James, True Religion And The Real Thing
Pentecost 13B James 1:17-27
This is a Greek icon of James. James the Just. James of Jerusalem. James, the first patriarch in the church in Jerusalem. James, THE primary leader of the earliest congregation in Jerusalem. James, the younger brother of Jesus. James, the traditional author of the Book of James.
You may recall the list of boys in Jesus’ family, the list that was memorized during confirmation classes here within our church. “Jesus, James, Joses, Judas and Simon, plus two or more girls.” All kids in eighth grade confirmation had to learn the names of people in Jesus’ family: “Jesus, James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, plus two or more sisters.” James was the second son in Jesus’ family, right after Jesus himself, the oldest. (We recall the words of Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?")
Traditionally, James, the brother of Jesus, is thought of as being the author of the Book of James.
James, the brother of Jesus, is REALLY important in the New Testament. Why?
James, the brother of Jesus, saw the RISEN Christ. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Risen Christ appeared to Peter, the 500, to James and all the apostles. (I Corinthians 15:5-8). The name of James is at the top of the list.
James, the brother of Jesus, was one of the first three pillars of the early church. James, Peter, and John. James was listed first, BEFORE the names of Peter and John. You have to be MIGHTY important when your name is listed before Peter and John. (Galatians 2:9)
Not only had Jesus’ brother James seen the RISEN Christ.
Not only was James the first pillar of the earliest church in Jerusalem, we hear other stories in the New Testament about James. Some examples:
We recall that when Peter miraculously escaped from prison, he specifically wanted James informed as to what happened (Acts 12:17).
We recall that when the first Christians in Jerusalem were having a big conference about whether or not Gentile people needed to be circumcised, it was James who guided the answer (Acts 15:13ff).
We recall when Paul arrived in Jerusalem with a fistful of money to give to the poor in Jerusalem, it is Paul who met him at the door and advised Paul to first go and cleanse himself at the temple (Acts 21:18ff.)
We recall when Paul showed up in Jerusalem after his conversion, he visited Simon Peter for fifteen days and saw none of the apostles other than James, the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19)
In other words, James, the brother of Jesus, was THE primary leader of the earliest church in Jerusalem.
A scholar by the name of Josephus, whom we have quoted often in Bible classes and sermons, and was a secular historian writing at this time, tells us that James, the brother of Jesus, was executed in 62 CE. Josephus does not tell his world when the other apostles were killed, other than Simon Peter. Josephus tells us when James was killed.
I am simply telling you that James, the brother of Jesus, was a VIP, a very important person, in the Early Church, even though we almost never heard sermons about him. Why not sermons about him? James is mentioned only once in the four gospels and therefore we hear very few sermons about him. James is important in the Book of Acts and letters of the Apostle Paul.
We are now going to begin our sermon series on the Book of James. There will be five sermons in this series. The Book of James, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, the primary leader of the first church in Jerusalem, the tradtiional author of the Book of James.
To the sermon for today.
The lesson for today is from the epistle of James. It says, “God our Father says that religion which is pure and genuine is this: to care for orphans and widows in their suffering, and to remain unstained from the world.”
Is there something inside of you which wants to experience religion and spirituality which is genuine? Is there something inside of you which gets tired of cheap Christianity? Is there something inside of you that gets tired of a shallow commitment to Jesus Christ? Is there something inside of you that longs for deep and authentic spirituality? Are you looking for the “real thing?” We are told that we need to be part of the Pepsi generation, and Pepsi often has advertisements that use the phrase, “the real thing.” You want the real thing. The real Pepsi. So it is with our spirituality, our faith -walk, our Christianity: we want to find the real thing.
Today, I am going to do something which is very unLutheran. That is, I am going to preach a sermon from the book of James. More than that, we are going to begin a series of five sermons from the book of James. Lutheran pastors rarely or almost never preach from the book of James. I have been a Lutheran pastor for more three decades, for more than thirty years, and have preached more than a thousand Sunday morning sermons. In those thousand sermons, I have preached on the book of James only six times. Why so few sermons? As a rule, Lutheran pastors do not like the book of James.
Why? Why don’t Lutheran pastors generally like the book of James? Because Martin Luther did not like the book of James. Martin Luther said that the epistle of James was an epistle of straw. It was easily consumed by fire, and when the straw was burned away, you did not have the pure gold nugget, the gospel, remaining. In other words, the Book of James did not have the gold nugget, the pure gospel and therefore it was not worth much.
