Be Doers of the Word

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

James 1:17-27

The Venerable Ralph Leavitt, Honorary Associate Priest

For the next five weeks the Epistle readings are from the Book of James, so today I want to introduce you to this Epistle, encourage you to read through the Book of James, and particularly speak about “doing the word of God,” “doing the word of God.”

Perhaps your first question might be, “Who wrote this letter?” Not all scholars agree, however one generally accepted position is that James, the brother of the Lord, wrote it.James became a believer when he saw the Risen Lord,  and he was one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem along with Peter and John. James was the head of the Council of Jerusalem, and he cast the deciding vote in the question of Gentile circumcision.   

What type of person was James? In Eusebius’ History of the Church, James is portrayed as a model of righteousness and devotion to God. It is mentioned that his knees were calloused from praying so much. James was a faithful Jewish Christian, he upheld the Jewish laws, and now he presents a vigorous ethic towards work. Richard Foster, in his book Streams of Living Water says that James is an excellent example of the “Holiness tradition”. For James, in all his work, strove to reflect the glory of God and to conform himself to the life, faith, desires and habits of Jesus. In short, he wanted to know and live and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.

His letter is addressed to a Jewish Christian community that was having some problems in the year 60AD. James wanted to address a lack of communal solidarity, as there seemed to be divisions between the rich and the poor. Certainly concern for the poor was an important issue in the Jerusalem church. Just as Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”, James felt that purity of heart was the fountainhead of all action.

Within this particular concern the Book of James tackles several theological themes; God is revealed as the source of all gifts, including righteousness and holiness. God is also portrayed as being unchanging and faithful to the promises of salvation and mercy. Prayer is another theological theme mentioned as being important both to individuals and to the community. James outlines in his final chapter concrete examples and instructions concerning prayer in the community. Many of these ideas have been very helpful in the life of the church. Finally, the book of James emphasizes honour, justice, and charity. But more of that later.

Today we look specifically at the introduction in this letter, which is Chapter 1. In the verses that were read today, James emphasizes that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”. This is the foundation that James will build on, that perfection comes from God. If we are to have any wisdom, it will come from God, the giver of wisdom. Speaking of wisdom, James directs his readers to concentrate on the word, which is a source of wisdom.

Today I want to concentrate on one of these aspects that James emphasizes. He says clearly in verse 22  be doers of the word, and not merely hearers Well, what is the difference between those who merely listen to the word, and those who “do”? Perhaps in today’s world  the best ways to describe this is to make clear the difference between “churchianity” and “Christianity”. “Churchianity” is best described as people who are Christians for one hour a week. In an extreme case, such a person would come to church only to be seen and not to seek out Jesus Christ. He or she would listen to the Bible, but not do what it says. He/she would “act” pious, but only one hour of the week. He/she would care more for the church building that for the true “body of Christ”. James describes this person as the one who hears the word, but does not follow through with doing what the word says.

Christianity is very different. Christianity is for the individuals who give up their life to Christ and decide to follow Him, in word and in example. For the true Christian, the hour on Sunday is a joyous occasion as the whole body of Christ comes together to worship and praise a loving God, it is the “corporate” time together. However, during the rest of the week the worship does not stop, if anything it increases, for the true Christian is always at prayer and reading the word, and seeking out Christ in all people and in all situations. The word of the Lord is not just for Sunday, but it becomes the living word, the guide book for all situations and relationships. It is the Holy Spirit that takes the word and allows us to know the will of God in our lives. This is what James is urging his audience to do, to allow God to influence every part of their life, every moment of every day. So all can share the Good News. Be doers of the word. Doers.

In saying this. James manages to refer to every part of our body. He wants to make sure we know it is for every part of us. In verse 19 we read of being slow to speak. James is referring to our tongues; that we must hold our tongues rather than say anything in anger, for “anger does not produce God’s righteousness”.

Next James talks of the ears. He says  “be quick to listen”. Listen to what? The word of the Lord. James says “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to saves your souls”. Be quick to listen.

I feel this is so important. Is it not true that when you are fully listened to that you feel appreciated and worthy? No cocktail chatter or gossip here, but rather honest, true listening. I am a trained Spiritual Director. I tell people that the Holy Spirit is of course the true Spiritual Director, and that my job is to listen very carefully both to the Directee and to the Holy Spirit. When I listen carefully, I can ask questions and make comments that, I pray, help people in their Christian journey. Listening is at the heart of it all.

Finally James refers to the heart. As he talks of false religion he speaks of deceiving the heart. True religion engages the heart, and leads people to care for the poor and, James says, to remain unstained by the world.

Amazing, in this short passage James has incorporated the tongue, the ears, the eyes, the hands, and the heart. It reminds one of Paul’s writing in Corinthians, the body does not consist of one member but of many;  many that work together, many who do the work of God, ie. doers of the word.

James was indeed a doer. He became Bishop of Jerusalem. The apostle Paul was a doer. He went from being a hearer of just “the law”,  to a doer of the word.  Mary and Martha were doers of the word. The woman at the well became a doer of the word. Zacchaeus became a doer of the word. He too had at one time lifted himself up high, he had quoted the law, and extorted taxes from people, but once he met Jesus, all that changed, he became a doer of the true word.

When I was a young Christian at St. Peter’s in TMR, I knew an older lady, a retired librarian. She was a character. From the outside it seems that she was disorganized and had a lack of focus. When she spoke, one often wondered if she had been paying attention to the conversation, she seemed off-base. One Wednesday night at Bible Study she told us of how the word of God had influenced her. She told us of her son who had been arrested in South Carolina for possession of drugs and was in jail. She went to visit him, but visits were quite restricted. It frustrated her. She asked her son if he had things to read. “No”, he said, “There is no library”. Presto! She knew she now had a mission. To cut the story short, she started a library in that prison. A library for all the inmates. So they could read. So they could also read the word of God. Prisoners had pretty free access to the library, and she got to see her son a lot more. God bless her. A true doer of the word.

Let me finish today by quoting Colossians:

Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly…and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

         So as James writes to us today “be doers of the word”, may you be blessed in your doing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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