Sunday, March 12, 2006

James and Justice

When you open the book of James you can see the steam rising off the pages. The writer is a man boiling with passion.

James by El Greco

Across five short chapters he will go from calling his readers “dearly beloved” and “brothers” to accusing them of spiritual adultery and murder.

What is it that has thrown him into such a convulsion? He’s convinced his readers haven’t grasped the scale of transformation involved in living a Christian life.

This drives him nuts. His readers probably don’t think they are particularly bad people. They are working and shopping – leading normal lives.



But James is determined to make them realise that when God takes hold of you, normal life stops. And if you spend too much time thinking about money, he will shake you upside down until your credit cards and coins have fallen out of your pockets.

It’s interesting to imagine why James uses shock tactics to wake up his readers to the realities of a life lived in a relationship with the creator of the universe.



If he was – as tradition suggests - the brother of Christ in a biological sense, then it’s clear from the Gospels that he hadn’t been convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. John 7:5 tells us Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe him.

But now, after the resurrection, James is writing a letter that will be translated into thousands of languages and studied and debated around the world. He doesn’t know this as he puts pen to paper. He is making up for lost time.

He must have kicked himself daily. He had been given unique access to the Son of God. He had grown up beside him; seen him eat, sleep and work. Think of the questions he must have wished he’d asked his brother: Is there life on other planets? What’s the point of wasps?

But now, post Pentecost, he knows that men and women can have an even closer relationship with God than the one he had had with Jesus. We have not only received his teachings, but we know God lives in us. Everything the prophets talked about is just a shadow of the wonder that is unfolding in the church as God fills his people with his Holy Spirit. Before the creation of the very world in which we live, God had planned for us to be alive to do good works.

Just as a bee is born with the instinct to go looking for nectar, so humans pop from the womb with a hunger for the meaning of life. James is convinced it is revealed in Jesus.



So if James is angry with himself for taking so long to realise this, he is even more adamant that Christians should not live wearing earplugs, blinkers and sunglasses. And it’s clear he thought the church had become dominated by people determined to lead just as luxurious a lifestyle as their neighbours. They wanted money and status.

When James sends them this letter he hits them with the equivalent of a custard pie. In 4.13 he shouts: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ - yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.”

The next sentences echo with all the existential angst of Ecclesiastes: “What is you life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”



The writer of Ecclesiastes – sometimes said to be King Solomon - cries that everything is meaningless. He sets out in search of experience, tastes and touches as much as a man can, and is left with an aching emptiness.

James and the apostles have seen Jesus. They have looked at an empty grave and discovered there is a power at work in the universe that is stronger than death, that can cross the deepest divisions and can walk on water.



To miss out on the wonder of this life-giving power is worse than going to the Grand National and refusing to look at any horses. It was bad enough at Pentecost when thousands of people in Jerusalem failed to appreciate the significance of what was happening in their midst: but for Christians - people who are supposed to be followers of Jesus - to be too busy thinking about making money to play a full role in the greatest adventure of all time is preposterous and outrageous.

Like a mechanic getting under the bonnet of a motor vehicle that won’t start, James takes a look at the church and diagnoses at least two problems.

One is that they are drifting. They do not realise that faith is something active, an invigorating and change-making phenomenon that takes the believer to new places. You need to persevere in faith. It is not merely a case of giving intellectual assent to a creed. We may become a Christian at a specific moment in time, but we need to “be” a Christian every day.

God does not want a people who acknowledge his existence merely by nodding their heads like the type of daft plastic dog it’s possible to stick on your dashboard. He wants disciples who will go through the world, baptising and preaching the most extraordinary news any ear will ever hear.

In James 2.19 he exclaims: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person that faith apart from works is useless?”

But a second problem plaguing his readers is that they have not grasped the incredible fragility and brevity of life. If the universe has been around for 15-odd billion years, and we have maybe seven or eight decades in which to experience consciousness, truly, as James noted in chapter four, we are like a mist that appears and vanishes.