Why was James nothing but straw?
The first reason that Luther did not like the book of James is that Christ is not emphasized in the book of James. The words, Jesus Christ, is mentioned only twice in the whole book. In the Book of James, there is not one mention of the cross. In the Book of James, there is not one mention of Jesus dying on the cross to pay for our sins. There is not one mention of baptism, that he who believes and is baptized shall be saved. There is not one mention of the word grace and what grace means. In James, there is no Christ, no grace, no atonement, no death on the cross, no baptism.
Why else did Luther have such immense disregard for the book of James? Second, because of its emphasis on works. Luther, like the Apostle Paul, emphasized that we are put right with God and justified by God through God’s grace, through faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law. James, on the other hand, says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. James emphasized works. You need to do works in order to be a Christian.
Now, if you combine the two problems; that is, there is no mention of Jesus Christ and instead there is only talk about works, people could draw the false conclusion that a person is saved by works. I understand that.
Even so, I have to admit to all my Lutheran pastor friends who belong to this congregation, that I like the Book of James. And I have discovered that many of you also appreciate the Book of James because of its basic practicality. You like James because of its down to earth, real life, practical implications of being a Christian.
In the next five weeks in the epistle lesson for worship on Sunday morning, we will focus on the Book of James. So, in the next five Sundays in a row, we will have five consecutive sermons on the Book of James, and this is a very unLutheran thing to do.
Now, I realize that James does not have the spiritual depth of Paul. There is no Christ, no atonement, no Christ has died for our sins, no forgiveness and no grace. Yet, I still see relevance in the Book of James for our personal lives and the life of our congregation.
I like the Book of James for a couple of reasons. First, because it is a book of action. Be doers of the word. Be doers who act. And not just a listener who listens. Not just a thinker who thinks. Not just a talker who talks. Not just a believer who believes. Not just prayer who prays. But be a believer in Christ who gets things done for the kingdom of God. I like that.
You see, I am an activist person. I like doing things. I like to get things done. I can’t stand to be part of a group that just talks, talks, talks. Plans, plans, plans. Process, process, process. Organizes, organizes, organizes. And never do anything but talk, plan, process and organize. It drives me crazy to be part of such groups. I like to get things done. For a lot of people, the talking is the doing. The processing is the doing. The organizing is the doing. That is not me. So James is an activist book, and so I like the Book of James because of that.
So when James says in the epistle for today, “Do not be hearers who look into a mirror and forget; but be doers who act. They will be blessed by their doing.” I like that in James because I think of myself as being a doing person.
But I also like the book of James because I believe that it is a corrective to our Lutheran theology and heritage. Our Lutheran strength is our Lutheran weakness. Lutherans strongly believe in faith in Christ and not works. We strongly preach Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone. For centuries, we have shouted, “A person is saved by grace and not by works lest any person should boast.” We have said these words so often and so persistently we often come to the false conclusion that works of charitable love are not that important. That is a false conclusion.
A Christian cannot separate faith from works of charitable love, from deeds of charitable love. Just as you cannot separate my head from my body, without both dying, you cannot separate faith from works of charitable love. You cannot do that. To separate the body from the head kills both the body and the head. The same is true with faith and works of charitable love. If you separate them, they both die.
Now, down deep, James and the Apostle Paul/Luther are saying the same thing. The Apostle Paul said that you cannot separate faith from charitable love. The Apostle Paul says that true and genuine faith is active in charitable love, or love for the poor. The Apostle Paul uses the word, agage, for charitable love. In Paul, we hear about agape love; that is, love for the poor and suffering. It would have been so much easier if Paul had said that genuine faith is active in family love. That sounds better, more palatable. Family love. I have a great family. We have a super family. If Paul would have said, genuine faith is to be active in family love, he would have easily gotten my vote. …. Or, if the Apostle Paul had said, let genuine faith be active in friendship love, and brotherly love, I would have liked that. I have so many good friends. I love my friends. I wish that the Apostle Paul would have said that genuine faith is active in friendship love because I would have easily done that. …. Or, I wish that the Apostle Paul would have said that genuine faith is active in sexual love. In marital love. In sexual intimacies between a husband and wife. If the Apostle Paul would have said that genuine faith was to be active in sexual love, I would have thought that was just great. But the Apostle Paul did not say that. The Apostle Paul said, “let faith be active in charitable love.” The word, charitable, is the Greek word for agape love. It is love for the poor, the widows, the orphans, for the oppressed and starving people of life. The Apostle Paul says that you cannot separate genuine faith from acts of charitable love. You cannot separate genuine faith from the love of people who are suffering, poor, and starving. If faith does not result in charitable love, you don’t have faith. You cannot separate the head from the body or both will die.
