Friday, 28 September 2018

Good works, faith and prayer

James 5.13-19

People say that James is all about doing good works and not about faith.

Well certainly, James is immensely practical

He challenges us

To control the tongue, what we say :
· not to speak evil of each other (4.11)
· not to grumble against each other (5.9)
· not to boast (claiming that I am going to do this or that and forgetting God) (4.13f)
· not to swear or take oaths, as if our word needs enforcing (ch 5.12). 

Because of that verse Tolstoy refused to swear on the bible. He asked how could he swear on a book which itself forbade him from swearing?
I’m not sure that I completely agree with him. When I made my oath of allegiance to my bishop and to the crown, I placed my hand on the bible. But I wasn’t swearing on the bible. I wasn’t saying, ‘If I don’t do this, may all the curses that are written here fall on me!’ Instead I was placing my hand on the bible, which I believe is the ultimate source of truth, and I am saying that my yes will be yes and my no, no.

To treat all people with respect, not giving preferential treatment to the rich, especially in our Christian communities (2.1ff)

To show social justice: to care for widows and orphans (1.27); to show mercy (2.12), to clothe the naked and feeding the hungry (2.15f).
And he condemns those of us who are wealthy for our exploitation of the poor. He uses words that could have been written by Marx, ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you .. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’ (James 5.1ff)

It is powerful stuff

But we must not get James wrong.

This short letter is immensely practical; it is about works.

But it is also about faith.

· It is about the Word of God which gives life (James 1.21).
If we have not received that implanted word, if we have not been born again of the word, then we cannot really begin to understand the letter of James

· It is about the power of the Word of God: this is the mirror (1.23-25) that we look in and see ourselves - both as we are, in our sinfulness, in what we are with Christ living in us, and in who we can become. He describes the Word as ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (1.25;2.12)

· It is about submission before God (4.7-8)

· It is about the sovereignty of God (4.15)

· It is about waiting in patience for the coming of the Lord (5.7-11)

And as James brings his letter to a close, he writes about prayer, about healing and forgiveness and he finishes it, very dramatically, by speaking about bringing back someone who has wandered away from the faith.


He begins his letter with prayer and he ends with prayer.

He begins with the prayer for wisdom: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. (1.5)

I used to think that that was about asking God to help me make the right decisions. I need wisdom to know what I should do, who I should marry, where I should live.

But I think that James instead is speaking of wisdom as a grace, a virtue. Other New Testament writers might say that this is a prayer asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, or with his love. So in 3.17, he writes, ‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’.

So when we pray for wisdom, we are asking that God will change us – that he will give us a new heart. That we will become like Jesus

And now in chapter 5, he speaks again of prayer

He calls on those who are suffering, not to despair, not to give up, not to think that they are on their own – but to pray, to call out to God

He calls on those who are cheerful, for whom life is going well, not to become complacent, not to forget God – but to sing praise.

That bit is great advice. Sing in your prayers. Yes, we sing in church, but sing also on your own. When nobody is there – when you are in the loo or the shower – because otherwise they will think you are mad, but sing. Use an app Youtube or isingworship (probably not when you are in the shower!). And don’t say you can’t sing. One person I knew who had a dreadful singing voice, spoke of how he would sing a hymn in his daily prayer time.
Because there is something about singing, and singing the truth, which helps us lift ourselves up out of ourselves and to focus on him.

He calls on those who are sick to get in touch with the church elders, who will pray over them and anoint them with oil.

Why the church elders?

Of course, we can each pray for each other, as individuals, and it would be great to see that happening.
But we are to call the church elders because, I guess we hope that they have more experience of walking the Christian life, but more importantly because they represent the whole community, even the wider church.
I say this with some hesitancy, because it means more work for me, but it needs to be said because it is here.

Do this.
If you are sick – and I guess I am not talking about bugs or coughs or colds - if you are seriously sick, get in touch, and ask us to pray for you. If you can get to us, come and we’ll pray for you here. If you can’t get to us, we’ll try to get to you.

One lady, a senior leader in a significant Christian organisation, was diagnosed with something pretty major, and she took these words seriously. She asked several of us to go round and pray for her, and so a group of us went, I took some oil and we prayed and anointed her.
It was very special. She was a private person, but she opened up and it was a privilege to pray for her. There was no miraculous recovery, but that was 2 years ago and she has been able to continue to live an active life.

And I know that asking others to pray for us can be difficult because it means humbling ourselves before the other, admitting our need, and being really open with each other. This is not just putting a name on a list or saying, ‘Oh pray for me because I’m not feeling well’. It is deep stuff. It is about being prepared to confess our sins, and also put right what is wrong.

