This week we are in the first chapter of the Epistle of James. This is one of the letters in the
New Testament that was not addressed to any one specific church or location but the whole
church with a Jewish-Christian perspective. It begins, “To the twelve tribes scattered among
the nations.” (James 1:1b) And, despite the direct and almost harsh tone that he can take with
his readers in the letter, he demonstrates his affection by starting off his letter with a greeting
of “Joy to You!” which in many of our Bibles are merely translated as “Greetings.”
There is strong evidence that this letter was written by James, the brother of Jesus, the leader
of the church in Jerusalem until his death in about 62 A.D. However, the author merely refers to himself
as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:1a)
Chapter one serves very much as the introduction to the entire letter. It is like the overture to an opera or
a musical where you hear snippets and samples of the music that will be developed later. Therefore, this
chapter covers a lot. Its main concern is answering the question, “What does faith look like?” How do we
as followers of Jesus Christ represent or embody the gospel, the good news. In other words, what does it
mean to live as a Christian? James is very practical in his teachings. He wants us to know what it means to
live as a Christian right now, today, this week, not in theory, not in the inner workings of our
imaginations, but right away. Let’s hear what James has to say.
James 1:17-27 (NIV)
17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the
heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth
through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen,
slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the
righteousness that God desires.21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is
so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at
his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what
he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and
continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues
deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.27 Religion that God our Father accepts as
pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself
from being polluted by the world.
What does it mean to live as a Christian or a follower of Jesus Christ? One thing that it means
is understanding that God is a giver of gifts. (vs. 17) The God of heavenly lights who has no darkness
at all, no shadow side, has given us life, not just physical life but also spiritual life.
James calls us “a kind of first fruits for all that [God] created.” (vs. 18) This echoes back to the Older
Testament to the Feast of First Fruits or the Feast of Weeks. This was from the first harvest of the year.
One brought an offering from this first harvest as a symbol of trust of the greater harvest to come
during the rest of the year. As first fruits we belong to God. Moreover, we are claimed and wanted
by God. So, another part of living as a Christian is understanding whose we are. We belong to God.
Is that a comforting thought or kind of scary? Can it be both? Let’s continue.
Being first fruits, we are also the promise of more to come. We are the example to the world. We are
representatives. What Jesus referred to as salt and light in Matthew chapter 5. Today, we think of salt
as something we have to be concerned about having too much of in our diets, yet it is still on many a
dining table. We think of it as something that seasons our food. And while ingesting too much of it is
dangerous, without any salt at all, we die. So in a western diet we may be overwhelmed by it, but in the
ancient world it was very valuable. One of its many valuable attributes is its ability to preserve meat.
There were no refrigerators or freezers then, and meat that was not preserved would make you sick.
Salt preserves things, helps to preserve life. As light we are the example. We teach. We show people the
way. We keep them out of danger. We are a beacon to God. At least that is what we are meant to be.
These are still a lot of generalizations, and I told you that James is practical. How do we do this salt and
light thing? James tells us, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (vs. 19) People
talk about the relevance of Christianity and the Bible in contemporary culture. Here is something that
speaks to an ever worsening issue that seems to be plaguing the world, the inability, the unwillingness
Tracey Allred talks about her three year-old daughter. Once she learned to talk, she proceeded to do
so from morning to night. One of the skills that Tracey is trying to develop with her daughter is using
her “listening ears.” That is something that many of us can use some work on. So often we are not
listening to understand but listening to respond, preparing what we are going to say next, but James
tells us to “be slow to speak.”
If there is one thing that James considers vital in living the Christian life it is being active. In this case
it is an active listening, a listening leading to understanding. This is a listening that is deliberate and
should be our first impulse. “Be quick to listen,” before we even think of saying a thing.
