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A Sermon on Sunday – James 2

If in James 1 we hear of the good and generous God, then James 2 could be understood as speaking of the good and generous church—those who are the people and children of this good and generous God; those who are the recipients of his good and generous grace of salvation.

James 2 has two major sections, each beginning with a hypothetical story and rhetorical question. In both stories the focus is on the response of the congregation to someone who is poor, which James then uses to teach his listeners about the true nature of the Christian life. In many ways, this whole chapter can be read as an exposition of the “true religion” that James mentions at the end of chapter one. True religion involves a life of faith—and works, of love—understood in terms of mercy.

A Problem in the Church

James 2:1-7   (NRSV)
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

Although this is a hypothetical story, it is likely that it represents attitudes and actions that are actually occurring in the congregations that James is writing to. Notice verse 6: “But you have dishonoured the poor!” These, whom God has chosen! These, who are the special objects of his favour, grace and blessing!

Does God play favourites?
Is God a respecter of persons?
Does God have a “preferential option for the poor”?

God chose Israel—the smallest, weakest, most inconsequential of nations (Deut. 7:6-9). God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, the foolish, base and insignificant things… Certainly the poor are to be rich in faith, and to love God. James is drawing on a rich seam of the Old Testament here, the idea of the Anawim, those poor who having no hope in this world, cry out to God and put their hope and trust in him. James is also echoing the Jesus of the Lukan beatitudes who pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich (Luke 6:20-26).

Nevertheless, favouritism like this is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, because Jesus himself became poor, identified with the poor, proclaimed good news to the poor, and identified with them. Those who show this kind of favouritism, who reflect the dominant values of the world rather than those of the kingdom of God, have become evil judges with evil thoughts.

The Royal Law

What, then, does God want in the church? We see in verse 8:

James 2:8-9
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

The “royal” (basilikon) law is the law of the kingdom (basiliea). In verse 13 James refers to it as mercy, and repeats, though negatively, Jesus’ beatitude about mercy.

Matthew 5:6
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

James 2:12-13
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

What is mercy but love-in-action, love with its sleeves rolled up? We get an indication of what James means in the second half of the chapter: mercy is active, mercy works, mercy is moved by the needs of another, mercy presses beyond words to works. Mercy gets involved. Mercy visits the orphan and the widow in their affliction (1:27). Mercy is personal, relational, involved, and active.

The good and generous church is a community of care imaging, reflecting, representing and proclaiming the good and generous God. We are called to be God’s good and generous community because God is good and generous, and because we have been the recipient of his good and generous grace.

We accept others as he has accepted us. We extend to others the generous goodness he has extended to us. We watch out for and care for others the way he watches out for and cares for us. We are his heart, his hands, his lovingkindness and mercy here and now, in our place and in our time. We are a kingdom community, a good and generous church because we are, already, the people of the good and generous God.

A Prayer of Confession

I came across this prayer in Ray Anderson’s On Being Human. Then I prayed it as part of the congregation at Evensong in Adelaide last Sunday. It is the last line of the first stanza that grabs me: and there is no health in us. The prayer is from the Book of Common Prayer (1928), “Morning Prayer.”

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;          
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.          
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.    
We have offended against thy holy laws.        
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.          
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.      
Restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises
declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.         
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake
that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,          
To the glory of thy holy Name.           

New Issue of Crucible Available

The new issue of Crucible has just been published online and is available here.

The issue is focused on the theme of  migration. The editorial states that “one of the most
pressing issues facing our world today is mass migration. From the “boat people” debate in Australia to the refugee crisis in the Middle-east and Europe, the world is struggling with some of the biggest mass migrations in history.” There are several peer-reviewed articles addressing this matter, some other articles and resources, plus book reviews including my own review on Frank Macchia’s Baptized in the Spirit.

Johanson, The Word in this World (Review)

Johanson, Kurt I. (ed.)
The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth 
trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007). 
66pp. ISBN: 1-57383-411-4

This little booklet contains two Barth sermons from different periods of his life, a foreword by Eberhard Busch, an introduction by William Willimon, an afterword by Clifford Anderson and acknowledgements by the editor which tell the story of how the booklet came into existence. Altogether it is an attractive and interesting little package. Johanson declares his hand on page 24: “It is also a clarion call to the pastors who herald the glorious gospel of our God from the pulpit, and to those who hear it in the pew, to powerfully proclaim and witness to the Word in this world.” But not only pastors:

I want nothing more than the church, and her scholar-preachers, to be able to offer, in one unified voice, as a part of her calling, a confident word to the world. It is my simple hope and prayer that the Pastor and the Professor can work together toward the recovery of courageous and powerful biblical preaching (28).

