Sunday, May 10, 2015

Wanderer Come Home... You're Not Too Far: The Grace Filled End to James (James 5:19-20).... Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: Finding Faith That Works in the Book of James (Part 14)

Perhaps we are more used to people finishing off their correspondence with pleasantries and adherence to social conventions than the way James chooses to finish his letter… We are more used to…‘Thank you for your assistance in this matter. Yours sincerely’…‘or Send my love to the rest of the family. And Happy Mother’s day your Loving son or daughter…’ or  sadly emails that finish...' If you want your share of this $24 000 000 bequest please send your banking details to some Nigerian law firms email address.'

Even in the New Testament we are more used to and comfortable with the way Paul concludes his letters. The epistle to the Romans finishes with a whole chapter of Paul bringing greeting to people he knows. Others finish with Paul giving some information about what he is going to do or his hopes for the Church and a blessing. 

But James finishes in an abrupt manner, with a finale single sentence exhortation. An exhortation that fits the pattern of his writing throughout: starting off by addressing his Brothers and sisters and finishing with a proverb. Maybe because it is an open letter to churches in the diaspora, Christians scattered because of persecution, it lacks the personal touch that Paul uses when writing to a single group or person he has had close contact with.

Maybe it’s hard to finish a letter where you’ve had to challenge people with such pleasantries. But it does finish in a way that shows us James’ love and concern for those he is writing to. It reveals his pastoral heart. He had written warning them of the dangers of wandering away from the gospel and he finishes off as Dan McCartney puts it with “the mercy of God in providing for renewal of faith”…He finishes with what I think feels like a good old altar call an exhortation that I found was summed up beautifully in a line from the David Crowder song ‘come as you are’ that we introduced this morning… ‘Wanderer come home… You're not too far.’  (I've put Crowder's video at the end of this post)

At the heart of what James has been writing all the way through has been a call to his listeners to come back to following Jesus Christ, to come back to the truth. The churches he was writing to had been facing persecution and hardship and while such things James tells us, if we trust and look to God, can lead to perseverance and maturity,  they also can be a danger to faith. External pressures, be it persecution and exclusion, or assimilation and persuasion, can lead us to compromise. Becoming what James calls double mindedness, looking both ways at once, looking to Jesus Christ but finding our behaviour our desires and hopes our identity and status framed by the society around us, and that can have devastating effects on the community of faith we are part of.  James’ concern is always for the community of faith, always for his brothers and sisters. He had seen this double mindedness resulting in favouritism for the rich, while the poor were sent away with religious words that were empty as their hands and stomachs because they did not result in loving actions. The focus had become fulfilling their own pleasures rather than love thy neighbour.  He saw it resulting in talking one another down, writing each other off and talking ourselves up at the expense of others. It meant sadly the church simply reflected the social order around it, with its enthronement of inequality and oppression rather than enthroning Christ and being a beckon of a new way to live, following Jesus ethical teaching, a foretaste of the kingdom of God. 

One of the complaints about James writing is that it is short on theology and long on ethics. Martin Luther wanted to remove it from the canon of scriptures because he thought it preached salvation by works rather than by faith alone. But in this final sentence we see that James has a very Jewish understanding of the gospel that incorporates both. He speaks of the truth and repentance as a journey following a path for life… we might miss that metaphor  when James says " wander from the truth, turns a sinner from the error of his ways". It a holistic way of looking at what faith is that reflects an Old Testament understanding. Way back when we started this series I showed you this simple diagram. That faith has these three elements belonging, believing and behaving. In Luther’s situation the focus for truth and error was around belonging and believing… How do you become a follower of Jesus? For James the focus is on behaving. How do we live out that belong to each other in Christ and believing in Christ as our lord and saviour?  They are all linked. They all come from knowing Jesus and being connected in again with God through faith and the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. Luther was concerned with what Christ had done for us and James focuses on the ethical teaching of Jesus. In the end they would both agree that saving faith in Christ should be true, active, obedient and genuine.

James is also very aware that it is only in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross that we can be put right with God. The proverb that James finishes his book with points us to the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”  In our modern world we are used to the idea of covering sins being cover ups, or papering over, or a cover being to put a different spin on something, but for James it comes from the Old Testament where on the day of atonement a goat , a scapegoat, was selected and the sin offerings of the people were placed on it as a way of covering their sins. It points to them being covered by the blood of the lamb. 

