August 30, 2015 James 1: 17-25 Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Rev. Catherine Purves
It is a well-known fact that Martin Luther, the great reformer, hated the book of James. He believed that it called the church back to an old legalism that Jesus himself opposed. Luther thought that James contradicted the gospel truth that faith in God’s grace is sufficient for salvation. Luther is not the only one to have trouble with James. Many faithful Christians fear that this little book is easily interpreted as a call to works righteousness. Its insistence that we must be “doers of the word” seems to imply that our deeds are somehow ultimately important, and that God’s love and acceptance of us comes in response to something that we do. In our Reformed tradition, God’s love and forgiveness always come first, and good deeds are our response to God’s grace. As much as he wanted to, not even Martin Luther could remove the book of James from the Bible, however. So we must continue to grapple with this much maligned little book that seems to have turned the good news of the gospel inside out.
I’ve always been a great believer in sunscreen – at least I used to be. This year, before we left for our vacation at the beach, I was quite upset to learn that, according to certain highly respected experts, many of the most popular sunscreens are actually bad for you. Apparently, all of those SPF numbers are thoroughly misleading. Some of the chemicals in sunscreens are just as hazardous and cancer-producing as the sun’s rays. It’s been reported that the new spray-on sunscreens can do damage to your lungs. Even the scents that are added to the popular brands are chemically harmful to your skin. Really? It turns out that the protective layers of lotion that I have innocently and faithfully applied to my skin and to my children’s skin, lo these many years, may have been hurting us on the inside without actually guarding our delicate skin on the outside. I thought I was doing the right thing, but apparently I was not.
It seems to me that this was the same sort of danger that both James and Jesus perceived, but from different perspectives. First, let’s look at James. He was concerned that the good news of the gospel was somehow not penetrating the lives of some Christians. They were hearing the words, but they were not being changed by them. I’m going to stretch my sunscreen metaphor and say that they were using a kind of Son-screen (son spelled s-o-n). This kind of Son (s-o-n) Son-screen is really hazardous to your health. You need the rays of this Son (Jesus) and the words of his gospel to penetrate to the inside of your being, because those words about the one who called himself the light of the world, those words are life-giving. James saw that whatever it was that was keeping those Christians from benefitting from the power and glory of the Son in a life-changing way was truly hazardous to their spiritual health. Apparently, they were using some kind of dangerous Son-screen (spelled s-o-n).
That is what James was trying to say in a rather inside out way that almost made it sound as if the focus was on us and our good deeds rather than on the Son who saves. This possible misunderstanding of how God’s grace works is corrected, however, in the first verse of our reading where James insists that, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above coming down from the Father of lights…” Somehow the Christians James was criticizing were actually shielding themselves from that glorious light with some kind of Son (s-o-n) screen, and they were not then able to receive God’s good gifts which had the power to change their lives from the inside out.
James believed that the only way to know that the light had gotten through, penetrating our thick skin, so that the Son now rules in our hearts, is by observing how we live. This is what James was doing, recounting what he observed. And what he saw was a bunch of bad gospel-listeners who were careless in their speech, prone to anger, and whose lifestyle was sordid and rank with wickedness. What he saw mirrored in that lifestyle was a superficial faith, barely skin-deep, a faith that did not reflect that Son- (s-o-n) blessed glow of a transformed way of life. So he begged those Christians to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” In other words, stop using that dangerous Son-screen that is blocking the life-giving rays of the Son (s-o-n). Because it is only when you allow the light of Christ to penetrate your heart that you will become someone whose way of life gives glory to God in service to the Son.
Now, in our Gospel reading we see Jesus addressing the same basic problem, but from a slightly different perspective. He is not really contradicting James. But he is highly critical of the Pharisees and scribes who are so focused on external acts of piety. They assumed that what you do is proof of an inner holiness. Jesus is skeptical about that. Clearly, those religious leaders were obsessed with keeping the law, and there were layers and layers of law, minute expectations of how the people must live in order to be considered godly.
It was this thick lotion of laws that became a kind of Son-screen (s-o-n) for them. The Pharisees couldn’t see the light of God in Jesus. His truth could not penetrate the toxic Son-screen of their laws. The regimented way of life that they demanded actually became a barrier that kept them from being able to receive the grace of God. Jesus calls them hypocrites and uses the words of their own prophet, Isaiah, to condemn them. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You see, both Jesus and James are worried about what is going on deep inside a person. Both want to make sure that nothing would act as a Son-screen to block the transformative rays of the Son’s presence. Both are concerned about a faith that is only superficial, only skin-deep. Both want to turn people’s lives inside out so that it is the penetrating presence of God’s love on the inside that is radiating out from a person and resulting in a changed way of life. Anything that serves as a Son-screen (s-o-n) is to be avoided as hazardous to your health.
What warning or encouragement can we find in these two texts? When we hold them together we see the dangers of both an out-of-control legalism and of a casual, non-transformative faith. It is actually James, who is often labelled a legalist, who speaks of the perfect law and calls it the law of liberty. The gospel does set us free from the toxic consequences of legalism. But it is Jesus, the incarnation of God’s free grace, who harshly criticizes human behavior as something that has the power to defile a person. Jesus ends his off-the-cuff sermon on the dangers of the law with a long list of behaviors that are totally unacceptable to him. “All these evil things come from within,” he proclaims, “and they defile a person.”
So it is what’s on the inside that matters, what is in the heart, where the word of God must take root and grow, according to James, and this then determines what we look like on the outside, how we live our lives, what we do. It is what’s on the inside that matters, according to Jesus, not keeping your hands and your pots and your kettles clean, but keeping your heart clean. Because it is the heart that must be changed by the gospel and it is the penetrating presence of Christ in our hearts that saves us from sin and from all that defiles, and that transforms what our lives look like on the outside.
That light, that real presence of Christ, will, in fact, turn our lives inside out. When the purifying light of Christ penetrates all of our legalism, and our human sinfulness, and our resistance to change, then our hearts will be changed and our lives and what we do will be changed. This is what James saw, and this is what Jesus proclaimed. Listen to the experts. Forewarned is forearmed. Don’t let anything that you are doing, whether intentionally or unintentionally, even if what you are doing seems reasonable to you, don’t let anything block the light of Christ and keep it from changing you from the inside out. Jesus and James agree. Whatever form it takes, Son-screen, (s.o.n.) screen, is deadly.