Pure and Undefiled
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23James 1:17-27
I want to begin by lifting up three words today. Open. Compassionate. Humble.
How many of you grew up with brothers or sisters? Keep your hands up. How many of you were the younger or youngest of those siblings? I grew up as an older brother. My younger sister and I got along relatively well. But I am told that being the younger sibling has its challenges. There is often the comparison, made by teachers, peers, coaches, parents, or other adults. If the comparison is negative, that is, if the older sibling was a model student, child, or athlete, then you may grow up with that feeling that you’re never able to measure up. If the comparison is positive, that is, if the older sibling was a troublemaker, disruptive influence, class clown, then you may grow up having to convince everyone of your innocence. In either case, you grow up in the shadow of an older brother or sister who forged a path that you may not desire to take.
So for all of you younger siblings this morning, be glad of this one simple grace: your older sibling was not Jesus!
Our second reading this morning comes from the letter of James. The lectionary will be following this letter for the next few weeks. James is known traditionally as “the brother of our Lord.” His appearance in the gospels is limited to those lists of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Can you imagine growing up in that shadow? You’re sitting down at snack time with your classmates, and everyone wants you to pass around your tuna fish sandwich for the whole class to share...Your science fair project on the different ways to press olives into oil pales in comparison to that of your brother, who turned water into wine...You join the swim team, but no matter how good your backstroke, you’re never going to walk on water!
We’re going to be spending the next few Sundays learning from this letter, and so it would do us well to get to know its author. For a moment, we may have wandered from the world of solid Biblical scholarship and into the region of pop psychology and stand-up comedy. But there is this curious fact in Scripture: James, the brother of our Lord, barely appears in the gospels. He is not listed among the disciples nor the seventy. When James does appear in the gospels, it is when Jesus is asked about his brothers and sisters waiting outside. And at those moments, Jesus practically disowns his blood relatives, preferring to call his brothers and sisters those “who do the will of my Father in heaven.” Perhaps it is that having a sibling like Jesus was enough to drive you away. The wandering, teaching healer was certainly a divisive figure –the same was likely true within his family as well. James, throughout the life of Jesus, is at best a marginal figure.
But then something happens. And like many central moments in Scripture, there is an absence of detail. It is an absence that points us to the ultimately unknowable mysteries of a faith that claims to know God in Christ. But something happens that transforms James from a marginal to a central figure in the story of the early church. He is the author of this letter, one held in enough importance to warrant its inclusion into the canon of Christian Scripture. Paul refers to him as a “pillar” of the early church, alongside such legendary disciples as Peter. We know that he was the central teacher of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of the region.
But the only clue we have to his dramatic change is a brief mention from Paul that the risen Jesus appeared to James. Whatever may have transpired between these blood relatives, whatever shadow James might have grown up in, he must have been horrified to hear of his brother’s torture and death. And then to see his brother risen, to see death defeated, could have been nothing short of miraculous. At some point between the lines of the text, James, brother by blood, became James, brother by deed.
When we look at James’ life and death, when we read his words and learn of his role in the shaping of that early Christian community, there are three aspects of his character that speak to us. I want to lift up these characteristics to us, not only as we read his letter and seek to hear his words, but also as we seek to grow in our own faith, our relationship with one another, and our relationship with Christ. James was open, he was compassionate, and he was humble.
James was open. We see some of that openness in his teachings. He commends to his readers the patience of listening, of slow anger, that by opening ourselves we might participate in the righteousness of God. He refers to the gospel as the implanted word, which renders the Christian community as the passive, open soil in which a seed is laid. There is a receptivity that James exudes and offers to us.
But it is this move from a marginal, nominal figure in the life of Jesus to the central figure in Jerusalem that is most striking. Clearly he was paying attention to Jesus’ teaching all along. The parallels between the passage from James and the teaching from Jesus we read in our first reading demonstrate that. But it is through James’ transformation from the sidelines to center stage that we learn something of the Christian life. We must constantly seek to be changed. We are never too old, or too young, or too stubborn, or too flexible, or too important, or too unimportant, to grow in our relationship with Christ. One writer describes the Christian walk as a life-long series of conversions. Some are big, some are small; but throughout, we must recognize that we are called to submit our desires, our thoughts, all that we have and all that we are, to the will of God.
In our gospel lesson, as Jesus lists the vices that defile (fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly), we may be able to check off a few that don’t apply to us. But we should note that Jesus doesn’t spend time prioritizing this list, either. We may not be guilty of murder. But envy is enough to make us unclean. Each one of us, pastor, elders, dedicated volunteers, first-time visitors, nominal members, each one of us is in need of that conversion in which we acknowledge our brokenness and our defilement – be it by stealing or simply acting like an idiot – and bring it before God.
Secondly, James was also compassionate. Jerusalem was known for its centrality to the Jewish people. It was David’s political and religious capital. And yet, the Christian community in Jerusalem was most marked by its poverty. As Paul traveled, he took up collections for the saints in Jerusalem, noting their lack of material wealth. The early church was largely made up of society’s disenfranchised. It is something notable for Jerusalem to be known as a place of poverty in that context. And it was here that James ministered.
We also see this emphasis on compassion in James’ writing. For him, religion is “pure and undefiled” when it seeks to assist orphans and widows, that is, the most vulnerable members of society. His is a call to look out for those who are, as he, on the margins of our world. In doing so, we might give off the shadow of Christ’s ministry, the one who reached out to the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers, the discarded members of first century society. To follow in these footsteps – not merely to believe but to act – is, for James, the highest demonstration of one’s faith. And by doing so, we show forth to the world the very character of the God whom we worship and proclaim.
Thirdly, James was humble. He was the brother of Jesus. It would have been enough for him to claim that name and live off the t-shirt royalties. Instead, he recognizes that his proximity to Christ and his central location of Jerusalem doesn’t give him a throne of power; instead, it gives him a role of responsibility. He writes this letter we read from Jerusalem to the early Jewish followers of Christ throughout the region, knowing that his position gives him some authority by which they will hear him. But he takes the opportunity to call believers to that same humility. We are the “first fruits of God’s creatures,” he says. But this is not something to lord over others, or something to give us importance and significance. Rather, like the first fruits of that ancient harvest, which were brought to the altar for sacrifice, the role of the Christian community is one of surrender, willing to give ourselves over for the sake of the world and the sake of the gospel. In the year 62, James became one of the early Christian martyrs, living into the sacrifice that was perfected in his brother, our Lord.
Friends, as we follow this letter for the next two weeks, it is my hope that these characteristics of James – his openness, his compassion, and his humility – will echo through his words and give added meaning to them as we seek their meaning in our lives. And it is my hope that some of that open, receptive, compassionate, caring, humble, sacrificial character will begin to echo itself in our lives as we seek to follow Christ in this world.
May it be so. Amen.