Sermon St Eustachius 29 August 2021 Year B Trinity13 P17 Halakah
Deuteronomy 4v1-2, 6-9 Psalm 15 James 1v17-27 Mark 7v1-8,14-15, 21-23
Let us pray
If I asked you to describe what you looked like, could you do that? And could you give an accurate picture of yourself to someone?
Well, Saint James, known as James the Just, our Lord’s brother, and the leader of the early Church in Jerusalem, clearly thought it was important. As I am poor at describing faces, I would be no good at all in describing myself, James’s analogy is a rather hard one for me to take, for what did he have say?
James said it was important not to immediately forget what we look like as we should remember just who we are following and not to forget that as followers of Jesus our Lord, we are not just to hear his words, but are called upon to put them into practice, and thereby hangs my dilemma. I do forget what I look like! Fortunately his comparison is but an analogy, and was used by James simply to spur us all on and into a deeper discipleship, a deeper and closer walk with Jesus.
As disciples, and so as followers of Jesus, we are not only called to look into the ‘perfect law of God’, but having looked into his law, to let God’s word, the scriptures, guide and direct our ways and our behaviour.
James letter, written from Jerusalem probably around the mid 40’s of the first century, is full of practical advice for living out our Christian lives. In Jewish tradition, the practical interpretation and working out of the laws, the Torah, that was given by God to Moses so the Hebrew people would know how to best live their lives, is called ‘halakhah’, the way.
So James’s epistle is often viewed as a type of Christian halakhah, and was written for the predominately Jewish believers of his time that were scattered throughout the Roman provinces to show them how to live out their lives for their new found Lord, and is of great value in giving us direction.
In this epistle James clearly sets out as pre-eminent ‘the royal law’, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (2v8), a statement fundamental to our Lord’s teaching, but also set out in the Old Testament in the book of Leviticus (19v18).
For James, if our faith does not show the love of God in action, it is a dead faith, it can bare no fruit. For him it is our works, motivated by our love for one another, that shows our faith to be real and not barren (2v18,20).
James had earlier in his epistle reminded his readers, and using some very challenging words, of the nature of ‘true religion’ (1v27), ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled is this, to visit orphans and widows, and to keep oneself unstained from the world’. The way that is to be practiced will vary for each one of us as we apply the thought behind those words to best suit our talents and situation.
But James’s words are clearly meant to show how our lives are to stand out, to be different from the values and practices of this materialistic world, and so they are to speak to our neighbours of the love and presence we experience of God.
James has much to say as to the hallmarks that should be seen in the lives of us as believers. Those hallmarks are humility (4v10), patience (5v7), lack of grumbling (5v9) and the judging of others (4v12). Hopefully we can recognise those traits in our lives; if not then we need to ask for God’s unfailing grace that they will come.
James also has something profound to say on how destructive that little member ‘our tongue’ can be (3v6). He describes it as what? As ‘a fire, and full of deadly poison’, graphic words. How we need to take much care over what comes out of our mouth, for it reflects on the true state of our heart. We have all been taught the rule of thumb, ‘count to ten’ before saying something that we may wish later we had not spoken.
But do we? Unfortunately, once said there is no recall, no way of taking those words back, the damage has been done. So James gives us some advice to help.
He gives us at least three pointers to keep in mind concerning our speech, perhaps you can find more. Let your ‘yes be yes and your no be no’, in other words, there is no need to add any qualification, but where it is appropriate to just speak the truth, and sometimes it may even be better to just keep quiet. I remember being in court on one occasion and asked to swear on the bible, but I pointed to what James and Jesus said so as to make that unnecessary. Jesus said similar words to James in his sermon on the mount (Mtt 5v34-37). “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven or by the earth. All you need to say is simply yes or no”.
Then James gives us advice on how we should plan what we intend to do. As Christians we believe that all things are in God’s hands and so it is appropriate for us to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall do this or that’ (4v15). Perhaps some of you, like me, may be in the habit of saying, DV, Deo Volente, God willing.
And then James concludes his letter with some very practical advice concerning prayer, one of the most powerful things that can come out from our mouths. He says, ‘The prayer of a righteous person has great power in its effect’ (5v16). Do we believe that when we pray? Or are we so often like the person described by James at the start of his epistle (1v6), one who doubts? James says that person is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed about, unstable.
These three practices, and much more in James’s letter, are good for us to adopt as we demonstrate the presence of God with us, which is our hope of glory.
James, like his brother Jesus, were both observant of the Jewish law, the Torah, but not in a purely legalistic or routine sense. You will remember how Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil or complete it (Mtt 5v17). He constantly affirmed the words God gave to Moses who in our reading from Deuteronomy (4v5) had said to the people, “keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you”.
But Jesus saw the 613 commandments of that law, called mitzvot, not as a yoke to stifle the lives of the people, but given by God as a way to guard their lives against the distractions that could easily lead them into idolatry and into the worship of other Gods beside him the living Lord, Yahweh. Similarly, the commandments that Jesus has placed upon us his followers, are for our good and are a way for us to show our love and commitment to him, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments”, Jesus said to the disciples at the last supper (Jn14v15).
And those same sentiments of the way that we should live that James sets out in his letter, not only have many parallels within the sermon on the mount in Jesus teaching, but are also an echo of what our psalmist wrote (Ps15). ‘Speak the truth from the heart’, ‘bear no deceit on the tongue’, ‘do no evil to a friend’, ‘pour no scorn on a neighbour, and do not go back on your word to him’, and ‘take no bribe’. It is by doing these things the psalmist tells us that one shall never fall.
So what do all these point to for us as Christians? They point to the high calling that God has placed upon our lives now we have been adopted as his children. But we are now not just God’s children, but through our reconciliation to God made possible by the obedience of Jesus to the cross, Paul tells us in Romans (8v17) that we have become heirs with Jesus to the coming new creation. Now that is a thought for you to get your heads around during this coming week.
With such a promise and hope set before us, we have much to give thanks to God for, but also much to live up to. We are now beholden to show to our generation the joy we possess in the life and power of the kingdom, and that comes through God’s indwelling Holy Spirit. I do trust that we all recognise the Holy Spirit in our lives.
So let us make sure we hold that hope, a hope that comes as we put our faith and trust in our Lord Jesus who is alone the way, the truth and the life.
Let us pray:
Father of mercy,
keep us joyful in your salvation and faithful to your covenant; and, as we journey to your coming kingdom, ever feed us with the bread of life, your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen