We are launching into a five-week sermon series on the book of James. I have done versions of this series twice before at other churches. Even on the third try, I go into this effort with just a little fear.
Here’s the basic problem: We’re going to spend a lot of time hearing from James about how to behave. The danger is that you will process all of this as a lesson in what you have to do to get into heaven.
Please do not hear this series that way. In fact, this first sermon mostly is about how not to hear the other sermons.
We are saved by grace and grace alone. In other words, when Jesus Christ went to the cross and died for our sins, he gave us a gift, the gift of eternity. All we have to do to gain eternity is believe and accept the gift.
When we begin talking about Christian behavior, we’re always talking about it as a proper response to grace. God acts first, loving us and saving us, and we respond joyously and thankfully. That response often is delivered in the form of righteous living and good works.
The author of James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He also likely was the brother of Jesus, coming to a belief in Jesus as the Christ after the resurrection. His one letter that made it into the Christian canon has long been controversial; some church leaders—the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for example—wondered if it should be in the Bible at all, concerned that its emphasis on works caused too much confusion in a grace-based religion.
I personally don’t find James’ words as confusing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. We simply have to keep events in their proper order.
The vine precedes the grapes. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our faith in Christ makes us his branches, but there is no point to being his branches in this metaphor unless we bear fruit, the good works that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom.
Doesn’t a new life in Christ imply new ways of acting? James is telling us that if our new life in Christ doesn’t result in new ways of thinking and relating to others, then we may be mistaken about our relationship with Christ. This seems to go along with Jesus’ words about the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. Yes, we are saved because of our belief in Christ’s work on the cross to defeat sin, but our behaviors seem to be a prime indicator of how strongly we hold that belief.
For years, Nike has used the trademarked phrase, “Just Do It.” To me, it references that need for athletes to reach down inside themselves and find the willpower to make themselves what they want to be.
The Christian twist on the phrase would be that God reached down in us and put something new there when we accepted Jesus as Savior. The good works we do actually are part of the gift of salvation. If we trust that truth—if we let God work in us—the change can be astonishing.
The next few weeks will be about seeing what change is possible, trusting that even miraculous healing of the body and soul can occur.