And James was not a fool.

He knew that prayers can be answered very dramatically. That is why he speaks of the prayer of Elijah.
He could also have spoken of the prayers that the early church community saw answered: Peter miraculously released from prison, people healed, wonderful conversions.
And I could also speak of several people who I have known to be dramatically healed, or of prayers answered in amazing ways. There is the Russian word ‘chuda’, wonder, and there are times when we see ‘chuda’. Alison was telling the ladies bible study group of how God answered two very simple prayers in a very clear way when she was seeking guidance about coming here. They were chuda

But James was no fool. He also knew that prayers are not always answered as we wish. Peter was saved, for the time being, but James, his namesake, was put to death. He had possibly heard of Paul’s prayer – probably for healing – and God had said No to that.

And far from everyone is physically healed.

But if you notice, James does not say that sick people will be healed. He says that sick people will be saved and raised up (5.15)

That is ambiguous language.
It could speak of physical rising up. We think of Peter’s mother in law who was sick. Jesus healed her. She got up and served them.
But it could also speak of the final salvation, the final rising up, the resurrection from the dead, our ultimate hope

Perhaps that is why many parts of the church use oil for anointing just before death. It is the recognition that our final healing comes at our physical death.

And when James does use the word ‘healing’ it is in the context of confessing our sins to each other and prayer for each other. ‘Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’ (5.16). And so maybe this is speaking more of community healing.

And as I was thinking this through, I wondered whether that is why this letter ends in the way that it does – which, at first reading, seems very strange.

‘My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins’ (5.19)

People say that James is all about works and not about faith.

But at the very end, and in quite an abrupt way, James focusses on what really matters.

Yes, God wants us to know physical well-being. And we are to pray for physical healing.

But he wants more than that for us.

He wants us to be a people at peace: at peace with each other and at peace with God.
He wants us to be filled with his wisdom – that wonderful wisdom he speaks about in James 3.17, so that we are people who are pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
He wants us to be peacemakers who produce an amazing harvest of righteousness that flows out of our peace (if you want to do a further study of James, look at how he uses the word harvest and crops. It is fascinating).
He wants us to do the good works which flow from our faith.
He wants us to be prayerful
He wants us to be honest with each other, merciful with each other, right with each other.

And what he really wants is that we might stick closely to the truth, ‘the law of liberty’, that we hold on to it and persevere even through suffering, that we hold onto the promises of God and our hope of eternal life, and that we love each other enough to pray for them, to challenge and to care, to welcome and draw people back into the community of faith – however costly it is for us.

And he wants that one day, we will be raised up.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

How can I control what I say?

James 3.1-12

A couple of weeks ago we saw how James speaks about three marks of true religion:

- Controlling the tongue
- Showing care to orphans and widows
- Growing in holiness

Today we look at the first of those three – controlling the tongue - because it seems slightly odd.

Why does James mention controlling the tongue, when there are so many other things that could have been said? Why is it so important?

Of course, James has got nothing particular against the tongue. It is a big muscle that is used for tasting, chewing and swallowing. It is also used – and this is what James is really on about – for speaking.

And in these verses, James gives us several reasons why we should control the tongue

1. The tongue, the spoken word, is incredibly powerful

At the very beginning, when the beginning began, and time came into being, God – we are told – spoke a word: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light.

It was God’s spoken word which brought creation into being. It was his spoken word which gave life to human beings.

And this is the word that James has spoken about which has given new life, spiritual life to you and me.

In 1.18, we are told that we are given birth by the word of truth
In 1.21, he speaks of the implanted word, that has come into us, that has power to save our souls.

God’s word is an active word.

John describes Jesus as ‘the logos’ of God – the word of God, the reason of God. But when Jerome came to translate ‘logos’ from the original Greek into Latin, he used the word ‘verbum’ – from which we also get our word, ‘verb’. And it is a wise translation, because the ‘verb’ is a doing word, and the Logos, the Word, the verbum of God is a doing word.

The spoken word is incredibly powerful.

I know it can send people to sleep, but it is the word which wakes people up. It brings life to people. Paul talks about how blessed are the feet of those who preach the good news – who tell people about Jesus Christ, so that they can hear and choose to receive this word – and discover new life.

And James writes of how the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse.

I know little about horse riding, but I understand that the horse is controlled, directed, by the thing in its mouth, pulling it in one direction or another.

Or the tongue is like a rudder. I occasionally sail small dinghies. But I’m not a great sailer and usually have mishaps. On two or three occasions now my rudder has fallen off. Which is a bit of a problem. You are rather helpless. Fortunately, I sail in a narrow estuary, so I simply end up stuck on some mud bank.