There is a great illustration of what that means in my favourite scene from all of literature. It comes from John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrims progress… It is the moment when Pilgrim encounters the cross. Weighed down with a great burden of sin on his back Pilgrim starts on the narrow way that evangelist had directed him to follow … and comes to a place Bunyan says  was ‘somewhat ascending’.. Let me read you the scene…

“And upon that place stood a cross, and a little below in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, until it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

It was covered up in the death of Jesus Christ… not only is it forgiven, it, not Christ, is death and buried. The story continues with Christian being met by three shining ones (angels) who pronounce his sins are forgiven, exchange his filthy rags for new clean cloths, a biblical metaphor of being made new in Christ… and give him a scroll with a seal on it that he is to use at the gates of the celestial city, a way of speaking of new and eternal life… and he continues on his journey along the path of truth. There are a times when he finds himself waylaid and misdirected and wanders off the path, he faces both joys and hardships and trials, but always he is sent someone to call him back and in the end he reaches the celestial city. James finishes his letter like one of those calls for Christian to get back to the path of truth and a call to us to be like the people who call him back.

Maybe James had the same problem that I have been wrestling with this week… How to finish the book of James. We’ve been on a journey through James’ letter for the past few months; in fact this is the fourteenth instalment in this series. How do we draw it all this together?

Firstly, there is an old African proverb that says ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ meaning that it takes the whole community to bring people to maturity. James’ final exhortation is a call for us to be actively involved as a community in that process with each other. James calls his brothers and sisters to help guide, lead and correct each other. We need each other to keep us on the way. When we wander we need someone alongside us to call us back. The writer to the Hebrews puts it in a more positive manner when they say in chapter 10 verse 24…’let us spur one another on to love and every good deed.’ I couldn’t help but think of this photo I took of the wonderfully resorted gates of the Queen’s wharf. There is a figure walking along them her way lit by the lights on top of each post. James invites us to be like those lights for each other showing the way.

How are we to go about that?...This sentence can be seen as a conclusion for James’ teaching on prayer that we looked at last week and speaks to us of the importance in praying for each other, praying for each other to keep in the way: Praying for each other to constantly be coming back to the gospel and to Christ. Of course for James it is very practical as well: In chapter three we see him speaking of the power of the tongue for both good and evil, we need to speak encouragement to each other, but also in the way we treat each other, that we love our neighbour. I am constantly encouraged by meeting people who say… Howard I am praying for you… this week I met with a fellow minister and talked of the ups and downs of ministry and came away encouraged by his confidence in me. Equally I have been encouraged lately by hearing people sharing the same struggles in life that I have and of their dependence on God.

We looked to James to show us a faith that works and I think one of the very big challenges of James is that for a faith to work we actually need to be part of a community where we are working together to grow as followers of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons I think faith in the west has struggled and waned is that we have become used to seeing it as being the work of a certain few rather than as brothers and sisters who not only care for each other but share their faith and encourage each other or even are willing to speak up and say wanderer come home… You’re not too far, let’s go together. David Nystrom puts it like this Christian community is about teaching and encouraging each other in discipleship.

Secondly, the conclusion of the book of James is an exhortation to repentance and reconciliation. One commentator says James finishes with a high point of love that is wonderfully current. An invitation to come home to Christ… To renew our faith in Christ, to make up our minds to be wholehearted for Jesus…It a process and a journey as we’ve seen as we’ve worked through the book of James it impacts on our desires and identity, our use of the tongue and our use of wealth and resources. It is a call to a new way of living. But it starts with one step. To turn again to Christ… It is a step that James finishes by telling us leads from death to life, that we can make, knowing and trusting that God forgives and our sins are covered they roll into that tomb and are seen no more…

The only way to finish the book of James, to find a faith that works is to hear James call ‘Wanderer come home’ maybe for the first time to respond to Christ or to turn again from wandering off course… James final exhortation is for you and I …wanderer come home…

The scene I read in Pilgrim’s Progress records Christians response to having the burden of sin lifted from him and I want to finish with that…
"Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, he has given me rest for my sorrow, and life by his death. Then he stood still a while to look and to wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should ease his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs in his head sent water down his cheeks."

 Let’s be still and I would invite you look and look again at the cross at the love of Christ that calls to us...wanderer come home.

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