The Fifth Sunday after Easter: Doers of the Word
The Fifth Sunday after Easter: Doers of the Word
St. James 1:22-27
by William Klock
Social media is a funny thing. You hear about people saying something to their husband or wife about some product or some thing they might buy and minutes later Facebook and Amazon and Google are showing you adverts for exactly that product or thing even though you’ve never looked it up online. I think that happened to me, but instead of books or bike parts or swim suits or lanterns—which is what I’d have expected—YouTube and Facebook for the last couple of months have been flooding me with short videos on the theme of “Ask a rabbi…” or “Ask an orthodox Jew” and so I’ve been seeing all these videos on Judaism and some are interesting and others are exasperating and others just make you scratch your head and a lot of them make me thankful that Jesus came. But one of things that comes up a lot in these videos is doctrine. “What do Jews believe about heaven and hell?” or “What do Jews believe about sin…or forgiveness…or salvation?” All sorts of doctrinal questions. And it’s striking just how often these rabbis—and it doesn’t matter if they’re liberal or conservative—it’s striking how often they’ll answer these doctrinal questions, but they’ll start out by saying something like, “Judaism doesn’t really care what you believe. It cares about what you do.” “Salvation”, for example, just isn’t a concern in Judaism as it is in Christianity. For them, if you’re Jewish that means you’re part of the covenant people and your life is about obeying the torah, because obedience to torah—the things you do—are what mark you out as different from everyone else and confirm your membership in the covenant. Judaism is a religion of works, but Christians often misunderstand that, thinking Jews are trying to earn their way into heaven. That’s not it at all. They’d say something like, “We’re already God’s people; now we’re proving it by what we do.” You can believe whatever you want, just so long as it doesn’t interfere with living according to torah.
Of course, that’s not what the Lord intended for his people. Good works grow out of a heart tuned to God and this is why Jesus came: to forgive his people, to fill their hearts with God’s own Spirit, and to set their affections on him. But even as Christians it’s all too easy to fall into the ditch on the opposite of the road. We become very concerned about right belief, and downplay the doing part of our faith. There are Christians who take our affirmation that we are saved by faith and not by works to such extremes that they get angry with anyone who says that real faith is proved by good works. Other times, it’s not that we forget the sinfulness of sin and the need for good works to give evidence of our faith, but that we become selective about the sins we condemn and the good works we do.
The last month or two I’ve been following a certain discussion forum online where a group of folks—some of them clergymen, I’m sad to say—have been discussing theology. And things quickly went from “discussion” to all out verbal brawling—anger, name calling, all sorts of nasty stuff—and all of it for the most part over disagreements about, of all things, the Lord’s Supper—one of the central things Jesus gave us as a sign of our unity in him, of his love for us, and our love for him and for each other. This is the sort of thing I see as a clergyman, but this disconnect between what we believe and what we do happens in all sorts of ways. We know Christians who wholeheartedly believe that their sins have been forgiven by the death of Jesus, but they hold grudges and refuse to forgive others. We know Christians who have known and affirm the generosity of God, but they are greedy and miserly towards others. We know Christians who come to church on Sunday and glorify God with their mouths, but go out into the world and use the same mouth to tell lies and to cheat or to say filthy things. This week I was reading the introduction to a new book on Genesis, where the author went to great lengths to stress the truthfulness of God’s word, but then wrote things that were hurtful and untrue about people who disagree with his interpretation, because doing that, I guess, is easier than engaging with people who differ from you and has the benefit of scaring people way from even considering those different points of view. But if we value truth as a doctrine, that value for truth ought to work its way out in our lives and in our speech—even if it’s sometimes inconvenient.
This is what St. James is getting at in our Epistle, when he writes:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only…
Don’t just hear it. Don’t just believe it. Do it! It helps to understand that for the Jews, speaking Hebrew, to hear and to obey were inextricably linked together. The Hebrew word for “hear” is a call not just to the ears, but to the heart, and to hear is to respond, whether it’s for the Lord to hear the cries of his people in their bondage and to come to their deliverance or for Israel to hear the word of the Lord and to take it to heart and do it. We have a word in English that we don’t use anymore that is very similar: hearken. Don’t just hear, but take note, take what you hear to heart. Do it.
Brothers and Sisters, words are important—and the word of God especially so. As I’ve said so many times, God’s word brings life. By his word he created life in the beginning and when we were mired in sin and in slavery to death, he heard out cries for deliverance and sent his word again, this time in human flesh, in Jesus, to die and to rise from death that we might know life again. This is at the core of Easter and so, these last two Sundays of Eastertide we read from St. James’ epistle about the power of God’s word to bring us life and to transform us. But first he contrasts God’s word with our words, which are so often spoken in anger or spoken, not to heal or to give life, but to hurt. This is in the first chapter of James. Our Epistle begins at verse 22, but I want to back up a bit into last week’s Epistle, to verse 19. Here’s what James writes:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19-21)
“Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” How many times would that have saved you a world of hurt if you’d only heard and obeyed? On the Internet. In an argument with your wife or your husband? At work? With your kids? But no. We get angry, because the kids broke something, because your wife bought something or your husband forgot to say where he was going or because a co-worker did something stupid or because someone is wrong on the Internet. Here’s what happens. When things go wrong, it’s all too easy to suddenly get stupid. We get this dumb idea in our heads that what the word needs to set it straight or what the situation needs to get it back on track is a taste of our anger. Maybe that’s why angry words seem to prompt angry words in return and then the angry words spiral out of control. But that’s what happens all too often.
