Monthly Archives: September 2021

Prayer with Everything

One of my memories of school dinners is custard. I quite liked custard, but at least in memory it always formed part of the pudding served – with fruit tart, sponge pudding, or anything except rice pudding. As James comes to the end of his letter on practical Christianity, he seems to do something similar with prayer. It goes with everything!

We read James 5:13-20, and his closing remarks begin by suggesting those in trouble pray, and the happy sing praise. He may refer to the “normal” letter ending of those times which would have wished health to his hearers. Instead, he urges prayer for wholeness when it is needed to restore health. Those who can’t get to the church gathering will have members come to them to pray.

Of course there can be confusion about the ministry of healing – after all, Christians still get ill and die. Here the phrase “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” is carefully phrased. It does not promise medical cure (which sometimes does happen) but is more holistic. There can be a “making well” in living with a condition. The important thing is to be in God’s hands.

Rather the same thing is implied by the instruction to confess to and pray for one another. Prayer is not limited to church leaders! It can be difficult to find a community where people are confident enough to admit their failures. It is easier in a small group, but wherever it can happen it is a strength, and a strengthening.

Elijah, the prophet, is quoted as an example of the power of a good man’s prayer. And finally, James ends with the challenge to rescue those who have lost their way in faith. It is not entirely clear whether the benefit is limited to the sinner who repents, or is shared by the agent of their rescue. Either way, it is a most important mission, and one we easily forget in our culture. It is an apt ending for a letter to a community which is making some mistakes and may have some in danger of going astray. James is practical to the end.

Being wise.

What does it mean to be wise? James (and we are reading James 3:13 – 4:8) uses the tradition of wise sayings from the Old Testament (often called the “Wisdom” tradition), and will quote from Proverbs (3:34) but he is ruthlessly practical. No exams and certificates, no obscure theories. As faith must show in action, so must wisdom.

Some things aren’t wise. Bitter envy and selfish ambition are destructive; by no means unknown among religious people, they are the opposite of God’s wisdom, they cause disorder and evil. But what are the alternatives? There is a link to humility.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James 3:17

all this is very desirable – especially in other people! The trouble is that worldly wisdom is often about “getting on” – put bluntly, outperforming others, getting to the top of the pile. That is not what James is talking about. 4:4 reminds us that friendship with this world means being God’s enemy. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy anything; it does mean that your outlook, priorities and ambitions must not and cannot be formed by what everybody does. We need to be careful what we celebrate – achievement yes, as somebody making good use of their gifts, persisting in training. As beating others into a lower place, making the competition look silly, NO.

Church is meant to model a form of cooperation, where everybody learns, everybody benefits, not a form of competition, where a few take prizes of precedence, superiority, title. But in our world, everybody fights everybody else. Sometimes literally, because people get on one another’s nerves. But also because of the inner conflict of disordered desire spills out. What do you want? Actually, if you can reduce it to one thing, you could probably have it. – but could you limit yourself to one thing, and pursue it systematically?

Even our personal religious life can be ruined by not being clear about our aim – what do you really want from Christian faith? Many forms of words would do –

  • to follow Jesus be his disciple and learn from him;
  • to live a life that fulfills what it was created and intended for;
  • to be a blessing to other people.

Follow through any of those, and I think it will bring you back to what James is talking about. James tells us to ask God 4:2, but also that in asking it’s no use imagining that God will help us against others. We need to ask, not for our pleasure, but for the good of all people. That would be wise.

We are easily distracted. We get another agenda from our friends, from advertisements, from “what everybody says”. God doesn’t work like “the world” – and the way of “the world” doesn’t work, because otherwise we would have lots of happy, contented, people.

God tells us to be humble, to submit to his plans and ways resisting the devil. That will bring us close to him, and we shall probably find that it brings most of the things we really wanted, leaving out some that, on reflection, would not have been so good after all.

Talk damage

There is an unresolved issue about how to deal with hate speech on social media. People say online what they would not say in person, whatever the situation. Yet free speech is an important freedom, and once you begin to limit it beyond provable slander or clear misinformation, the road to big brother control is open.

It is not only hate speech. Much racism is encouraged, even taught by things said. Similarly body shaming relies on what is said. There is no doubt that what people say can, and does, cause a great deal of harm.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that James, with his insistence on practical, down-to-earth faith, talks repeatedly about good, and bad, speech. In James 3:1-12 he seems almost despairing: Words may seem small, but have a power almost beyond imagining, and we so easily make mistakes with them. The tongue seems untamable, in a way which ought not to be.

He has already hinted that the wise way is to speak less readily (James 1:19: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”), and that genuine faith has to tackle the issue of what is said. He will go on to give instructions about avoiding slander (James 4:11) and telling the truth (James 5:12). He makes it clear that there are no shortcuts. The only way to sort our speech is to let our lives be sorted. When God has worked over our attitudes, ambitions, jealousies – and all the rest – only then will our words be reliably loving and patient. Of course, it is not a fast process, and none of us can claim to have finished, but it is encouraging to know that it is part of the agenda.

And, working backwards, that is why becoming a teacher of the faith is dangerous. Teachers will be judged more severely. The more they know, the more they should show progress in their lives – and not only when they know they are “in public”. It is a sobering thought for anyone who has ever led a Christian group or preached a sermon. They know the theory that explaining the gospel should help some come closer to God, even though some will find the cost of discipleship too great. The should also be aware that those who see and hear may end up saying (I think like Ghandi) “I like your Christ, but not your Christians”.

Words can be wonderful, words can be terrible. Only when the words, and the person speaking them, are fully directed by the Holy Spirit can they fail to show the faults of the speaker alongside the best of the message. This isn’t big brother control, it is a willing partnership to show the love of God.

Just do it!

Discrimination is Out. Increasingly it’s illegal. You mustn’t make assumptions about people who are a certain colour, a certain age, or who turn up in a wheelchair – and that’s good. Christians should benefit from religious tolerance.

On the other hand, to check your tax return find somebody who can add up; to tackle the hard work in your garden, somebody over 7 stone (50 Kg); to diagnose your illness someone good at medicine, and to cook the meal you eat out, somebody discriminating.

James is talking (we read James 2:1-17) to a community of Jewish Christians where the rich get better treatment than the poor. He won’t have it, for both are Christian neighbours. It seems that while they give the poor a hard time, they also suffer being bullied or persecuted by the rich v6. Is that relevant to us? Our communities vary – but you might like to think how money complicates international Christian relations! Theology can be bent by sponsorship offers.

James goes on talk about the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Then points out that it is no good to be loving in one way while forgetting another. Christian living is not about doing the bits you like and forgetting the rest. It is no use not murdering if you’re a professional thief, being proud of not committing adultery if you regularly lie about other people. It all matters, including how we treat the poor. There’s no “balance” of failure and success – but a great need for mercy, on our part, as well as our judge’s.

Finally, the test of faith. Do they believe, these people James writes to? He doesn’t want words, if they believe, it’ll show. Real faith is not about measuring passion, but about converting into obedience. “Sincerity” is not about a style of self-presentation, or carefully crafted words. To want to do as Jesus did, to live like him and imitate him, needs motivation. Real faith motivates; if we expect to get away with fine sentiments, the faith is fake.

This is no evangelistic letter; James is not going to run through basic Christian beliefs or outline the gospel. What he wants to make sure is that people who live as a Christian community should behave as a Christian community. Not hot air, but hot meals for the hungry, not fine words about Jesus, but the hard work of obeying him and becoming like him. It is a searching test, and too often churches in the past have been marked as failing by the communities in which they live.