Thus the book is concerned with Barth as homiletician rather than theologian, although in truth, the two cannot be separated: “The main value of Karl Barth for us contemporary preachers is that he is a theologian,” says Willimon (10), for “thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons” (18). Thus, Barth’s insistence on the priority of the biblical text, on giving “close, obedient attentiveness” to God by means of this text is what preaching is about. Further, this attentiveness concerns itself, says Eberhard Busch, not simply with what God said once-and-for-all, but with what God says. “Barth learned from the Reformers that the sermon in the service of worship is to correspond to the prophetic office of Jesus Christ” (7-8).

So what do we find in Barth’s sermons? The first, from April 1912 when Barth was just twenty-five years old and a newly-minted pastor, is a pastoral response to the sinking of the Titanic which had occurred earlier that week. The second, from November 1934, was preached in Bremen’s Frauenkirche in the darkening days of the Nazi regime. The first is the work of the young “Red” pastor of Safenwil, the second, that of the seasoned professor of Bonn (although he was stood down from his position shortly afterwards) and a leader in the Confessing Church.

In Barth’s Titanic sermon we see the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them. Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36). We see also the young socialist pastor at work as he blames the disaster on capitalism. Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)!

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered. As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress. Just two years later Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology, on the basis, not least, of his discovery of the “new world in the Bible.”

The second sermon is entirely different and reflects this discovery. According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s Bremen sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (25). The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus. In this sermon the biblical text is front and centre, and the sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, or contextual remarks. Barth’s method is simply to exposit the biblical text itself (Matthew 14: Jesus—and Peter—walking on the water), line-by-line. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.”

The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God. The very form and structure of the sermon is itself a kind of theological claim (Willimon, 21).

Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. In Barth’s hands, Peter images the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

No longer the young, liberal, we see here Barth as an ecclesial theologian of the Word, doing theology for the sake of proclamation, that the church might truly be the church, bound only to one lord, and thus truly free. Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But the church must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us.

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.

An Easter Vigil (Cont’d)

Let the dancing begin!

Let me continue my story of this vigil by telling how the time passed:

The first hour really was arriving, preparations (including learning some songs), and getting settled. Shortly after midnight we all (except mum) exited the building, and the lights were turned off. Outside a fire had been prepared and there was a short liturgy involving prayers and the lighting of the main candle, and then each of us with candles lit entered the darkened church, playing on and enacting the obvious symbolism of the gospels, especially John. The next two or three hours were given over to Scripture and worship. Nine readings in three sets of three were read, seven from the Old Testament, one from Paul, and one from Matthew’s gospels. Each reading was introduced with a short orientation and admonition, read, and then a song of worship was sung, the song itself echoing or extending the theme of the reading.

The readings included:

  1. Genesis 1 – Creation
  2. Genesis 22 – The Testing of Abraham
  3. Exodus 14 – The Crossing of the Red Sea
  4. Isaiah 54 – The Covenant Love of God
  5. Isaiah 55 – A Call to Repentance and Life
  6. Ezekiel 36 – A New Heart
  7. Romans 6 – Baptism
  8. Matthew 28 – Jesus’ Resurrection (the gospel, read by a priest)

There was obviously one other reading but I cannot remember it now. After the first set of three, participants were invited to “resonate.” This is to offer one’s own reflection on the readings, with a particular focus on how it is speaking to oneself. After the second set of three, children present had opportunity to ask their parents “tough questions” about faith. Some of the questions really were tough and put the parents on the spot! They answered well. The third set offered another opportunity to resonate.

Then one of the priests offered a short and encouraging homily. Two babies were baptised with the full liturgy of corporate prayer and response, the dipping (three times) of the naked babies in the font, including full submersion on the third dip, the anointing of the babies with oil, and their clothing in white, and the “splashing” of the whole congregation with the baptismal water in an act of baptismal renewal. There was evident joy in the congregation during this liturgy and bapism, including what appeared to me to be outbursts of spontaneous praise. It possibly was not spontaneous, but a practice cultivated in the community expressing their exuberance at “two new Christians tonight” as I heard one woman saying excitedly to another after it was all over.

Finally, the Eucharistic liturgy was enacted (sung, as was the gospel “reading”) by the priests, with communion in both kinds being offered to all in the congregation, sometimes several times (to drink “all of it”?). The kiss of peace with much mutual affection was given all round, and the celebration finished with the chairs all pushed back, and a kind of folk dancing with lots of movement, joy and laughter.

With mum

Early in the evening one of the younger women who has been a good friend to mum came up and said to her, “You are a hero!” I think she was referring to mum coming to stay all night to worship God, and wait on his Word. Another woman said to me, “You have the most beautiful mum.” Both women were right: I have the most beautiful mum, and she is somewhat of a hero. She has been walking faithfully with Christ for many years now, faithful in sometimes the most difficult of circumstances, faithful especially in her prayer, her consideration of others and her witness. It was mum who continually witnessed to and prayed for me, and her life and devotion continues to inspire.

