Dear congregation in Jesus Christ,
Will Campbell writes in Brother to a Dragonfly that a friend badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. He didn’t want anything long, fancy or complex. He wanted bullet points; he wanted boilerplate; he wanted sound bite; he wanted the elevator speech. So, he told Campbell, “Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?”
If you had to boil it down, what would you say?
What is the essence of the essence?
In ten words or less what’s the heart of the Christian faith?
Will Campbell responded basically saying that we are all scoundrels but God loves us anyway—to which his friend replied, “If you want to try again, you have two words left.”
Campbell actually used a word with a little bit more bite than scoundrels, but the pulpit of this congregation doesn’t seem the place for such salty language.
So, what would you say?
What’s it finally all about?
In ten words or less what’s the essence of the essence of Christianity?
There is something in us that likes a pithy pointed proclamation. Simple, concise, memorable, accessible. Just the essentials. Something we can hold on to, put on a poster, wear on a shirt. I think that’s why we gravitate toward favorite verses:
For God so loved the world….
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God….
The Lord is my shepherd…
Or, another favorite, Titus 2:11, New English Version: “For the grace of God has dawned up the world with healing for all mankind…”
There are those lines that get right to the heart of it—and that’s precisely the trouble with the book of James. James reads like a rambling list of rules. There is much of it that seems disjointed and tangential. Jesus is barely mentioned. There is no word of the cross or the resurrection. And, “works” appears to be elevated above “grace” and that cuts against the grain of the good news of the gospels and the letters of Paul and Peter and John. If there is a central target of Christianity, at best James seems to be an outer ring.
There is substantial historical precedent for this take on James. In 1522 Martin Luther released a German translation of the New Testament with prefatory comments for each book. His concern about James was that it didn’t proclaim Christ “who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us sin, death, and hell….” For Luther anything that didn’t proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ wasn’t apostolic. It could be helpful but it wasn’t essential.
Luther puts it this way:
James does nothing more than drive to the law and its works. Besides, he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper…. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love.
So, what are we to make of James?
Why traipse after something that is out in the hinterlands and not at the heart?
We’ve got busy lives, why bother with the fringe and not the bull’s eye?
Well, in part, because there’s an earthy practicality to James. While it may be rooted in the mystery of Jesus, and while it may be grounded in the coming kingdom, there is something meaty and tangible and present tense about James. There’s a certain bluntness. James feels like a locker room pep talk from a crusty old coach who barks out a colorful turn of phrase. James calls us forward!
There is little time for dithering and doodling.
There is little patience for contemplation or consternation.
There is little room for theological musing or ethereal spirituality.
James demands engagement with the real, rough, and rank world.
So, dear friends, for our purposes, let’s read James as a “guide for grateful living.” Let’s read it as exhortation and evidence of what it means to live “in Christ” or walk “in the Spirit.” Let’s read it as invitation and indication of faithfulness. And, let’s begin this way….
Think of a dairy farmer. At four in the morning and four in the afternoon he is in the milking parlor. After he is done milking and feeding he loads the manure spreader with cow dung and drives it around the fields flinging cow feces far and wide to fertilize God’s good earth. Then he goes to get something to eat!
Every dairy farmer knows how the cow mess can get over one’s boots, his hair, under his fingernails, and on his coveralls. And so, before eating he does the best to hose off and step out of what he is wearing. He does his best to shed the offending clothes.
When James writes, “Therefore get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you,” he is writing of a similar process. The word that he uses has the sense of taking off clothes or shedding the offending garments. And James sees the world as a place of deep and damning dung.
So, in response to the grace of God dawning upon the world with healing for all humanity, hose off the mess, step out of the muck, and the let the Word that has been planted in you grow and flourish, until that great day of salvation when God will put this world to rights.
And for many that kind of piety is the essence of the essence of what it means to be a Christian. The world is a dark and dank place; keep yourself unstained for the return of Christ.
