Read the text here - Beginning with James 1:1
The Essence of Faith
Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James very much. He famously called it “an epistle of straw.” What’s up with that? We all bring to our reading of the Bible our own pre-suppositions and prejudices and Luther was no different than us. Just read through the 1st chapter of James and you can see why Luther was so negative about James. Be doers of the Word and not merely hearers… (James 1:22). Well, Luther was in the midst of a life and death struggle against a Medieval Church that was focused on “doing” things in order to earn your way to heaven. Now that is not what James is talking about, but we can see why Luther reacted the way he did to this passage. But the world has changed a lot since the early 1500’s and besides Luther was only a human being too who actually sometimes got things wrong. This is an example.
James is believed to have been written sometime in the early days of the church – before the destruction of the Temple. Most scholars place the writing of Book of James after the 7 undisputed letters of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark, but before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Traditionally the letter was believed to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus who was a leader and central figure in the early Jerusalem church of Jewish-Christians. This James (not either of the disciples by that name) also took part in the conflict with Paul over preaching and reaching out to Gentiles, which is described in Acts and Galatians. It should be noted that the book itself does not claim to have been written by this particular James and in fact the form of the book is not even in the form of a letter, it’s almost more like a sermon. But those are unimportant details. What is important is that this book gives us a glimpse of the struggles of ordinary Christians trying to balance their new faith in Jesus with their everyday lives living in a world that was at best indifferent to their faith and at worst openly hostile.
To these Christians James has some very practical and important advice: 1. Faithfulness does not need to be heroic, but faith is not just personal conviction or private feelings – faith is seen in what we do and how we act and live our lives and the priorities we set. 2. Sunday is not the most important day of the week – it is rather the day when we are refreshed and renewed in the Spirit through our worship; when we experience of God’s presence, love and forgiveness in the Sacraments, but that is just the prelude to our real work: our daily lives in the world. 3. All of the distinctions which are important to human society – such as showing deference to the wealthy and powerful just because they are wealthy and powerful have no meaning in the sight of God. God judges the heart and looks at the work which faith has produced. (If it is the famous James, the brother of Jesus who wrote this letter, he seems to have come around to Paul’s point of view about God’s openness and love for all regardless of the categories that we humans like to apply. [See Galatians 3:38]).
We too, like Luther are human, fallible and we have our preconceptions about the Bible and church. Part of the difficulty is that God is so much beyond any of us it is difficult for us to wrap our minds around that. We tend to create our mental ideas and images of God and Jesus in our own image and we then naturally assume that God and Jesus think like we do and have the same priorities and prejudices that we do. James is reminding us that that is not the case! God is beyond us; God has different priorities and God doesn’t accept our ways of categorizing people. God is open to ALL – everyone, especially those who are poor, suffering or have special needs.
So what are we to do? James is clear on this – just live your daily lives in ways that reflect your Baptism. Show mercy, kindness and grace to all – allow the love of Christ to flow through you. “Be doers of the Word” which means that if you see needs around you, recognize then that you have a responsibility to reach out in God’s love to help those in need. But it doesn’t have to be heroic, all it needs to be is faithful. The rhythm of the Christian life that begins with Word and Sacrament in any given week, extends then into every other area of your life during the week. So our Sunday worship is not the goal or the climax of the week. It is rather the prelude:
“Sunday is not the pinnacle of the Christian week but actually, according to James, was intended to serve and support our Christian lives the rest of the week. Sunday is the day we are immersed again in the Word, have our sins forgiven, receive guidance and encouragement in our Christian lives, hear again the good news of God's goodness and mercy, and are called, commissioned, and sent once more into the world to work with God for the health of the people God has put all around us.” David Lose, Luther Seminary – from “Ordinary Saints.”
I wouldn’t call this straw – it sounds more like meat and potatoes to me! May God bless your daily ministry!