“Like those who look at themselves in a mirror” (1:23). James is an odd duck, don’t you think? Well, Martin Luther thought James was dangerous stuff. He thought that James was an “epistle of straw” because of all this hearing and doing stuff. See, Luther was afraid that we would read the Letter of James and come away with the feeling that it was all about doing, that our faith consisted of acts like caring for widows and orphans in their distress, that our calling was to keep ourselves unstained from the world – meaning that we live purely, keep our promises, respect one another, learn to live in community, guard our emotions, and turn away from that which would deceive us. Luther thought that was bad.
Well, no, to be honest Luther didn’t think that was bad. Forgive me, those who might have strains of Lutheran history in their bloodstreams. Of course, I know that Luther was all for any and all of those acts of faith. He did them himself on a regular basis. No, it wasn’t the acts that worried Luther; it was the belief that the acts were what saved people.
Frankly, Luther’s perception made me wonder if he had read the letter in the first place. I mean, this is just chapter one, and here we have it in black and white: The implanted word that has the power to save your souls. The implanted word? What in the world? Or beyond the world?
James, tradition has it, was the brother of Jesus. There is some considerable doubt as to whether that James ever sat down and wrote this letter, but in the book of Acts, we see James stepping up to be a leader—some say The Leader—of the fledgling church. So, I like to imagine that this letter is the result of being the brother of Jesus and of listening to all that Jesus was saying his whole life, not just during the three years of ministry the Gospels tell us about. His whole life, well, James’ s whole life anyway, since he was the younger brother. For James’s whole life, he lived in that shadow. Maybe there was a time when James idolized his big brother Jesus, as is the habit of younger brothers. Maybe there was a time when James began to resent Jesus and the special treatment Jesus received from his mother, who treated him as though he was a special gift from God, and from his father, who seemed strangely in awe of his eldest son. Maybe James grumbled about the things Jesus would say and about how his sisters and all the neighborhood kids would flock to listen to every word Jesus said, as though he were some prophet or teacher, for heaven’s sake! There was that scene in three of the gospels where it says Jesus’ mother and his brothers came to “see him.” You know, James was leading the pack and telling them that Jesus had gone crazy, and they needed to get him help, take him someplace where he wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the whole family.
James was a doer. James was faithful. In Jesus’ story, James got to be the elder brother, but he didn’t come off very well (see Luke 15). Now it had all changed. James looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw. So, when the resurrected Jesus showed up and said, “I need you, bud,” James the doer stepped up. If you asked him, he probably couldn’t have told you why. He just did. He just did what he always did. He was the helpful one, the calm one, the good one, the pure one. But now, there was something else inside him. Something took root, some word that made sense, some word that made life. And he was still a doer. But now he was a doer because. He was still a servant, but now he was a servant because. He was still pure and good and faithful, but now he was pure and good and faithful because.
Because? Because the word took root in him. He looked into the mirror and didn’t like what he saw. Because what he saw was emptiness. What he saw was the duty of faithfulness, the burden of purity, the task of service. What he saw was a void where his motivation and his soul ought to be. But when he looked into those eyes, the eyes he knew from his own birth, the eyes that managed to love him even when he didn’t want them to, those eyes seemed to call for more and now seemed to give more. When he looked into those eyes, it was as if something took root in him; something was planted: a reason, a purpose, a new beginning, a new soul. And all that he did, he did because of that implanted word, that hope revived, that soul restored. It has the power to save your soul. That’s what he wrote. Not the works, Luther, the word implanted. The works grew out of the salvation; they didn’t earn it. He needed that word implanted.
He didn’t earn it, but he had to welcome it. He had to welcome it with meekness, with gentleness – the eighth fruit of the Spirit, the very essence of God. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Welcome the word with gentleness, not because of our weakness but because of his strength.
Sometimes quietness is healing and restoring. Sometimes it is troubling, reflecting the emptiness of a soul. Sometimes it is a waiting for a word, needing hope and a reminder. Come, Lord Jesus.