The rudder is rather important – it controls the direction of a small dinghy. It controls the direction of huge ocean tanker.

The tongue, James says, makes great boasts. It does major stuff.

Words shape how we see reality. For those of us from the West, inclusive language has been a real political power battle. But it is important, because it shapes how people see things.

I remember about 30 years ago hearing a friend preach. In his sermon he used an illustration of an engineer, and in the illustration he spoke of how ‘she’ made a decision. I remember being caught up short – because I had never really heard anybody talk of an engineer as a ‘she’. You sort of assumed that they are always going to be a ‘he’. So a word changed a whole set of assumptions that I held.

And speeches and oratory are important. They can inspire, move people to tears, whip up crowds to violence. Think of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar; think of Abraham Lincoln, Pushkin, Churchill. Words have shaped nations, defined how people think about themselves and given them self-understanding

And later James writes of the power of words addressed to God. The words spoken in prayer: they bring healing, forgiveness and they can do great things.

So the tongue, the spoken word, has enormous power

2. The tongue can do great damage

James speaks of how the tongue can be like a tiny spark that sets a forest on fire.

We have a saying: ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words they cannot hurt me’.
It is, of course, not true.

Again, words shape how we see reality.

Think of the words that we use for other people, how we separate people who are like us (nashi) from those who are not like us. It is interesting that those of us from the UK who are here like to call ourselves expatriates. We call those who come and live in our country migrants.

Alison says that the big word that she hears in the playgroup where she helps is the word ‘mine’. If you say that something is mine, then I am saying it is not yours, and I am claiming control over it.

It is my toy, my possession, my church, my right.

And that little word can do such great damage.

And there is the damage that is caused by the lies, the fake news, the one-sided news

And then there is the vindictive, cruel word: the spoken word that can destroy a person, rip a person’s reputation into pieces; that can ridicule, humiliate and crush

I read of the testimony a woman who had a break in a work, who went with a colleague to the ladies toilets, and – she said – she started to slag off a colleague, Beth, who wasn’t particularly popular. You can guess what happened. Out of one of the cubicles came Beth. She rushed out, and left the place of work immediately in floods of tears. She didn’t come back the following day; she didn’t come back at all. The woman who tells the story says that it is one of the most awful moments in her life. She tried to get in touch with Beth but she wasn’t able to. And she finishes off by saying, ‘And I am a Christian; I am someone who calls Jesus Christ Lord’.

And there is the gossip (and yes, we can dress it up in Christian terms), the backbiting, the swearing and profanity, the cruel unthinking comment: ‘you are so stupid’. Jesus warns his listeners that before God we will be held accountable for simply calling another person, ‘a fool’.

And the tongue can be just as devastating when it is not used, when we are silent when we should be speaking out.

Many of us here will have been hurt badly by words – but if we are honest we will know that we have also used words to hurt other people.

3. The tongue, James tells us, is a window into our heart – it shows us that we desperately need God

We cannot see into a person’s heart. We cannot see the things that motivate them. But we can hear the words that they speak.

And the problem is that the tongue betrays us.

Some of us are very good at putting on a persuasive show – and then suddenly the tongue betrays us. Out splurge our inner thoughts. And the problem is that when they are out, they are out. You can’t put words back in. As I said a couple of weeks ago, they are like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube: once it is out, you can’t get it back in!

Baxter, a C17th preacher said, and it is a brilliant comment, “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”

James describes the tongue as ‘a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell’ (v6).

It is a world of iniquity: an agent of the sinful world among the different parts of our body. It is a fifth columnist living in you. You put up a good front and suddenly out comes the muck

It is set on fire by hell: all the anger, rage, fear, resentments, prejudices. That is the fuel which is deep within us – and it comes out through the tongue. Jesus speaks about that. He says it is not the stuff out there that comes into us and defiles us. It is the stuff that is in here which defiles us.

It stains the body. Imagine a bride in a stunning white dress. And there right on the back is a massive ink stain. That, says James, is what the tongue does to us.
Recently there have been a number of cases where people have been completely undone, their reputation ripped to pieces, because of things that they have said which have been recorded, or messages that they have tweeted.

It sets on fire the cycle of nature: It leads to more of the same. I say something that comes from the pit that is in me. And you respond with something that comes from the pit inside you – and the cycle escalates. James speaks about this in the next few verses. And we end up with people and communities and even brothers and sisterss not speaking with each other, hating each other, at war with each other. I think of Northern Ireland. I think of the Ukraine.

