In His Own Words
I think I mentioned the PBS series “In Their Own Words” before, but I can’t remember where or when. The series makes the point that a person’s story is more accurate and compelling when told in their own words. Read the bulletin blurb. There’s a lot of historical information about James, but also lots of questions. That blurb is the equivalent of the wood chips a pastor is told to leave in the workshop when he brings the finished sermon to the pulpit. You will find lots to debate amid all those chips, but our text is from James’ epistle. In his own words, there’s little to debate and much to learn.
Remember the 1971 hit “Cherokee Nation”? It was recorded first in 1959 under the title “Pale Faced Nation”. Paul Revere and the Raiders made it a hit. It laments the loss of the Cherokee nation’s way of life to the reservation. For James the 12 Tribes of Israel still exist. He addresses this Epistle, probably the oldest NT document, “To the 12 Tribes scattered among the nations.” 10 of those tribes haven’t existed for over 700 years. Even Judea ceased to be a sovereign nation over 100 years before James wrote. But for James they still exist even as they do in heaven. In Rev. 7 they are listed, but 2 are left out, Ephraim and Dan. In Rev. 21 we find heaven’s 12 gates labeled with the 12 Tribes of Israel. 12 Tribes is an eternal concept not bound by numbers or time. None of God’s promises to the OT Church, the 12 Tribes, or the NT Church, the 12 Apostles, fails and James recognizes this.
James clearly identifies with a Tribe whose way of life has been taken away, persecuted, and ridiculed, counting it pure joy, all joy, wholly joyful, complete joy, great joy, to do so. And though a brother of Jesus, sharing genetic material with Him, same mom, he doesn’t style himself a brother of Jesus. No, he’s simply, “James, a bond-salve of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” James, in accordance with Ps. 84:10, “would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” And in contrast to today’s atheism, James sees the folly of Milton’s Satan declaring, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There’s nothing good in Hell; even bond-slavery in Heaven is blessed beyond belief.
You probably know the saying, “Blood is thicker than water”. This ancient saying needs little explanation: “a person's family is more important than a person's other relationships” (accessed 10.03.2022, hwww.merriam-webster.com). For Christians the opposite is true. Baptismal Water is thicker than blood. And that seems to be the original saying, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” The original meaning doesn’t refer to family at all but instead comes from the idea that a bond made with someone that you’ve shed blood with is stronger than one had with someone you’ve shared a womb with (www.helpforwriters.me/etymology). Of course for Christians, the shared blood shed is that of Jesus’ which first is sprinkled on us in Baptism then drank by us in Communion. And James is right there with us. He calls the scattered Christians among the nations: “my brothers” and the person in humble circumstances ‘brother.” For James Baptismal Water is thicker than blood ties, which he literally has with Jesus, or national and professional ties. It’s Paul Revere claiming the Cherokee Nation not just on the reservation but throughout every nation.
James in his own words identifies with God’s tribe and from the get-go tells the truth about trials. And what he says is, “It’s all good.” You know how casually and quickly young people say this about everything? Well James says it about trials. He literally says, “All joy you count it for yourself whenever you fall into various temptations/trials.” This is not our definition of ‘joy’ let alone of what is good, but it was James’ brother’s. In fact Jesus goes farther: You’re blessed when people hate you, exclude you, insult you, and reject your name because of Jesus’ name. In that day, Jesus say not only to rejoice like a woman who has just given birth (Jn 16:20-1), but “skip about for joy” as the unborn John did in his mother’s womb when he was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41, 6:23).
I’ve been noting to the Elders for months and more recently to Bible Class how our Lutheran Confessions speak about the Lord rewarding in this life and the next perseverance under trails (AP IV, 365-270). God doesn’t fail to note when we do endure and reward it. James says ‘endurance ‘in the face of trials/temptations works completeness, wholeness, and the crown of life. A form of this word for ‘endurance’ shows up 3 times in James, twice in our text. Trench, a 19th century Greek scholar, distinguishes this word for ‘endurance’ from another one often translated the same way: makrothumeo expresses patience in respect of persons, our word hupomone in respect of things. Chrysostom draws the following distinction; that a man has makrothumeo, who having power to avenge himself, yet refrains from the exercise of this power; while he is said to hupomone, who has no choice but to bear, and only the alternative of a patient or impatient bearing, has grace to choose the first (Synonyms, 198).