But, there’s got to be more to it than that. Otherwise my relatives that are hiding in a Christian bubble are right and I’m in deep, deep trouble.
James follows up with this counter balance, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
That’s more than ten words, but that’s not a bad take.
Maybe this is helpful….
There is ample evidence that the Christian church is losing ground in contemporary America. A research institute at Georgetown University reports that better than one fourth of college age persons (18-24) describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. 35% unaffiliated, 23% Catholic, 25% white Protestant, etc…
It was reported recently that every year 4000 churches close in America and only 1800 new churches are planted. This is troubling! Without more church plants the church is slowly going to fade away.
So, in response to the perceived decline, churches in America are trying all sorts of things to be attractive and faithful. One recent trend is canceling organized worship to go out and serve neighbors and neighborhoods. For example, a church meets for worship three Sundays a month and they go out in service one Sunday a month. They don’t want to just be hearers of the Word they want to be doers. As one minister described it, “We’re just really loving on our neighbors.”
Now, there are all sorts of churches for all sorts of people and may God bless them in their work. And, while I understand the impulse to help organize people in service and teach servant-hood there is something about that practice that seems truncated or compartmentalized. The engagement that James calls for is part of the daily expression of faithfulness. It’s not an add-on or a merit badge or a field trip; it’s part of the essence. As David Lose puts it:
Sunday is not the pinnacle of the Christian week but is actually intended to serve and support our lives the rest of the week. Sunday, that is, is the day we are immersed again in the Word, have our sins forgiven, receive guidance and encouragement, hear again the good news of God's goodness and mercy, and are called, commissioned, and sent once more into the world to work with God for the health of the people God has put all around us.
The “widow and orphan” is biblical code for all those who are neglected, marginalized, poor, oppressed, lost and lonely. As they are valued and included there is something pure and acceptable to God. Wherever it is that we’re called as the widow and the orphan are remembered there the church is alive and vital and on target.
James captures this wonderful tension between being in the world to care for the widow and the orphan, and yet remaining unsullied by the sludge of a messy world. He doesn’t trade one for the other. He holds them both up. I don’t know how we live in and engage this world without getting some stink on us. And I don’t know how we live in this culture without some of the dominant values (materialism, individualism, militarism, racism, etc) staining us. I don’t know how you wade into the world to love God and neighbor without getting your boots dirty…. But, that seems to the heart of the matter for James.
The essence of the essence of Christianity for James, in ten words or less: Look after the orphan and the widow; keep unstained.
May it be so with us, wherever it is that God calls us. This week in schools and hospitals,
in AA meetings and committee meetings,
in courtroom and council room,
in political process and policy decisions,
in saloon and nursing home….
This week, wherever it is that you are: Look after the orphan and the widow and keep unstained.
Even so, Come Lord Jesus. Amen.
Prayer of response
Father in heaven, we thank you for the good news of the gospel. We confess that we are but broken sinners but you save through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We praise you for giving us the opportunity to respond. May we look after the orphan and the widow. May we be un-stained, by your grace and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Order of Service
WE GATHER IN HIS PRESENCE
Welcome and announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 6, 7
Silent Prayer concluded with “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH# 625
Votum: “Our help is in the name of the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.”
Prayer for God’s greeting, “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Opening hymn: “Now with Joyful Exaltation” PsH# 95: 1-3
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7-8
Hymn: “Not What My Hands Have Done” PsH#260
God’s Will for our Lives: Exodus 20: 1-17
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn: “Break Now the Bread of Life” PsH#282
Scripture Reading: James 1: 17-27
Sermon: “The Essence of the Essence”
Prayer of Response
Hymn: “Fill Thou My Life” PsH#547
WE PEPART WITH HIS BLESSING
Prayer for God’s blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “By the Sea of Crystal” PsH#620
Note: I am indebted to the Christian Century article “The Gospel in Seven Words” by David Heim for the opening story and image.