Now, there can be a place for anger. So often we get angry because the world isn’t what we know it should be. Sometimes—a lot of the time—that’s just our pride being hurt or our selfishness being tweaked, but when we see real wrongs being done, when we see real injustice in the world, there is a place for just and righteous anger. Godly anger over sin and injustice is often precisely what we need to get us up and out into the world to help the needy or the hurt, to stand up for the defenceless, or otherwise to speak out and to work for wrongs to be righted. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry” but then there’s an “and”, a big “and”: “and do not sin.” Deal with what needs dealing with and “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” because that “gives opportunity to the devil”. If you’re angry because your pride has been hurt, put a stop to it right there. Swallow your pride and move on. If you’re angry because something is truly wrong, use that anger productively to set things right, but do not sin in the process. Two wrongs won’t make thing right. And righteous or not, don’t let your anger fester. Deal with it one way or another, because simmering anger is fodder for the devil and for all sorts of sin. We all know that from experience. Let your anger simmer and before too long you’re thinking about payback and revenge and neither of those things have any place in the Christian life. That was our lesson two Sunday’s ago: As he has vindicated Jesus, so the Father will one day vindicate us. We don’t need to vindicate ourselves.
In short, James says, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness—or, maybe better here—the justice of God. In other words, your anger is not what will set this broken world to rights. I know it always seems like it will at the time, but it won’t. Just consider: You think your anger will set things right so you lash out at that other person. And now what are they thinking? They’re thinking the same thing: All the situation needs is a little bit of their anger to fix it so they lash out at you. And all it all does is make everything worse. Brother and Sisters, James reminds us to instead be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. God is the one who will bring justice to the world and right the wrongs. If we have been wronged, God will vindicate us. The best thing we can do is to respond with the fruit of the Spirit. Where the world is broken, where relationships are broken, we should be asking ourselves how we can bring to bear the things that God’s Spirit gives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our anger won’t help God make things right. And so James warns:
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
Do you see what he did there? More often than not, when we get angry, it’s because our pride has been hurt and that kind of anger tempts us to lash out—it tempts us to respond to a hurt or a wrong with some kind of sin. Filthy words, brawling, that sort of thing. In contrast, James says that when our pride is threatening to take control of us, we need instead to meekly receive—to hearken to—the word that God has implanted in us. If this were St. Paul, he’d be reminding us to put off the old man and to put on the new. The pride and anger are the old man talking, but in Jesus and the Spirit God has made us new. James puts it in terms of the word by which God has forgiven us and made us a new creation. I think James had Isaiah 55:10-11 in mind when he was writing this. That’s where the Lord, through the Prophet, says:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
This is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture. When I look at myself and get frustrated with my own sin and my own shortcomings and my own failures to be faithful to God, I remember what he says about his word here. And as a pastor, when I’m discouraged with ministry and when it seems like nothing is happening or people aren’t maturing or when I see sin and shortcomings and failures to be faithful in the church, again, I come back to what the Lord says about his word here and I go back to the word, because God’s word is the source of life. When I’m frustrated or disappointed with myself, I read and meditate on Gods’ word. When I’m frustrated with ministry, I preach God’s word. Because nothing else I can do will bring the life of God to myself or to other people—only his word can do that—and he promises through Isaiah that his word always accomplishes what he purposes and it always succeeds in that for which he sends it forth. So I preach his word to myself and I preach his word to you and trust him to cause it to bear fruit in me and in you, because he says that that is what he will do. God’s word is life.
Brothers and Sisters, do me a favour. Hold up your right hand. Okay, now stick out your right index finger. Good. Now stick that finger in your ear. Because I don’t want what I’m about to say to go in one ear and out the other. And what I want to say is this: Don’t let God’s word go in one ear and out the other. James writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Don’t just listen to the word. Don’t just read it. Hear it, Brothers and Sisters. Hearken to it. If it helps, read your Bible with your finger in your ear to remind you to pay attention. These are God’s words and they are life! Too often we come to church and hear the word or we sit down at home and read the word, but we don’t actually hear it, we don’t let it sink in, we don’t let it take root like a seed, and so we don’t become doers of the word, letting it make a difference and transform us. If we just let the word go in one ear and out the other we’re in danger of deceiving ourselves. We think, “I’ve read the Bible or I’ve listened to it in church and I’ve done my duty,” but Friends, if the word doesn’t take root in our hearts and minds, if it doesn’t make a difference, we miss out on the life of God. He promises that his word will accomplish what he purposes—that it will make a difference, that it will bring new life—but first we have to hear it, not just listen, but hear it, take it in, obey it, and let it change us.