Now, James says the same thing. James says that true faith is active in works of love for the orphans, widows, and the needy. In today’s epistle lesson he says, “Now this is true religion.” Now, the word, religion, by the way, does not refer religion, but it refers to the worship. Worship. Please open your bulletin, find the epistle lesson, cross out the word, religion and write in the word, worship. The Greek word for religion is liturgy. Liturgy is the way you worship God. James says, “Now this is true worship. Not that you say your hail marys. Not that you use your prayer beads. Not that you go to mass. Not that you go to worship and do the traditional liturgy at 8:30. Not that you go to worship on Sunday morning at 11:00 and do the same liturgical formula on Sunday. No. None of this is true worship. None of this is true worship. True liturgy, true worship is this: that you care for orphans and orphans in their suffering, and you remain unstained from the world. Now, that is true liturgy. That is true worship of God. That is the real thing, and you and I want the real thing in our Christian faith. True worship is not being in church on Sunday morning at 8:30 or 11:00 but true worship is charitable love for the widow and orphan.
Why? Why were the people in James’ congregation separating faith in Christ from charitable love? You see, there has always been this problem in the church of not doing works of charitable love for the widows and the orphans of the world. For James, a major problem in his church, was that he was part of a wealthy congregation. There were many wealthy people in his congregation and it was a rich church. In this short little book called James, there are five paragraphs which all negative about wealthy Christians. Many of the members of these wealthy Christian congregations wanted to just believe. They did not want to go and do good for the widow and the orphan. Pound for pound. Page for page. Paragraph for paragraph. There are more statements against wealthy Christians in the book of James than any other book in the New or Old Testament. Pound for pound. Page for page. Paragraph for paragraph. There are more statements against wealthy congregations in that little book than in any other place in the Bible. You see, these wealthy congregations wanted to believe and say, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I like going to church. Jesus, I love worshipping you. Jesus, I love seeing all my friends at worship. That is true religion and true liturgy for us: to worship you with all our friends.” But these wealthy Christians in James’ congregation did not have true liturgy. They did not have true worship. They did not have the real thing.
Jesus had a similar problem with the Pharisees. The Pharisees went to their synagogues every Friday night. They tithed. They knew their Bible very well. In fact, these Pharisees knew their Bible better than the Southern Baptists. Better than the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Pharisees knew their Bible. They gave their tithe. They dropped coins into the almsgiving pot. BUT…they did not care for the poor, the widows, the prostitutes, the beggars, the blind, the lepers, and all the other outcasts of society who were suffering. That was the problem. They did not have true liturgy. They did not have true worship. They did not have the real thing.
We find this problem not only in James. Not only in Jesus. But in the prophets of the Old Testament. Amos, Micah, Hosea, Isaiah said the same thing: “Do not oppress the orphan, the widow, the stranger who live among you. All rituals and all liturgical sacrifices are worthless without constant charitable love, justice and kindness.”
We recall that when the Apostle Paul visited Jerusalem, "James, Peter and John asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”
So there was this persistent problem for James, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. And the same problem persists today. Today, Christians often separate faith in Jesus Christ from deeds and actions of charitable love. Why?
Compared to the rest of the world, we are a wealthy congregation. Does anyone here disagree? Compared to the rest of the world, Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, is a wealthy congregation. Compared to the rest of the world, we all live a comparatively, comfortable material life-style. And the great temptation for us individually and congregationally, is to us to forget to do good for the orphan and the widow in their suffering. We often become corrupted by the materialistic values of our society around us. We therefore do not have true religion, true worship, the real thing. Worship is attending church at 8:30 or 11:00 in the morning and not caring for the widow and the orphan.
In other words, the book of James may not be very Lutheran but it is totally relevant for the Lutheran church.
