Tag Archives: Christian Community

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:17

JamesJames 2:17
So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

With this summary statement, James brings his illustration and three rhetorical questions to its climax. What good is it if one says they have faith but do not have works? No good at all—such faith is “dead.” Can that faith save the person? No—such faith is “dead” (nekra estin).

“Dead” faith is lifeless, inoperative and impotent. It has and can have no lasting value, effect or impact. In fact, it is not faith at all. For James, faith must be a living reality in one’s life, vigorous and energetic, issuing in works. Faith cannot be without works (ean mē echē erga) or “by itself” (kath heautēn). Genuine faith so orients the believer to God, that it determines the life of the believer in directions which correspond to the character and activity of God.

We have already seen that, for James, this character may be understood in terms of moral purity and generous compassion (1:26-27). A living faith is accompanied by works—the kind of works James has identified in his illustration: works of love towards others in the congregation, especially the poor; works of mercy in which their bodily needs are cared for.

Unless faith does issue in such works of love, its claim is empty.

For James, then, there is no such thing as a true and living faith which does not produce works. … Works are not an “added extra” any more than breath is an “added extra” to a living body. …

James does not argue for faith instead of works or works instead of faith or even works above faith, but for faith and works. Both are important and must equally be present or else the other alone is “worthless” (Davids, 122, 123).

Finally, we must note once more, that James views the Christian community as a proleptic social manifestation of the “great reversal” which will come to pass at the eschaton (see the post on James 1:9-11). Here and now, in the concrete life of the Christian community, a new social order is to emerge in which poor are dignified as valued and equal members of the community, and their bodily needs are met by those in the community with the means to do so.

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:31-40, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Karl Barth brings his meditation on “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” to a conclusion with a summation in five points of what he means by this term, including a discussion of the form of Christian life which issues from this work of God, as is appropriate in a discussion of ‘the command of God the Reconciler.’

First, Barth reiterates that the beginning of Christian life is the ‘direct self-attestation and self-impartation of the living Jesus Christ’ in the work of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author and finisher of Christian faith. Jesus Christ himself is the divine change which occurs in a person’s life and by which they become a Christian. Barth’s emphasis here is to preclude the idea that the Christian life results on account of the mediation of the Christian community, or even the Scripture. Jesus Christ may use these means as an instrument of his Word, but his call to a person is direct and immediate. This is a person’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit, whereby Jesus Christ imparts ‘Himself as at once the Guarantor of God’s faithfulness to him and of his own faithfulness to God’ (33).

Second, this divine work whereby Jesus Christ gives himself to specific persons in the work of the Holy is the form of grace in which God actually reconciles the world to himself. ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit is effective, causative, even creative action on man and in man. It is, indeed, divinely effective, divinely causative, divinely creative’ (34). That is, it is not the human response or the ecclesial work of water baptism which is the means of this grace, but the direct work of Jesus Christ as he baptises with the Holy Spirit. By this grace a person is changed ‘truly and totally,’ and is liberated for their own decision of faithfulness in correspondence to the faithfulness shown them by God. This divine change is so transformative the person can and will never forget it (35).

Third, this ‘omnipotently penetrating and endowing’ grace demands the response of gratitude, for this grace not only liberates the person for a new obedience but claims them for this obedience to their new Lord and Master whom they have now acquired. The grace that forgives and frees also commands (35).

The problem of ethics is thus raised for him, or more exactly, the problem of the ethos corresponding to it, of the response of his own being, action and conduct. … He has to take up a position in relation to this, the only position in relation to this, the only position which can be taken, but a position taken in freedom. It is not that God’s act on and in man makes of him a cog set in motion thereby. The free God does not act thus with man. On the contrary, what the free God in His omnipotence wills and fashions in Jesus Christ in the work of the Holy Ghost is the free man who determines himself under this pre-determination by God, the obedience of his heart and conscience and will and independent action. Here man is taken seriously and finds that he is taken seriously, as the creature which is different from God, which is for all its dependence autonomous before Him, which is of age. Here he is empowered for his own act, and invited, commanded and encouraged to perform it (35).

The human person is set in an immediacy of relation with their God from whose direct command they cannot escape. They have been snatched from the power of sin and death, liberated from their own impotence, and freed from their assumed autonomy whereby they were supposedly ‘free’ alongside God; God has ‘beset them behind and before’ (cf. Psalm 139:5).

Fourth, the beginning of Christian life is the beginning of a person’s life in a distinctive ‘fellow-humanity.’ That is, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit sets a person in the Christian community where they become the companion and fellow of others who themselves are likewise bound to God and so to one another. ‘He ceases to be a self-enclosed man, and there is actualised his relationship to all those to whom Jesus Christ has also attested and imparted himself as Lord and Brother. … He is redeemed from all isolation and also from all contingent or transient attachments to others, and incorporated in the communion of saints (37). The Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not identical with a person’s entry and reception into the Christian community, but it will lead to this. Further, in this community the person will receive their own special spiritual power and their own special task in the total life and ministry of the community (38). These spiritual gifts can never be rigidly defined or limited to institutional offices:

The criterion of the authenticity of the discharge of all institutional office in the Church is always and everywhere the question whether the one who serves in this or that office is a recipient and bearer of the charisma indispensable to his work, and first and finally whether he is a recipient and bearer of the love which is above all spiritual gifts. At no time, then, in the life and ministry of the community, in the fulfilment of Christian fellow-humanity, can one dispense with the petition: Veni Creator Spiritus. Always and everywhere this must be prayed afresh.