The problem is that: ‘no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison’ (v8)

Let me be clear about this:

If we remain silent – which is often a good thing – we still will not be able to control the tongue. Our inner pit will out!

There is a story told about a man who entered a silent monastery. He was allowed to say one sentence to a gathering of all the monks once a year…

If we cut out the tongue – not recommended – it will change nothing. We’ll still think the muck.

And James writes that even if we become religious we won’t tame the tongue.

Yes, we might come to church to praise God – we might praise the One who is good and beautiful and true, who loves us, who has given us life and who has created all things. We might pledge our faith and obedience and allegiance to him, our desire to serve and follow him.

And then, at coffee or later in the afternoon, we curse somebody: we make fun of them, mock them, put them down, speak bad of them – even though they are, James points out, created by God and made in his image.

With one breath we declare our love for God – and with our next breath we deride the person that he has made

I like the story of the three vicars going on a long train journey. They agreed to confess their most besetting sins. The first said, ‘I have a problem with the women’. The second said, ‘I have a problem with drink’. The third says, ‘I am an incurable gossip’!

So what do we do? How do we control the tongue?

Because if we don’t say something about this, it will be a very honest but depressing sermon! Is there no hope?

1. Remember the power of words
– to do good or to do harm.

2. Guard your tongue as best you can.

There are the bits of wisdom that we can hold on to:
· If we can’t say anything that is good or helpful or that builds people up, don’t say anything
· Count to 10 before you respond

And those of you who are good with words need to be particularly careful.
I thank God that I am not particular quick with words. I always think of the thing I could have said, the response that would have cut them dead, about 2 hours afterwards. I think if only I had said that.
But while I would love to be quick with words, I thank God that I am not – because it often means I don’t say what I should not say.

3. Know that you will make mistakes.
Only the perfect person will not make mistakes with their speech, and you are not perfect. So when you make mistakes, and it is when, repent, say sorry – to God and to the person you have offended - and call out to God to have mercy and to change your heart

4. Don’t aspire quickly to become a teacher (and James 3.1 is speaking specifically to those who would teach the Christian faith), even if you have an ability to teach.

I would probably say a person should not aspire to become a teacher until they have messed up big time, until they have become acutely aware of their own fallenness, brokenness and sinfulness, of the pit that is deep in their heart - but who have also become aware of the astonishing acceptance, forgiveness and mercy of God

Oh, and one final thing
Come to church next week – because the next verses offer a little bit of hope!

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The three marks of true religion

James 1.17-27

I’d like us to look at those last two verses of our reading from James

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues butdeceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1.26-27)
There are three marks of true religion – and I fear that I fail on all of them!

1.       If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their heart, their religion is worthless

James speaks a great deal about the tongue. We’ll see that in a couple of weeks’ time.

It is interesting that he speaks of the tongue and not of the written word.

I think that is because, firstly very few people of his time used writing, and secondly because writing requires you to think a bit! You have to get a piece of paper and write something, and then work out how you are going to get that piece of paper to the person you want it to go to. So you start to write, and out comes all the anger and hurt, but then you need to somehow get that to the person you want to receive it. And that gives you time to stop and think, and often it means putting your brain into action. And you are given time to tear up the letter and rewrite it.

But I think, that if James was writing today, he would also include emails, whatsapps, facebook, vkontakt, instagram and twitter posts. Why? Because like speech it is immediate.

One of the things that I have heard from several people who have become bishops in the church that has shocked them is sort of language that people use in some of their emails when they write to them, even clergy. They just didn’t expect that. One of my previous bishops used to answer those emails by asking the person to rewrite their email before he would even consider replying.

But James does not simply tell us to bridle the tongue. He helps us to do so.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak (or send the email) and slow to anger’ (v19)
In other words, God gave you two of these (ears) and one of these (mouths).
Or, to use a phrase of my grandmother, before you speak – count to 10.

One thing that I do with emails that I’m tempted to write back to immediately, especially if I am hot, is that before I write, especially if it is a reply, I remove the email address of the person or people I want to send it to. It means that I don’t write it and then hit send in the heat of the moment. I’ve got to think a little bit more.

And that is even more important if we are responding in anger. Human anger may get things done, but it does not do God’s work – it does not bring about the righteousness that God asks for.

The problem is that our anger is too wrapped up in ourselves

In my case it is usually because I have felt slighted or ignored or put on or felt that I have been treated as irrelevant and insignificant. Last week we were in a restaurant, and we were waiting and waiting to be served. In the end, I went to someone to ask when the food would come. I intended to be very calm and level, but as I spoke with them I felt the anger surge in me.

