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Sermon for the Festival of St. James

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio  56 Sermon for St James.mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon is the first reading from Acts and the Epistle for today.

What’s written in this chapter happened around AD 49.  Paul had returned from his first missionary trip two or three years earlier.  He had experienced exciting and fantastic adventures we can read about in the two previous chapters in Acts.  Above all, he had experienced everywhere he went that heathens were prepared to receive the Good News about Jesus Christ.  There were Christian congregations far up in the highlands of modern day Turkey and also in Antioch, the most important city in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.  And the congregations were growing continuously.

However, there arose a great conflict in the church.  It was started by some Christians who had been Jews and were from Jerusalem.  They found it alarming that the Greek Christians didn’t follow the Laws of Moses.  They made no distinction about foods and they weren’t circumcised.  They thought they knew exactly what to say.  “You must follow the Laws of Moses, otherwise you won’t be saved.

After that, the conflict was unavoidable.  There are times when the purity of the Gospel itself is at stake; then there’s no room for compromise.  It was a matter of eternal salvation.  The Jewish Christians said that circumcision and the Law were prerequisites.  Paul knew that Jesus Christ was the only foundation, and that it was through faith in Christ—Christ alone—that we’re saved.

It was a standoff.  Their opinions were categorically opposed.  Both could not be true.  But then, something happened that would serve as a model for the all the times ahead.  They decided to gather the leaders of the church, the apostles and the elders and the priests and to listen to them, mainly the apostles, the ones Jesus Himself chose, the confessors of the faith in Jerusalem.  They would reason together and pray and present all of it to God.  That’s how the first church council met.

At the meeting in Jerusalem, Paul was supported by Peter.  He had put his finger on the decisive matter, clearly and convincingly: We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.  And at that point James, Jesus’ brother, agreed.  This was astonishing because Jesus’ brother James, or if you’re reading the notes in the bulletin, perhaps Jesus’ cousin, even though he lived as a law abiding Jew just as his Jewish ancestors did he sided with Peter on this matter.  Even James of Jerusalem, as he was known, even James the very Jewish follower of Jesus, even quoting the Amos the prophet, even James was completely convinced that the Law of Moses couldn’t be imposed on the heathens as a condition for salvation.

That’s how Bishop Giertz of Sweden began to explain this passage (To Live With Christ, 555-556) and how I intend to introduce St. James the Brother of Our Lord today.

By the time James writes his epistle, presumably within a year or two of the Jerusalem Council, the church is having difficulties with leaders teaching that the Law has no place in the life of the Christian and that good works done in view of the Law might even be harmful to faith or take away from it.  And while James might have been able to thread that needle very carefully at the church’s first council at Jerusalem, he seems to have to continue to argue both sides of the truth depending who he’s arguing against.  To the newly minted Christian libertine he must say, very famously “faith without works is dead.”  (Jas 2:17).  But to the classic Jewish Christian who insisted on upholding the Law of Moses, he had to say the only Law is the law of liberty (1:25; 2:12) and mercy always triumphs over judgment. (2:13)  Some would say that James is contradicting himself.

We might say he’s not so much contradicting himself as adjusting himself to the situation.  This is not situational ethics but rather application of the Law and the Gospel in the lives of real people.  If we’re wise we do this all the time.  To the child who is distraught over how badly they may have misbehaved, we don’t scream and punish, we comfort and console.  To the obstinate child who seems to try to never obey the rules, we have to put our foot down.  It’s not situational ethics, it’s applying chastisement and comfort, Law and Gospel.  By the time James writes, he’s already a respected leader in the Church in Jerusalem and he writes to Jewish Christians flung far away from Jerusalem, he calls them the Dispersion.  The Greek Diaspora, just sounds like a scattering of people far and wide.

He’s writing to them because they are suffering persecution.  He’s writing to encourage them, us too really, to take joy even in the testing of faith because that testing produces steadfastness.  Our faith gets tested, put through trials.  This is one of those key words in the New Testament that we should be somewhat familiar with.  And there’s quite a bit of misunderstanding about this.  God does not test faith to see if you’re good enough for Him.  The devil doesn’t test your faith to get you to crack.  I think James might be advocating we should be involved in testing our faith.  When they launch a new ship, it goes through a series of tests called sea trials.  They get underway and see what the ship can do.  Some might even say they try to break it to find out the limits and tolerances of the ship.  How fast it can go, how quickly it can stop or change directions.  It’s an active process and it’s no game.  At the end of the process the ship is declared sea worthy or the builder is contacted to make it right.

We are no different.  We been given this great gift called the faith.  It contains not all the answers to all life’s problems, but it is God’s answer to how it is we should live as His children.  We get this faith growing up and its explained in Sunday School and catechesis when were young but if we’re lucky, we have little opportunity to truly test it to put it through the paces and see what holds when the storms of life gather and the waters get rough and threaten to swamp us.  James himself uses the same image in verse “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Many of you have been through trials.  Many of you are undergoing them right now.  It’s not easy; it’s exhausting, actually.  What hope is there?  The strength of God that has been delivered to you is surest and strongest.  I’m not worried about how strong you are, I know how strong our God is.  He has promised the crown of life to you who are steadfast and immovable.  If you’re reading James and a little overwhelmed, don’t forget he was the one who was so firmly convinced of Christ alone as the sure foundation for eternal salvation.  “Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (1:12)  God Himself has promised it.  If you are in any doubt where you stand with God, rest assured, He has ratified your good standing with him through the cross of Christ Jesus.  By Christ alone, through the cross alone.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.


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