James uses an illustration here. Look at verses 23-25:
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
You walk past a mirror, have a look, then walk away and forget. In one ear and out the other. That’s not how we should approach God’s word. And how do we know if we’re really letting God’s word take root and grow in us? We know it’s growing in us when we go from being mere hearers to being actual doers of that word. When we don’t just know in our heads that truth is important, but when we stop telling lies, when we stop misrepresenting people, and speak the truth. When “love your enemies and do good to them” goes from being something in your head to something you actually live out. When love your wife or submit to your husband translates into loving your wife or submitting to your husband in real and practical ways. When the Lord’s Supper goes from being something you eat to something you live out in your interactions with your brothers and sisters in the Lord, showing love and living in the unity Jesus has given us.
And notice how James makes this point. He takes us back to his own roots. He was a Jew. He was circumcised into the Lord’s covenant people when he was eight days old. He grew up living torah, because he was one of the covenant people and that’s what covenant people did. That’s how they were faithful to the Lord in return for his faithfulness to them. And they learned the torah, the law, by reading and studying God’s word. And as much as Jesus changed everything, he didn’t change the fact that the Lord continues to live in covenant with his people. Jesus established a new covenant, but it’s still a covenant. And the Spirit has given a new law, but it’s still a law. God’s people are still called to be different from the world. As he marked out the Jews with circumcision and called them to live according to the torah, so he marks out the people of Jesus with baptism and calls us to live the law of the Spirit—what James calls the “perfect law, the law of liberty”. Faithful Jews were doers—keeping the sabbath, eating clean foods and not eating unclean foods, all of that. Some people think that Jesus has freed us from all of the doing, but it’s really just the opposite. Jesus calls us to even more and better doing, the difference is that instead of pointing to a list of laws written on stone and saying “Do that”, he fills us with God’s own Spirit, gives us his own example of love at the cross, rises from the dead and gives us a foretaste of his new creation and says “Do that in the power of the Spirit”. And this new law, instead of burdening us, actually ends up freeing us from all those things that used to weigh us down: anger and filthiness and wickedness and replaces it all with the fruit of the Spirit—again— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as the Spirit and the word work in us to redirect the affections of our hearts from sin and from self to love for God and love for each other.
And so James sums it up in verses 26 and 27, writing:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
God’s word and God’s Spirit will transform us. It doesn’t happen in an instant, so we have to be careful here. Our expectations for a new Christian aren’t the same as they are for a mature Christian, but still, a Christian will show the transforming work of God’s life-giving word in his life. And so James says that if you think you’re religious—note that “religion” isn’t the bad word some people make it out to be today. Religion is our service to God. There’s good religion and there’s bad religion as we’ll see in a bit. So if you think you’re serving God but you don’t have a bridle on your tongue—that’s not the only thing that might show this, but since James has been talking about anger and sinful words, this is the example he uses here—if you speak hateful and hurtful and untrue things, you’ve deceived yourself. You’ve been letting God’s word go in one ear and out the other. You haven’t actually heard it and so it hasn’t taken root and it’s not growing in your heart. It calls into question your profession of faith and your place in the covenant. We enter the covenant through faith in Jesus. And we show our membership in the covenant by doing the word, by living the law of the Spirit. And if you aren’t living the law of the Spirit, well, it begs the question: Are you really a member of the covenant? Is your faith in Jesus real? Because a Christian without the fruit of the Spirit, a Christian who is worldly and doesn’t bridle his tongue, well he’s like a Jew who labours on the sabbath or loves eating pork. He’s a contradiction.
In contrast, true religion, real service to God looks like this: visiting orphans and widows and keeping yourself unstained by the filthiness of the world. James could have listed any number of things here, but he’s certainly practical and these are things that stood out in the First Century and made people take note of Christians and the Church. It was a dog-eat-dog world, but the Christians took care of each other and they took care of the poor and vulnerable, because that’s what love in action looks like and because that’s what new creation looks like. And in a world of filth, where culture was crude and vulgar and religion often involved ritual drug use and prostitution, God’s people stood apart—much as the Jews of the old covenant had stood apart. Jesus’ people, transformed by word and Spirit, should stand as beacons of his new creation, by our lives and by our proclamation, lifting the veil on what God has in store for this broken world.
So Brother and Sisters, be Easter people. If you have believed that Jesus died and rose from the dead to forgiven our sins and to make us part of his new creation, prove it. Really be Easter people. Immerse yourselves in God’s word and hear what he has to say. Don’t let it go in one ear and out the other. Let it sink in and take root and grow. And then be the new creation that God’s word will make us if we give it the chance and as God’s word transform. He will make us, as he promised, the firstfruits of his new creation—a and that, Brothers and Sisters, is how he is setting the wrongs of this world to right. Not by our anger, but by his word and by his Spirit.
Let’s pray: O Lord, from whom all good things come: Grant to us, your humble servants, that by your holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by your merciful guidance put them into practice; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.