Have you ever heard something that made you angry and thought, “If I share some of my righteous anger
with them, things will be set right?” I know that I can be tempted to do that with customer service
representatives on the phone who are not resolving my issue to my satisfaction. If I stop and think, just for
a second, I remember that this has never resolved the issue. It only created an antagonistic relationship. Of
course that means that I have succumbed to that temptation more than once in my life though I hope that
it is far less often now. As James says, “Slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Does that mean that we should never get angry, never let it motivate us to seek after justice and what is
right? No, it doesn’t mean that, but doing it in the heat of the moment is rarely effective. Often, our outburst
will include more than a bit of our own wounded pride, jealousy, or envy rather than what will give glory to
God. Better to slow down, to be thoughtful and deliberate than strike out in the moment with our tongue.
James says that learning about or listening to the word of God is an important part of being a follower of
Jesus. It is good to study, to feed on the word as we have talked about the last several weeks. It is essential.
We need to know what we are supposed to do, but that is not enough. We must “Do what it says.”
(vs 22) We must put it into practice. Some people call it piety others call it holiness. Those words can
put us off these days. We hear of someone acting “holier than thou,” and we instantly want to run away,
at least I know that I do. But as disciples of Jesus, we are called to be holy. Another way of saying it is
Christ-like. One of the meanings of the Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as holy is “set apar
t for sacred purpose.” In other words, God calls us to be set apart for sacred purpose. This is a good
thing, something to aspire to.
There are whole sections in our hymnal dedicated to holiness. Take out your hymnal and give it
a look. Start with hymn number 395 and go through a poem by Charles Wesley at number 449.
Look at the headings at the top of the right side. You will see descriptions staring with personal
holiness, the internal work we need to do, and continuing with social holiness, serving God in
the world. You will see some very familiar hymns, including one we will sing before the service
is complete, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.” What these hymns do is encourage us, remind us,
that we need to do more than just listen to the word. We need to put it into practice.
Then James uses that interesting illustration about someone who merely listens to the word as
someone who looks at their face in a mirror then turns away and forgets what he or she looks like.
These days mirrors are everywhere, in bathrooms, bedrooms, cars. Glass is so well made and smooth
that if we don’t have access to a mirror, we can look at some glass and get a pretty good idea of what
we look like. Since we see this all of the time, we have an inner awareness of what we look like, or at
least what we think we look like. Sometimes, I see pictures of myself, and it doesn’t match with the
picture I have in my mind at all. Is that anybody else, or is that just me? So we can see that verse in
James and interpret it as questioning, “How can you look in a mirror and forget who you really are?”
You are a follower of Jesus. How can you just forget about that when it comes to the way that you live
your everyday life?
That is good, but in the ancient world mirrors were rare, and the ones that were around were not that
good, often reflecting a distorted image. Moreover, there were no photos, few drawings or paintings,
especially of average people. Most people would have no idea of what they really looked like. If they
happened to see even an accurate reflection of themselves, they probably soon forget what they looked
like. So, people who only listen to the word and do not do what it says, put it into practice, will soon go
back to doing, living, believing just as they did before they ever came into contact with Jesus and his
That is one of the things that I have always appreciated about the United Methodist Church. So often in
churches of any denomination, we can get focused on an “either/or.” Either we place primary focus on
study of the Bible, study of spiritual practices, and so on, or we place primary focus on the doing,
ministry and outreach, collecting for the food bank, making kits for UMCOR, helping people through
our Benevolence Fund.
The Methodist way, the Wesleyan way is a both/and. It is a balance. We study to learn God’s word.
We learn about who we are and whose we are. We have been adopted into God’s family, and we
belong to God. We learn about why we do things. Why should be help people in the world, even if it is
our small corner of it? There are lots of organizations that help people. What makes Joseph United
Methodist Church different from them? It has to do with our why. Why share the good news about
Jesus Christ? All of it is because God loves them and cares about them, and as representatives of
Christ in the world we need to take care of them and even give them an opportunity to be a part of it.
We are the first fruits. They can be part of the promised harvest that is to come. It’s not easy. It’s not
glamorous, but in this way with God’s help, we can transform the world.