So often we get angry because our ‘I’ has become too big. We think it is all about me, and about the things that I value or desire. And the problem is that the things that I value and desire are not always the right things. That is why the Jesus prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is so helpful – it reminds me of who I am, and why I am not so important. And that is why only the anger of Jesus, the Son of God, can do the work of God – because the ‘I’ of Jesus coincides completely with the ‘I’ of God.

But there is another reason that we need to bridle the tongue.

You see if we are so keen to speak, to tell others what we think, we find it very hard to listen. And James urges us to be people who listen – who listen to others (what are they really saying) and who listen to God, who listen and who receive his word.

2.       The second mark of true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress

Orphans and widows in the sort of society in which James lived were desperately vulnerable. There was no social safety net. If they had no relatives to care for them, then anything could happen.  We speak today of trafficking and slavery.

Orphans and widows are still very vulnerable in many societies today, along with other people. One thinks of refugees, or people with learning disabilities. Jesus spoke about how the world, how a society, will be judged for how it treats a member of a despised sect who is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, in prison or sick.

What James is saying is that if a person has a real faith, if the word has been implanted in them, if they are born again, if they have been ‘given birth by the word of truth’ (v18), then they will show compassion to the person in need.

This is a huge subject, and I can’t really begin to touch on it today. But a faith that is not expressed in compassion for those in need is no real faith.

John writes about that. He says in his letter, How can you claim to have the love of God in you if you do not love your Christian brother or sister? How can you say to a starving person, ‘God bless you’, if you are not prepared to do something about it?

And while it is good to be part of a community which does work with widows and orphans, quite literally - MPC run a pensioners drop in every other Wednesday, and Vverh, originally started by members of St Andrew’s, run their school for orphans and people with mental disabilities here on our premises – I am not sure that we as individuals can hide behind that!

If your faith is not beginning to help you to see everyone as God sees them – with his compassion and love (whoever they are: in the next verses James challenges the church to receive every person who comes in to their meeting – whether they are wealthy and well dressed, or if they are in dirty clothes and smell – to treat each person with the same dignity); and if your faith is not beginning to give you a greater compassion for people who are in need, then you really need to question whether you have actually received the word of truth.

3.       Mark of true religion is that you will be growing in holiness.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: .. to keep oneself unstained by the world’ (v27)

Earlier in our passage we are told, ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v21)

It does not mean that we become holier than thou. It means that we become more like Jesus Christ.

He was very much part of the world. He had a profession, he was a Rabbi. He taught in the synagogues. Large crowds came to hear him. He went to parties put on by the sort of people who the religious leaders despised. But he did not live by the values of the world – he was different: he was not into status or possessions. He did not use his power for his own purposes, and he did not try to seize political power. Instead he lived for God. He preached the rule and kingdom of God. He prayed for people and they were healed or set free from demons. And he was willing to die so that people could share in, could experience, the relationship that he had with his Father in heaven.

And we are called to become like him. We are to let go of the pride that leads to anger, the filth aht defile us and the lusts that deafen us to the Word of God.

So how?
As I said at the beginning, if these are the three marks of true religion, I fail and I fail pretty spectacularly on all counts

How can I bridle my tongue?
How can I become more compassionate; because if I start to care for orphans and widows and people in need in my own strength, I will simply burn out? I know because I have tried, even as someone who claimed to believe in Jesus. And I did burn out.
How can I keep myself unstained from the world?

We need to be hearers of the Word.
Yes, James is about works that follow faith. But it begins with faith. This is chapter 1 of his book.

It begins with asking for wisdom (v5), with receiving new birth through the Word of God (v18), with humbly listening and taking in that Word (v21).
It begins with receiving the love of God, the forgiveness that God offers and with asking God for his Holy Spirit. That is what happens today at communion: we come to offer nothing. We come to receive.

The Word is like a mirror (v22): a mirror that shows us as we are, with all our failures and weakness, with our desperate state without God and our need for God. But it is also a mirror which shows us how and what we can become. It shows us forgiven, beloved and accepted. It shows us holy and radiant, set free from sin. This is the mirror of liberty (v25)

And the Word is like an embedded seed implanted into our hearts (v21). If we receive it and persevere then it will grow in us. CS Lewis describes it as a good infection, that gradually overwhelms our body and soul. It will transform us, from the inside out. And it will slowly, and over time, transform us into radiant plants that bear beautiful fruit, which give us a glimpse of what the future creation will look like; and it will transform us so that we, with the radiance of the glory of God, will bring glory to our God.