Finally, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is only the beginning of the Christian life, a beginning which must be ever-renewed in its always fresh continuation. Just as the seasons are always renewed, so the fruit-bearing Christian life is ever renewed, and so requires ever-new sowing and reaping, cultivation and pruning, a daily penitence and striving for those new possibilities which lie ahead (39). The whole of the Christian life is one long Advent-season, a life of ‘waiting and hastening’ (2 Peter 3:12) toward the ultimate kingdom, in prayer and eucharist, caught up in the movement of God: ‘the power of the life to come is the power of his life in this world’ (40).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:4

JamesJames 2:4
Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

In this verse, the scenario described by James in verses 2-3 comes to its climax. The way in which James told his little tale implicated his hearers: “Suppose a gold-fingered man wanders into your assembly and you say…” That is, if the congregation shows favouritism and partiality to some guests on the basis of their socio-economic standing, and if on the same basis they withhold it from others; if they then treat the two persons differently, favourably on the one hand and contemptuously on the other, then, says James, they have “made distinctions” among themselves where presumably no such distinctions should exist, and so have become “judges,” indeed have set themselves up as judges, but evil judges with evil thoughts.

The two key terms in this verse form a word-play: diekrithēte (“made distinctions”) and kritai (“judges”). The first term occurs also in 1:6 where it means to doubt, or to waver between different possibilities. Here its meaning is often understood as “to discriminate, to make distinctions,” which fits well with the second part of the verse where James accuses his listeners of becoming judges—those whose principle activity involves the kind of discrimination required to make judgements. Vlachos, however, notes that the verb is in the passive voice, and so suggests that another meaning may be more appropriate, viz. “you have become divided” (71). It is not necessary to choose between these various options: making distinctions on the basis of status and appearance results in division in the assembly. These distinctions—and the resulting division—occur “among yourselves” (en heautois) which suits the whole context better than “within yourself,” and also suggests that the problem is characteristic of the congregation generally, rather than restricted to just a few of the members.

By making these distinctions they “have become judges” (kai egenesthe kritai). James will later insist that God alone is the one law-giver and judge, and so it is wholly inappropriate that some members of the congregation would presume to judge their neighbour (4:12). Not only have they become judges, however, but have become judges “of evil thoughts” or intentions (dialogismōn ponērōn). James will go on in the following verses to show why such intentions and activity are evil, but it is possible already to discern the reason: faith in Jesus is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. “Receiving the face” (prosōpolēmpsiais) of the other in verse one is the equivalent of making distinctions in verse four, and so utterly out of place in the community of God’s people.

One final grammatical point remains to be noted: James’s twofold question in this verse begins with ou (“not”), a particle that functions in rhetorical questions when the person asking the question anticipates a positive answer. The questions, then, are loaded questions expecting the answer, “yes indeed” (see McKnight, 188). That is, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves?” Yes; yes you have. “Have you not become judges with evil thoughts?” Yes, indeed you have.

We have seen already in 1:10-11 that James is concerned that the messianic congregation transcend the socio-economic distinctions common in the world—in the light of eternity and of the judgement to come. That the congregation continue to make such distinctions indicates that their perspectives are flawed. Their values are still shaped by the priorities of the world. Their faith in Jesus has not yet penetrated their lives sufficiently to reshape their vision and reset their values. Their flawed attitudes issue in actions incongruent with their faith and which then lead to division between rich and poor in the assembly. Because their judgements do not echo God’s judgements about the relative worth of persons, earthly conditions and “deservedness,” they are false and therefore evil judgements.

James has not pulled any punches. Like a professional boxer, he has cornered his opponent and landed every blow. His accusation against his hearers is pointed, specific and decisive. The strength and vigour of James’s assault highlights the utter seriousness with which he regards this matter. He cannot and will not allow his congregation to think that such favouritism is permissible—it is not. It is evil. Such partiality is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ.

The strength and vigour of James’s assault also challenges the church today and in every age. The question of application cannot be side-stepped. To what extent do we allow the vision and values of the surrounding culture to shape our response to the poor around and among us? Are our attitudes and actions congruent or incongruent with our faith in Jesus Christ? Further, might we map other categories onto those used by James? He does not mention “slave” or “free,” but it is very likely he would extend his argument to these persons also. Might the prohibition against making distinctions be extended also to those distinctions between educated and uneducated, old and young, male and female, conservative and progressive, married and single, gay and straight, mentally ill and sound of mind? It is likely, I think, that James would extend the principle to other socio-economic relations, but not to relations he considered immoral or against God’s commandments. Whether he would have extended it to the distinction between male and female may also be questioned, although it is worth noting that he places Rahab alongside Abraham as those justified by their works (2:23-25). That the prostitute and the patriarch are associated so closely suggests that in the community of faith, brothers and sisters, rich and poor, high and low are equally honoured. In any event, we are certainly on safe ground when we stay with what James has actually said, and do not use these kinds of questions to avoid or even forget our call to be the kind of community that welcomes, includes and respects the poor.