In 1890 in Newington, Charles Spurgeon preached on this passage. The great preacher was wrecked with grief. His dear friend, the deacon William Olney, had collapsed in a paralytic stroke and would die the next morning.



He said, “Is it so, O man, that thy life is self-governed? Is there not, after all, One greater than thyself? Is there not a higher power that can speed thee or stop thee. If thou doest not know this, thou hast not yet learned the first letter of the alphabet of wisdom.”

The universe is so vast that when compared to the immensity of galaxies humans are little bigger than atoms. Such contemplation has driven some people to think that a Creator could not pay attention to his miniscule creations. But a God who could embrace the widest horizon but was unable to care for a sparrow would not be a God at all but a clumsy giant. The message of the Bible is that he who made this universe died for us for no other reason but love.



Joseph Ratzinger, who would one day become Pope Benedict, wrote in 1968: “To him who as spirit upholds and encompasses the universe, a spirit, a man’s heart with its ability to love, is greater than all the milky ways of the universe.”

To know this love – and to have the hope of heaven in our hearts – transforms the experience of being alive. Suddenly it becomes a privilege to have these few decades handed to us by our Father. We can taste things the angels will never know: The horrifying joy of falling in love; the incredible combination of red wine and chocolates; running in giant waves that will lift you off your feet; just smelling a rose on the way to work is like looking through a telescope into a world of beauty and design.

In the summer of 1946 in the German city of Bonn, standing before a crowd of war-shaken students, the brilliant theologian Karl Barth allowed his mind to boggle at the wonder of being alive.

He said: “Creation is grace: a statement at which we should like best to pause in reverence, fear and gratitude… That there is a world is the most unheard-of-thing, the miracle of the grace of God. Is it not true that if we confront existence, not least our own existence, we can but in astonishment state the truth and reality that I may exist…”

God is redeeming creation, and we will spend eternity in his presence. But he wants us to live in this world where the brambles still have thorns and the nettles still sting. It is his desire that we will know him in time and space and experience him in action. We have been given the opportunity to be part of his rescue team for creation.

If we could travel through time, would it not be wonderful to join Sir Francis Drake on his journey around the globe; step into the snowy footsteps of Edmund Hillary as he became the first man to see the summit of Everest; or climb into the Apollo rocket with Neil Armstrong when he shot off for the moon?

The calling of Jesus to take part in his great commission is a charge of even greater significance and glory: To “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”.

James is going nuts at the thought of the Christians sleep-walking through reality. Their eyes are so focussed on balance sheets that they do not fulfil the great and thrilling works that God is commanding them to do. Instead, the termites of doubt and worry creep into their lives and begin their work of decay.



In the same sermon, Spurgeon asked: “How is it that, instead of living in the eternal future, where we might deal with certainties, we continue to live in the more immediate future, where there can be nothing but uncertainties? Why do we choose to build upon clouds, and pile our palaces on vapour, to see them melt away, as aforetime they have often melted, instead of by faith getting where there is no failure, where God is all in all, and his sure promises make the foundations of eternal mansions?”



As James continued to write letter, his quill must have dug deeper into the parchment. Not only were his readers abandoning their calling, they had become part of the problem.

They were bragging and social-climbing; chasing wealth and prestige. What resemblance did they have to the Jesus who came and blessed the poor and let children sit on his knee?

In James 1:26 he shouts: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

He closes chapter four with the warning that “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it , for him it is sin”.

James then launches into chapter five like a modern day Joel or Micah. He announces: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.”

But why, the readers must have gulped to each other at this point, is James being so horrible? What have we done?

James answers their question: “You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”

It seems there were two groups emerging in the church. They were not defined by doctrine or by being Jewish or Gentile, but by whether they were rich or poor. In James’s eyes, this was an obscenity.

When Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazereth in the earliest days of his ministry he stood up and read these words from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovering of sight to the blind
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

He followed this by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The congregation responded by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. But Jesus didn’t shy away from these themes in future sermons.

