For the past few weeks, we have heard a series of readings from the book of James. James has a checkered history in the Christian tradition. By the 4th century, the church had to make a decision about scripture. Christianity was an influential religion, now endorsed by the Roman Empire. Although most of the books had been informally accepted and were in use, there was still some debate about which holy books could be called “scripture”. The New Testament didn’t pop into being, but developed over time as people debated about what constituted the official holy texts. Was it written by an early apostle or was it written by someone later writing in the name of that apostle (this was a fairly common practice, considered a way of honoring the apostle and not intended to deceive)? Was it recognized as scripture by the church at large, or just by a few groups? There were several gospel texts floating around the ancient world but only four were canonized as scripture. There were other letters of Paul (supposedly by Paul) and letters supposedly by some of the original twelve that didn’t make it into the Christian canon for a variety of reasons.
The Book of James was a subject of debate. It does not appear on some early lists of New Testament scripture (from the 2nd and 3rd centuries). It seemed to be better known in the eastern churches (centered on Jerusalem) than the western churches (centered on Rome). Yet by the 4th century it was accepted by the church as scripture though there were still some who called it into question for centuries afterward.
Martin Luther, at least early in his career, was not a fan in part because of the passage we read today that ended with those challenging words, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” And of course Luther focused much more on Paul in Romans with his emphasis on grace through faith apart from works. Over time he softened his stance and started seeing some good things in the book but never gave it the same kind of attention as Paul’s writings.
I see James as a classic book on how, as modern philosophers say, “Ideas have consequences.” Much of the book of James is not lofty theological prose. Especially the parts where he critical of the community to which he writes, he holds them accountable for the ideas that they claim to believe. Today he cites what he calls the royal law of scripture with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a variation of the golden rule that can found in many religious traditions:
In Islam there is a tradition that a man approached the prophet Muhammad and grabbed his camel by the stirrup. Then he asked for a teaching that would lead him to heaven. The prophet replied, "As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. Now let the stirrup go!"
In Buddhism it is voiced in more holistic words, “Just as I am so are they; just as they are so am I.”
In fact, you can find a phrase or one similar to it in just about every world religion, going back a few thousand years. It is a beautiful idea, one that could end war; feed the hungry and remove poverty from the world. Yet we as human being struggle with the implications, with the definition of neighbor. Historically, we have turned our enemies into a little less than human, so we can say that the golden rule doesn’t really apply to the bad people.
As Christians we have phrases that we use as religious shorthand, that express a very important idea in few words. God loves everyone. What does that mean, if we really think about it? Take it even further, God loves everyone and so should we. What does that imply about our relationships with other people, difficult people, angry people, enemy people?
James was chiding his community for its favoritism of wealthy over poor, maintaining a class structure when the church was supposed to be a place of radical equality, everyone equal in baptism. This has long been a challenge for many service-oriented congregations, great at feeding those in need at the food bank or soup kitchen but struggling to invite and incorporate those same people into the general life of the congregation. They just don’t fit in with us.
Ideas have implications and consequences, a concept that I think is well-indicated by Jesus’ seeming surprise at the expansive nature of God’s grace. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter who, according to the text, had an unclean spirit. There are stories on this side of the lake about this guy from Israel doing miracles. The last time he crossed the Sea of Galilee and came into Gentile territory he healed a man who was possessed by demons. Now he has come again, crossing part of the lake on foot, and will the healing continue? Surprisingly, Jesus’ first answer is “No.” This is for the children, not for the dogs. This is for Israel and not for the rest. Some will say that this was a test of her faith. Others will say she caught Jesus on a bad day. I like to imagine that there is a sense of surprise. For lack of a better term, Jesus comes off as a little more human in Mark, a little more impatient with his disciples, a little more pleading with God as he approaches the crucifixion. He knows his purpose is to share good news with Israel. That’s how the ministry starts. Yet this interaction seem to challenge even him to expand that vision. The woman says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
The larger narrative is also important here. If you were listening to the full gospel, this story comes right after the story we heard last week, where Jesus challenges the Pharisees and their view that divides the world into clean and unclean. There Jesus spoke to them and said, “It’s not what comes in but what goes out that defiles.” Today Jesus himself is challenged with the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, Jews and Gentiles, clean people and unclean people. So he heals the woman’s daughter and he then heals a deaf man who is also probably not part of Israel.
The scope of this kingdom of God coming near that he proclaims at the beginning has expanded, as it will expand through the disciples’ work, at is will expand through Paul’s ministry, as it will expand through the early church. Yet even as we see that expansion going on there is also the very human tendency to put the brakes on. Paul has to deal with friction between Jews and Gentiles in his communities. James is dealing with the division of rich and poor in his community. Surely you can’t believe that these folks are really on equal footing with us.
But that is the whole trajectory of the gospel story. God expands the boundaries and suddenly those on the outside are by default on the inside. We didn’t pull them in. Instead, God extended the boundary out and we have been trying to make sense of that expansion of grace ever since. This is where Luther had his conflict with the book of James. At the beginning of the Reformation, Luther saw works as a dangerous subject, too easily turned into things we do that are necessary to earn the love of God. But James, and eventually Luther, saw works, especially works of kindness toward those in need, as a natural offshoot of faith. Lutheran theology as it developed eventually reached a place where we say that God’s love is not based on our works but on grace through faith, on the back and forth relationship that God has started with us in Christ. But if that relationship of faith doesn’t produce works of love toward others, there is something amiss in the relationship. So it was very natural that a hallmark of the Lutheran tradition would become social service, caring for others, reaching out in love, seeking to be the embodiment of the love of Christ in the communities around us.
Yet we are still struggling with the expansive nature of God’s love and grace. Because it goes beyond the bounds of the people we are comfortable with. It extends to all races and all classes, something that we say we know to be true, yet is called into question by our very, very white, middle class makeup. It extends beyond the boundary-markers that we assumed were firm. At one point, most American Lutherans assumed that the Lutheran church was a place for people of German or Scandinavian heritage. It was a comforting boundary and produced great pastries but God was already far beyond it. At one point we understood that there was a boundary around how women could serve in the church, a marker hammered into place by Paul. When we looked critically at the marker, we realized God was already past it. At one point we believed that gay and lesbian people could not serve in the church, and I know there are still folks who believe that boundary marker is solid, but if you look at it critically I think you find once again that God is already past it.
Our worship together ends with a dismissal, “Go and serve.” We are called together into community; we worship together in community. God calls us into a holy huddle of praise, reconciliation and nourishment. But part of the purpose of worship is to send us out into the expansive world of the grace of God. Go in peace to serve the Lord. Go in peace to everybody: to the rich, to the poor, to the clean, to the unclean, to the insiders, and to those whom we imagine to be outsiders but whom God has already embraced. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.