By Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
This Sunday we’re starting a series on the Book of James, also known as the Epistle of James, the Letter of James, or just James. We don’t know exactly who the author is. Obviously, it’s someone named James. Actually, someone named Jacob. The Greek name is Ἰάκωβος, derived from the Hebrew name ,יעקב that is, Jacob. But the name comes to us through the vulgar Latin Iacomus, and through the Old French James. But really, their all the same name. Jacob, James, Jim, along with Giacomo, Jacques, Tiago, and Diego—they all come from the same Hebrew name.
So, we know that the author of James shared that name. But there were a lot of Jameses is the early Christian movement. In fact, out of the twelve men that Jesus called as his apostles, two of them are named James. There’s the James who is the brother of John, both of them sons of Zebedee. He is known as James the Great. Then there is a second James numbered among the twelve. He is the son of Alphaeus and is know known as James the Less. It’s not supposed to mean that isn’t as good, it’s supposed to mean that he is younger. James the Great is older; James the Less is younger. So those are the two Jameses who were among Jesus’s twelve followers.
Then there is a third James mentioned prominently in the New Testament. It’s James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just or James the Righteous. Jesus had four brothers: James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. He also had at least two sisters. Presumably, these are children that Mary and Joseph had together after Jesus was born. However, in Catholic tradition, it’s important that Mary remain perpetually a virgin, so they speculate that Joseph had all of these children with a previous wife. In any case, this brother, or possibly step-brother, named James became a leader in the early church after Jesus’s death. He is sometimes known as James of Jerusalem, because he became the leader of the Jerusalem church, often thought of as the first bishop of Jerusalem. He’s considered a pillar of the early church. He’s known to have had a few wrangling with Peter and Paul about the direction of the early Christian movement. Sometimes he is thought of as the same person as James the Less.
So, there are three very famous Jameses in the New Testament. Which, if any of them wrote the epistle of James? We don’t know. The author of the letter refers to himself as “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But that’s all. No other identifiers. So, it could be any of these three figures, or it could be an entirely different James. However, the Letter of James is most commonly associated with James, the brother of Jesus, also known as James of Jerusalem or James the Just. It also could have been written by someone who was using James’s name in order to give the letter more authority.
So who is the letter written to? Well, the addressee is just as vague as the author. It’s addressed to “the twelve tribes in dispersion,” or the twelve tribes in diaspora. That is to say, the target audience was probably Jesus-followers who already had a background in Judaism. The twelve tribes refers to the twelve tribes of Israel, that is the Jewish people. And to say that they are in dispersion means that we’re not just talking about Jews who lived in Judea and Galilee. This is address to Jews who have been spread across the world. We know that by this point in history, there were Jewish communities in as far-flung of places as Spain and India, and just about everywhere in between. So the letter isn’t aimed one particular Christian community, but to a more general audience. That’s why James is sometimes called a General Epistle or Catholic Epistle; it’s because James is addressed to a general audience.
The Letter of James has had a mixed history in the church. As early Christians were beginning to collect different writings into what would eventually be called the New Testament, James wasn’t always included on the list. Some early Christian leaders argued explicitly that it should not be included in the New Testament. Others said that it was a contested book, that Christian communities did not agree about it. But before the end of the fourth century, James was clearly accepted as one of the books of the Bible.
That is until Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Luther famously referred to James as “an epistle of straw.” He didn’t think it was among the core books of the New Testament. He included it in his German translation of the Bible, but he put it at the end, almost as an appendix, along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. Luther didn’t think it clearly reflected his own theology of justification by grace apart from works of the law.
And it’s not too difficult to see why Luther found James problematic. Right here in the first chapter, James says, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” Faith isn’t just about hearing something, it’s about doing something. Of course, Luther believed that Christians should do something about their faith, he just didn’t want people to make the mistake of thinking that the doing of good works is what saves people from sin. Salvation from sin through Jesus Christ comes purely through God’s grace. It is not a reward, it is a gift. We don’t earn salvation. Jesus earns our salvation and gives it away freely through the gift of faith.
In Luther’s day, the church taught that people had to do penance for their sins in order to earn salvation. If they hadn’t atoned for their sins during their lifetime, then they would have to spend time after death in a place called purgatory. In purgatory, sinners would be allowed to work off their sins, to do things to purge their sins, so that they would be fit to enter heaven. The worse your life was on earth, the longer you had to stay in purgatory to make up for it. And purgatory wasn’t a pleasant place. It wasn’t as bad as the fires of hell, but it wasn’t somewhere you wanted to stay for any longer than absolutely necessary.
But, the church had a great deal to offer. You see, all of the truly wonderful saints had done far more good in their lives than they would need to counteract the bad things they had done and earn heaven. What’s more, Jesus had made sacrifice of himself that was far more meritorious than was necessary to save himself. So that meant there were surplus good deeds lying around. They were more than was necessary as the entrance price to heaven, so they hadn’t yet been used. Instead, they were being stored up in something called the treasury of merit. Like a big bank account of good works waiting to be used.