There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi that he was praying in an ancient church that was badly in need of repair. He heard a voice from a crucifix which was over the altar which said, “Francis, go and repair my church will you see falling into ruin.” Francis went to get his tool chest, but he soon realized that the voice of God was referring to some thing else. The voice of God again said, “Not the bricks, Francis. The people are in need of repair.” Then Francis went out and took care of orphans and widows. The voice of God still speaks from above the altar today and says, “Francis. Go and repair my church which is falling into ruins.” And God is not talking about bricks and mortar.
I would like to briefly share several stories that illustrate today what James meant when he said, “This is true worship or genuine liturgy; that is, to care for widows and orphans in their suffering and to remain unstained from the world.” I would like to talk about that Bible verse as it is lived out in the life of our parish. None of these stories are too fancy.
Ellen Heffner was the “mother” of our homeless shelter here at Grace Lutheran Church. Ellen determined by her own solitary self that our congregation should be involved in homeless ministry. Due to her leadership, we have several men from a downtown homeless shelter staying overnight at our church. On the streets, our homeless shelter is known as Graceland. What I like about this ministry is seeing people from our parish, young, old and middle aged, getting into their sleeping bags and sleep on the floor on the mattress, just as our homeless men from the shelter are doing. We treat these men with immense dignity. We make them a great breakfast with sausage and eggs and super coffee. At night, the homeless men will have delicious desserts. Now, that is genuine religion. I talked to a young family of a father and mother and two young children who stayed overnight with the homeless men the other Friday night. That is genuine liturgy. James says that is the ‘real thing.” The “real thing,” the “real liturgy” is to take care of widows and orphans in their suffering. True worship, according to James, is not going to 8:30 or 11:00 Sunday morning church but true worship is what happens when you care for the homeless each evening in the Fellowship Hall.
Let me tell you another story. Which city in the whole state of Washington has the highest concentration of elderly in our state? You know the answer. The city of Des Moines has the largest concentration of widows in the state of Washington. Des Moines has more nursing homes than any other city in the state of Washington. Week after week after week after week, I have seen “Friend to Friend” people go and take care of a little old man or a little old lady, year in and year out. The research by the Friend to Friend ministry informs us that 60% of the elderly in the area retirement homes are not visited by anybody, that they are alone in this world. Harriet Thomsen has been instrumental through the years in persuading so many of our members to be a friend to a widow or widower, to be part of the Friend to Friend program. Now, that is real religion. True worship, according to James, is not going to 8:30 or 11:00 Sunday morning church but true worship is what happens when you care for the elderly widow and widowers in their suffering.
A third story. Kid Reach. Every Thursday night, there are thirty children from the two neighboring elementary schools, and these thirty children are behind in their learning. Their teachers have selected them to be tutored and they are tutored in our tutoring program. If you come down to our educational rooms on Thursday nights, you will see a cluster of people helping these children with their math or reading. I believe they are caring for the orphans and widows.
Still others of you build for habitat for humanity. Still others of you are connected with our sister churches in Haiti and Jamaica. Still others have other ministries which you are giving yourself to.
Let us not interpret the phrase, widows and orphans, narrowly. It may be your father or mother or husband or wife or grandmother or grandfather who is the person who is suffering that you are taking care of. For example, recently, Daryl Mitchell who used to belong to our parish, died. I am recalling an old story about Daryl. Daryl Mitchell was really looking forward to his retirement from Boeing. Like so many people at Boeing, he had put in a long and solid career and was looking forward to his retirement years when he finally could spend more time with his wife. He didn’t want his wife to get Alzheimer’s disease at age fifty-eight. He certainly wasn’t expecting it. So his wife, Joan, got Alzheimer’s. So now, after all those years at Boeing, Daryl can finally retire and take care of his wife, Joan, for twenty-four hours a day. Before he would go to work, but now he can care for early all day long. Daryl does this with immense love. His son Brian, who is an art sculptor down in San Francisco, saw the suffering of his dad and saw the suffering of his mom, and Brian moved home. Why? You know why. It had something to do with his mom and dad. And it had something to do with the real thing, with real religion. I am not sure if Brian is here on Sunday morning, but I know that the heart of God is with him and in him. That is the real thing. That is real religion. The real liturgy is when you take care of widows and orphans in their suffering and remain unstained from the world.
Today, we begin this five part series on the Book of James. Today, we hear the Word of the Lord: Now, this is true worship: to care for the widows and orphans in their suffering and remain unstained from the world. Please come again next week when we continue to study the Word of God in the Book of James. Amen.
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