The idea that a choice confronts the Christian whenever he is faced with various trials/temptations is telling. You can bear them with joy or bitterness. We can be Naomi’s or Mara’s. See Ruth 1. We can be pleasant or bitter in the face of suffering. This is a promise of God. With all the promises of God, in Scripture, we are not to doubt – this is the diakrino word from Acts Bible Class. This is Peter going back and forth between God’s revelation in the OT about clean and unclean laws and the NT where Jesus declares all foods and peoples clean in Him (Mark 7:19). It’s called cognitive dissonance when you have 2 choices before you and you must choose. Rats in this test are shocked to make them choose to jump to the smaller of 2 platforms. They learn quickly until the difference in size is too small for the rat to decide. He remains where he is getting repeatedly shocked and has a rat nervous breakdown.
James says when we are up in the air as to what God in Christ has revealed, promised, or gives in Word and Sacrament, we’re a double minded man unstable in all our ways. Paul says that this is the constant situation of Christians. They continually find themselves caught between the good they want to do and the bad they don’t and doing the bad when they want to do the good. Paul’s and James’s answer are the same: Jesus. James is just blunter. This is where James gets the reputation of being a Rigorist over against Paul. A Rigorist is one who takes the strictest interpretation of the law. Paul, in fact claims in his own words: “I am a Jew, … brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers' law, and was zealous toward God…” (Acts 22:3). But as you read in the bulletin, it’s hard to out-rigor a man called ‘camel knees’ for how calloused his kneecaps were from praying.
Going by James’ own words, we hear him preach like his Brother. Read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Unless you realize that Jesus assumes His hearers have some basic knowledge, you’ll come away with a dozen tips on “how to live like Jesus.” Unless you see that Jesus is the only One who ever lived according to the Sermon on the Mount, and His law-keeping and law-satisfying is the Rock upon which to build your house so that when death comes you won’t be swept away, you will be doubtful and double-minded about the most basic of things. Compare this with Paul in Roman 7 who is in utter despair of the two-minds warring within him, that of God and that of the flesh saying “who will deliver me from this body of death”, finally he cries out: “Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:25)!
James too goes to Jesus but by implication. God in Christ is the only God who “gives generously to all without finding fault.” He doesn’t say, “Oh it’s you again. What more do you want?” But how can this be? Because Jesus bore our faults through a lifetime of trails. He bore the shame, pain, guilt, and doubt of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God. He bore them till He finished bearing them on the cross. Declaring they were all paid for, all carried away, He was risen from the dead preaching forgiveness. And promising to give His wisdom to all who ask. You can ask for divine, holy, Spiritual wisdom in Jesus’ name and don’t doubt that you get it. He has promised as well in Jesus’ name to give perseverance, patience, endurance: ask and you receive.
James in his own words preaches like Jesus. Remember how Jesus pointed us to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, the Sower who went out to sow, the Field where the devil sowed evil seed, the farmer who can predict the signs of weather, and more? James goes from saying the brother in humiliating circumstances can take pride in his position as a brother to God the Son while the rich should recognize that his high position is passing away. But we don’t see this often. James didn’t either and neither did his readers. But we all know what the summer sun does to spring wild flowers. We see it year after year. That’s the fate of all outside Christ, but not ours.
Even as we grow old, that’s not our fate. Paul says 2 Cor. 4:16, “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Returning to our Baptism we never find anything but a renewing water rich in the grace that Jesus paid for. The Absolution never says, "Die in your sins,” but, “Live! You’re forgiven and free.” And Communion has not been called the Medicine of Immortality for nothing. Sense the time of St. Ignatius (d.108 A.D.) . He said it was “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Ephesians 20.2). Luther in our Large Catechism refers to Baptism (LC, 4, 43), Private Confession (LC, 6, 26), and Communion (LC, 5, 68) as the Lord’s healing medicine.
In his own words at the close of our text, James says, “Blessed is the man who hupomone under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.”
James uses the Greek word for the crown awarded a victor at the games. This is the Word stephanos: This is the same stephanos Jesus in Rev. 2 promises to those faithful unto death. Here James refers to God’s promise of the stephanos “to those who love Him.” And what do you know? Paul in his last letter before being beheaded, about 20 years after James’ letter, says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the stephanos of righteousness, which the Lord, … will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim 4:8). James words, which are his big Brother’s words, echo on earth long after James is in heaven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. James Brother of Jesus and Martyr (20221023); James 1:1-12