According to church doctrine at the time, the church could draw on this treasury of merit and apply it to people who were living or to people who had died but were still in purgatory. Well, actually, it was the pope who could draw on the treasury of merit for the benefit of someone living or dead. This draw on the treasury of merit was called an indulgence. And over the years, popes had made these indulgences into quite the little money-making scheme. In Luther’s day, there were traveling preachers who went around scaring people with the threat of hell or purgatory and then selling indulgences for money. If you don’t want your dead mother to languish in purgatory, then just buy an indulgence, and she will be set free. She will get to go to heaven. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was largely funded by the sale of indulgences.
Luther found this to be detestable. It wasn’t okay to squeeze money out of poor people, who already had barely enough to survive, in order to enrich in the institutional church. Salvation and forgiveness could not be sold. They were free gifts of God. Righteousness came through faith in Jesus Christ, not through works of the law, and certainly not through monetary payments made in substitution for good works.
So in Luther’s context, the Epistle of James skirted dangerously close to what we call Works Righteousness. James wasn’t wrong. It was still orthodox. But Luther worried that it was too easily misinterpreted. It placed the emphasis in a different place than Luther wanted to place it.
I’m not much like Luther, though. James is one of my favorite books of the Bible. After the gospels, James is probably my favorite New Testament book. And it’s precisely James’s focus on the doing of faith that makes it one of my favorites.
You see, I tend to think that many Christians have over-corrected for the theological error that Luther fought against. Our problem isn’t that we think we have to earn salvation. Most Christians believe that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is completely sufficient for our salvation. We don’t have to do anything to earn salvation. Salvation by faith is a free gift of God’s grace.
But what then? I have faith in Jesus. I am saved through the faithfulness of Jesus. We might argue about exactly how we know we’re in that state. Do I accept Jesus into my heart? Do I get baptized? Do I recite the sinner’s prayer? But let’s not worry about those details for the moment. Let’s just stipulate that through God’s gift in Jesus Christ, I am in a state of grace. I am saved. What then?
Is that the end of the story? I am saved. I’ve punched my ticket to heaven. That’s all that’s necessary. That is the end of my journey of faith. The only thing I might do now is try to get other people saved? Does that seem right? It certainly seems common in some Christian circles.
That’s why the message of James is so important. “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” Hearing the words is not the end. Accepting the grace of God in Jesus Christ is not the end. Next comes the doing of God’s word.
And James has a couple of suggestions about how one might do God’s word. It’s by caring for widows and orphans in distress. “Widows and orphans” are used throughout the Bible as a kind of code for people who are poor and marginalized. Those who don’t just hear the word but also do the word do what they can to care for and empower the poor and the marginalized. It is the necessary outcome of faith.
We don’t do it in order to earn salvation. We don’t do it to earn brownie points with God, either. In fact, the doing of good works isn’t something we do of our own initiative. Good works are a result of God’s grace.
In Methodist theology, in the theology of John Wesley, we talk about three kinds of grace. It’s not that they are actually separate—it’s all God’s grace—it’s just a way of describing the ways that God’s grace works.
The first is called prevenient grace, which means the grace that comes before. Prevenient grace is God’s grace toward us that happens before we are aware of it or before we understand it. Whether we recognize it or not, God is always working to draw us near, to make us aware of God’s love, to woo us, through prevenient grace. It is prevenient grace that calls us into initial relationship with God.
The second kind of grace is called justifying grace. This is the grace that makes us right with God. When we see our own weakness, when we see the ways that our actions are destructive to ourselves and others, when we recognize our own sinfulness, sometimes we are overwhelmed. But God is ready to offer us the free gift of grace. When we recognize that God has forgiven us our sins through Jesus Christ, that’s called justifying grace. When people talk about being saved, or becoming a Christian, or accepting God’s grace for themselves, they’re usually describing what we call justifying grace. Justifying grace makes us right with God. And it doesn’t necessarily happen just once.
Finally—and most important for our understanding of the Letter of James—is sanctifying grace. Even after we have been saved, God is not through with us. God works in us, through the holy spirit, to bring us more in line with God’s dreams for us. The Spirit works in us to make us more holy. That’s sanctifying grace: it’s grace that works in us to make our lives more holy. It’s not an individual achievement. It’s not something we do for God; it’s something that God does in us. Those who not only hear the word but actually do it—they don’t do it through an act of will—they do it through God’s grace. That’s what we call sanctifying grace.
And James actually makes this clear. Just before talking about being doers of the word, James encourages us to “welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.” Welcome the word that is planted deep inside you. Doing faith isn’t about trying really hard to please God, it’s about God planting a seed in us that grows until it produces the fruit of faithfulness. God plants the seed. God waters and cares for. And God brings the fruit to harvest. God grace, through faith, works in us so that we don’t just hear the word of God, we actually put it into practice.
For the next four Sundays, we’re going to hear more from James about how God’s word grows and produces fruit in us. We’re going to hear about how faith works and about what a working faith actually looks like in the real world. But for today, let us just pray for God to tend and nurture the seed that God has planted deep in our hearts so that it can grow and produce good fruit. . . .