After the dancing many would go on to have breakfast together as the light of Easter day broke. These, however, had been enlightened already. I took mum home, and then headed home myself, tired enough to miss the freeway exit! I missed church at my own church that day—which Monica tells me was a wonderful service.

But actually, I didn’t miss church at all.

An Easter Vigil

My mother has been a devout Roman Catholic all her life and raised me in the Church. Unfortunately, I have been a wayward son, leaving the Church for a different branch of Christianity, and migrating through several forms and denominations over the years.

My mother has had her own journey within the Church, the Roman Catholic Church being large and diverse enough to accommodate a variety of forms within its overall structures. In the early 70s she became an early participant in the Catholic charismatic movement. Later, she became more deeply involved in a covenantal community movement within the church although, on account of her family, she never actually joined the community. More recently, which means in the last decade or two, she has participated in the Neocatechumenal Way, or the “Neo-cats” as she sometimes calls them.

Each Easter Saturday for quite some time now, mum has attended an all-night vigil on Easter Saturday (after the foot washing on Holy Thursday, and Good Friday services!). We would arrive sometime on Easter Sunday for family get-togethers, and mum will have been up all night and still going, preparing the house and the food and welcoming us all in.

Mum is in her mid-eighties now, and though increasingly frail, still very much alert and sociable. But after a full day out with one of my brothers on Easter Saturday, she was tired and did not think she could attend the vigil; the logistics simply made it too difficult. I asked her if it would make a difference if I came along with her, stayed the night, and so, if she needed anything, I would be there to assist. She said she would have a rest and call me back. She called back within five minutes—no time to rest! I picked her up later that evening and we arrived at the vigil about 11pm as things were just about ready. Once mum was seated she didn’t get up for almost seven hours! (Getting up and down is pretty difficult.) Nevertheless, she loved every minute of it.

It was my first time at the vigil. So what was it about?

First, it was a combined celebration with, I think, four distinct catechumenal groups meeting: two from the Cathedral, one from Kelmscott (or were there two groups from Kelmscott?), plus the newest group, from St. Kieran’s in Tuart Hill, who also hosted the event. There were perhaps 60-80 people present, including a good number of children. It was very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, perhaps an indication of the strength of Catholicism in non-Western contexts, though there were also a good number of “typical Aussies” there (sorry for that; everyone there was likely an “Aussie.” I will have to find an expression that conveys accurately, those with an Australian heritage going back several generations!).

The evening seemed mostly led by laity, both men and women participating in readings, exhortations, and worship. A number of priests were present but their participation was quite limited apart from the formal aspects of the mass. It was clear that those present were very ordinary in terms of work, relationships, family, schooling, and financial responsibilities, dealing with the struggles and joys of life common to just about everyone. The youngest were infants, mum amongst those most elderly. There were not many teenagers, though I do know that a number of the young family groups became involved in the community when they were teenagers.

What set these otherwise quite ordinary people apart was their faith, their sheer devotion to Christ and to their Church. Also evident was a sense of genuine and at times quite exuberant joy, tempered but not constrained by the liturgical form the evening took. Also prominent is the love of the group which I have previously noted in the way the group cared for my mother after my father’s death, and the way in which they have long included her in their communal life, assisting that inclusion with very regular and practical support.

The Neocatechumenal Way emphasises liturgy, Scripture and community with a focus on Christian formation in the tradition of the catechumenate of the ancient church. Given that the Roman Catholic Church practises infant baptism, it is a largely a post-baptismal formation. They also emphasise worship and vibrant communal singing, for the evening was full of it. The worship style was a particular kind of folk music, based on guitar and percussion: not an electronic or electric instrument in sight. The simple rhythms made it easy for the kids to join in too, with each kid able to play a variety of percussion instruments during the night.

What I observed on Saturday evening-Sunday morning indicates the rich fruits of this formational activity, and suggests, to my mind, the crucial necessity of such formation in the increasingly hostile environment in which the church exists in the contemporary west. I could not help but be reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’s continual emphasis that the church must become of community of people capable of forming others in the practices that sustain a truly Christian existence and witness in a world torn and suffering and idolatrous.

A little anecdote captures something of the evening for me: during one section of the proceedings the children present were invited to pray (and many did), the community as a whole responding, “Lord, hear our prayer.” One little girl aged perhaps eight or nine, prayed for those present, for the babies who were baptised, and “for all those sick and suffering,” that they might be helped by God and by others. Already she was learning that to be a Christian is to pray, and to care, to be aware of the needs of others, and of the necessity of responding to their need.

So what did they do for over six hours? Stayed tuned!

Continued Tomorrow…