Rather than seeking an audience with Herod and Pilate, Jesus preached his gospel among the poorest in society. He didn’t target the opinion-formers and the people with resources in the hope his teaching would trickle down through the culture of first century Palestine.

In his message he seemed obsessed with tearing down the barriers between God and people and each other. Money seemed one of the greatest barriers dividing people.



A rich young man asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus told him, in Matthew 19: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

We read: “When the rich man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’”

According to Jewish law, every half-century the year of Jubilee was to be staged. Slaves were to be freed and debts cancelled. Jesus embodied that liberation, as he said in the synagogue. And while it was not surprising that a Messiah might proclaim liberty to slaves in poverty. It is a shock to every world system to hear him proclaiming liberty from slavery to wealth.

This message is at the heartbeat of the Gospel, and James realises that if the early church doesn’t understand this they will have missed out on a key teaching. It is as if they have gone to sit their driving test and understand every word of the highway code except for the section on traffic lights.

In chapter two, James writes: “Listen my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called?”

Three chapters later he accuses them of murdering “the righteous man”. Murder is an incredibly strong word. How can he equate inequality with murder?

We live in a time of unprecedented wealth in the West, and unparalleled inequality around the world. More than one billion people do not have access to clean water. According to Water Aid, every 15 seconds a child dies from a related disease. More than 852 million people in the world go hungry. In developing countries, six million children die each year, mostly from hunger-related causes.

It’s understandable – though still tragic - that millions of people might die through war, or from incurable killers such as the Ebola virus. But why, in the 21st century, are people still dying from hunger? Humans have been successfully farming for 6,000 years, agriculture has evolved into a precise science, and where there is demand – logic dictates – supply should follow. But in an era of mass communication and free trade millions of people are dying because of dirty water.

Many of these people are our brothers and sisters. Christianity’s centre of gravity has moved from the West to the developing world. There are approximately 480 million believers in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia. In Africa the church is growing at close to 5% a year.

By Glenn Edwards

Political corruption in Africa has led to countless deaths, but there is an equally strong case that the West must share responsibility for this poverty that kills.

According to Christian Aid, nearly half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. The price of key exports from many of the countries where these people live is at a 150-year low, and income in the poorest states in Africa has fallen by a quarter in the last 20 years.

Trading arrangements negotiated to protect large-scale farming in the United States and Europe are preventing African nations from selling their goods at a fair price in the West. At the last round of negotiations the richest countries estimated they would be $141.8 billion better off and Africa would be $2.6 billion worse off. At a recent full meeting of the World Trade Organisation, the European Union had 500 negotiators and Haiti had none.

We should tremble when we read James 5.4: “Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

We share the same Holy Spirit with our brothers and sisters. It follows that we should share our wealth.

One of the most thrilling events in recent church history has been the mobilisation of Christians to take up the cause of the orphans and the widows and pursue justice.

Christians divided by denominations but united in conscience came together at the end of the 20th century to launch the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Inspired by the concept of a year in which hopeless debts would be forgiven, they demanded the West let mercy break into politics.

The campaign was characterised by unlikely pairings. One of the oddest was the bond which formed between Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, the CS Lewis-loving singer of U2.

Bono and Sachs

Sachs writes: “Bono and I were told, in no uncertain terms, that debt cancellation could not pass the US Congress. That was the initial view across the political spectrum, from the Clinton White House and Treasury Department to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. What the conventional wisdom failed to understand was the broad support for debt cancellation among a wide range of Americans. Conservatives thought it inevitable because they had no illusion about the creditworthiness of the poorest countries. Liberals thought it was the right thing to do. Many in the public were eager to find a sensible way to support the world’s poor. And perhaps most important at the end of the day, many conservatives who might otherwise oppose foreign aid joined out of religious motivation.”

It was these members of the religious right who stunned sceptics by drafting bipartisan legislation that cut away swathes of debt which had burdened the poorest countries.

