideas and we find that we do not let it affect how we act and live.  This summer for example we’ve had the best adverts and info and well some mixed messages about speed limits but the holiday road toll went up… and speed and alcohol were major factors.  Like for James initial readers we need to ask God for wisdom…. Not information… wisdom to know how to filter and apply what we know to our lives.

It relevant to our Church lives and discipleship… I have a friend who talks about the fact that in Christian thought about church and discipleship he   over time there is a move in emphasis between what he calls the three ‘B’s and in the Christian life which order they come in… Belonging; that we are called to be together as the people of God, and what is important is that we come and we belong.  Believing: It is important what we believe the right thing, doctrine and understanding is central and important, it’s interesting that at certain times during church history what we believe has been the defining factor. When people ask me about denominations and how they started my usual answer is well the short answer is history and geography, but the other thing is a strong emphasis on different doctrines and understandings. In fact the book of James itself was a victim of that. Martin Luther wanted it removed from the New Testament cannon, because in chapter 2 it does seem to fly in the face of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. James says ‘Faith without works is dead’ The third B is behaving: The emphasis is on how our faith actually effects what we do. The way we treat each other, not showing preference to the rich the powerful and the important, not complaining and arguing, just business practises, how we speak. That is where James focus lies… he is exhorting us to have a faith that works.

And can I say it is a very challenging emphasis… AS I have read and reread James this year… boy does it hit home. But it is an important message for us to hear. The fact that we belong, that we are a family… the twelve tribes together… is important and we are a community. What we believe is important. But  it’s very important in an age where Christians are ridiculed for the lack of difference, where the church is caricatured about being about what’s in your wallet and not about being a servant of God… sadly that has almost become Christian speak for a Christian celebrity. To focus on working out our faith in our behaviour in  practical ways.

 James longs for us to behave in a way that when people meet us  in a good way its… “and now for something completely different.”  Someone who acts a lot like Jesus…

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