I find from time to time that I ask an old question. What kind of church would Ss. Peter or Paul recognize as reflecting the values of the Christian Church? Today I want to consider what sort of church St. James would recognize.
James the Brother of Jesus was all the rage a few years ago. First, there was the St. James Ossuary. An Ossuary is stone burial box. One year after the death and entombment of a person in ancient Judea the bones would be gathered placed in the box and reburied forever presumably awaiting the Resurrection of the last day. The box that caused the stir merely said James the brother of Jesus (Jacob the brother of Joshua). Jacob and James were common names in ancient Judea. For that matter, Miriam and Joseph were too. It was interesting to see all four names on the inscription. It was no more than that though. There were some more study done on the legend of St. James the Brother of the Lord. I am sorry to say though that there was little material written about the New Testament book that bears his name. I want to use that book to identify the Church St. James would recognize.
The Epistle of St. James, Bishop of Jerusalem, has a lot of practical advice. It has been called the “Proverbs” of the New Testament. It could be called a book of practical theology. I prefer the term “practical spirituality.” James makes several statements that justify this point.
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive themselves 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” 1:26-27
“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” 2:8-9
“For the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” 2:26
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” 3:36
“Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” 4:17
“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.” 5″1-3a
“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” 5:15
All the words surrounding these verses are good too. It is difficult to teach James and hold the attention of the audience. It all seems too practical. Your audience might say, “Well everyone should do that.” And then they may add, “We try to do these things. But it is too difficult because of all the demands on our time.” Some might say (but not out loud), “This is all wrong. The poor aren’t really that needy. If they would just…” or “You can’t be gentle with people who are teaching wrong doctrine.”
A shallow approach to the topic I have chosen is to say the church James would recognize would do all of the things he urges the churches of his day to do. A friend of mine once remarked when we were looking at a list of actions and expenditures that cannot be used for nontaxable income. “When you get a list like this it means someone tried each of these things.”
The Church James would recognize would either do the exact opposite of what his book teaches or do what he says imperfectly. Let that sink in some more. James, St. Paul tells us, got it wrong one time. James sent emissaries from Jerusalem who taught that the gentile believers in Antioch had to submit to circumcision and keep the Law of Moses. Paul argued against this even “getting into Peter’s face” in front of everybody. The issue was settled later. Paul claimed that James and the others urged him to “remember the poor.” (Galatians 2:10)
Churches are led by fallible human beings. The only leaders the church should reject are those who seek power for its’ own sake. James warns against that type of person. It is good to remember that. Church leaders should ask their motivations. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” 3:16.
I believe that by paying more attention to what James teaches the churches will grow stronger. It is an important piece of writing. Some say it may even predate Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. If this is true then, it is the first scripture of the New Testament. Consider that for a few hours. And then find ways to put all of this into practice.