Sachs notes: “As in many circumstances, the successful campaign to drop the debt achieved perhaps two thirds of what is truly needed, but it was two thirds more than what was deemed possible when we began.”



Jubilee 2000 snowballed into the Make Poverty History campaign in the run-up to the 2005 meeting of the G8 in Gleneagles, Scotland. The leaders of the world’s eight biggest economies agreed to increase foreign assistance by $50 billion by 2010 – half of which would go to Africa. They also agreed to give 100% debt cancellation to up to 38 of the world’s poorest countries, and to get 9m people on AIDS drugs by 2010.

Christians will never build a sinless utopia, but when we pursue what others deem lost causes we should expect miracles.

In Ephesians Paul wrote: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And Jesus said in Luke 18.27: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

This should encourage us to exercise our democratic responsibility to speak out for economic justice, and to pray that that mercy and justice might obliterate the dark shadows of greed and incompetence which have ruined the lives of so many.

But most Christians reading James today are not doing so in a position of wealth and affluence. They will not drive home from church this morning. These people who are the victims of corruption and every shade of sin, they are looking to God for justice. And James is no doubt that their endurance will be rewarded.

He writes: “Be patient, therefore brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth… You also, be patient. Establish your hearts for the coming of the Lord is at hand… behold the Judge is standing at the door.”

Not only is human life finite, so is the very existence of the universe. The return of Christ will bring justice. Despite the evil in the world, somehow the idea of justice which God has planted in our hearts still remains. It is as if in a world where all the gardens are locked we have been given a book with an illustration of a rose. When the great day comes, we will see the real thing in its beauty, fragrance and wonder.

By Linda Paul

Is there meaning to this struggle against the illness, pain, loneliness, temptation and want that Christians in all parts of the world battle? If creation is yearning for redemption, why does God not intervene now and put an end to the cavalcade of Hitlers and Herods and Pol Pots and Pharoahs? Why does he put his beloved people in places where they are forced to suffer as they bear witness to him?

The despairing humanist Kurt Vonnegut said in a recent interview: “Supposedly evolution and natural selection are all about survival, but we haven't gotten smarter over the years, only more dangerous. I think the big winners are the ones who get off of the planet first. And so I have trouble with Darwin. I mean, if they can kill Christ, they can kill anybody.”

Vonnegut

James cannot promise respite to suffering Christians, but he can give a comfort which is perhaps more enduring. The men and women who are in anguish need never believe their suffering and steadfastness is meaningless.

He writes: “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

The book of Job is perhaps the oldest in the bible. It tells the story of a righteous man who loved and worshipped God. He had been so richly blessed that Satan told God material blessings were the only reason why Job showed such devotion. God knew that the faith of Job which bonded a creation with his creator was stronger than this. It was so important to God that Satan’s accusation be proved false that he allowed the devil to strip Job of his riches, his health and even his family.

Job and his wife, by Georges de la Tour

The Belfast bible scholar David Gooding comments: “God is prepared to go to tremendous lengths to demonstrate before the principalities and powers that his people’s faith is genuine faith. In the early days Job didn’t know what was going on, and it led to much anguish of heart. ‘Why does the Lord let me suffer? Why?’ He was serving a greater cause than he knew. His very suffering was clearing God of the charge of favouritism, demonstrating God to be just, because Job’s faith was genuine.”

One day we will meet Job, James and all the other men and women who suffered for their faith. They will have been carried by angels into the embrace of a Heavenly Father. And this God will not have watched their suffering from behind a screen like a vivisectionist testing an animal. Rather, for reasons we can never fully grasp this side of eternity, we have a Creator who has shared in our suffering.

This mystery was expressed beautifully by the 19th century Welsh hymnwriter William Rees:

“On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And Heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”

3 Comments:

At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

This is so good, quite one of the finest pieces I have read on James. And maybe one of your best pieces of writing too! It should be available to a much greater audience than the priviliged few who find their way to your blog!

 
At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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