‘A STRAWY LETTER’ TO A BACKSLIDDEN CHURCH?

 

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I’m one of those who has often struggled to get a decent handle on the Book of James – of course, Luther the reformer (1483-1546) struggled with James’ emphasis on ‘works’ to the extent that he wrote the letter off as ‘a right strawy espistle.’ Most biblical scholars would disagree with Luther for good reasons. I was recently having coffee with a professor friend of mine who made a statement, ‘The Letter of James is written to backsliders.’ I was struck by that, though at first it sounded like an over-simplification.  The Letter does end with a fervent call to ‘restore the backslider,’ i.e. those ‘who have wandered from the truth’ (5:19-20).

[BTW, I trust my reader, claiming to be a Christian, reads the Bible, i.e. the Bible itself! We live in a generation of Bible illiterates, wondering why the Church is so weak. ‘Believers’ will listen to their favourite guru, read his/her books, listen to pod-cast debates, follow someone’s ‘daily notes,’ anything but read the actual Bible text. I stand by the fact that the Bible is a closed book without the revelation of the Living Word – however, that does not mean that we neglect his divine Love Letter and map for the pilgrim!’]

I think British scholar RVG Tasker was right when he claimed the Letter of James (not the apostle but Jesus’ eldest brother) is ‘a collection of sermon-notes.’ James headed up  the mother church in Jerusalem, he wrote probably in the early 60’s AD, a few years before his martyrdom. The apostle Paul was at that time awaiting trial in Rome – perhaps many of their ‘disciples’ were becoming discouraged under persecution. Thus James writes to the isolated churches of  Asia Minor to exhort the believers (mainly Jewish?), scattered by persecution following the martyrdom of Stephen, to persevere in their faith.  He addresses random issues, urging believers not to stray from the basics of the faith.

Surely it is a general biblical truth that whenever faith doesn’t issue in love and dogma (however orthodox) is unrelated to life, whenever believers are tempted to settle down to a selfish faith, whenever they become oblivious of the social and material needs of others around them [it still grieves me that many privileged ‘white’ Christians in South Africa have never visited a ‘black’ township, never mind understand the issues], whenever they don’t live the NT creeds of Jesus (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5-7), whenever they seem more anxious to be friends of the passing hedonistic world than of God, James says we are ‘backslidden’ and in grave spiritual danger. And so we are! You see, it’s so easy to respond to the gospel of grace and enjoy the assurance and joy that brings, and then gradually lapse into a life of mediocrity without applying that very gospel to the lost, poor and needy of society. ‘Religion divorced from morality, words without deeds, creeds that satisfy the head but never warm the heart, are in vain. The wisdom they exhibit is of the earth; the fire that kindles them is the fire of human pride.’ (Tasker)

Hence James’ sermons on ‘Listening and Doing’ (1:19ff):-  ‘Favouritism Forbidden’ (social and economic snobs are alive and well in most churches today) (ch.2); ‘Faith and Deeds’ (ch. 2); ‘Taming the Tongue’ (we have seen recently here in South Africa our South Coast forests devasted by veld fires – such is the effect of an uncontrolled tongue) (ch. 3); James goes on to plead for the need for ‘heavenly’ wisdom instead of earthly wisdom, the need for submission, humility that doesn’t boast about tomorow, giving warnings to the rich who oppress the poor, etc. [with my many weeks of unexpected hospitalisation, all my very ordered diary events came to a stand-still for some two months, the pages blank!]

In the light of all these things, is your church/group backslidden?? And what about you and me?

How do we correct our backsliding and find restoration? For me James has often come across as somewhat austere, but then I guess in dealing with those who have lost the plot you can’t pull punches. In my pulpit years I used to say that my job was ‘to comfort the afflict and afflict the comfortable!’ Hence the need for ‘prophetic’ voices (in the biblical rather than popular sense) in churches today! However, closer examination of James’ Letter reveals a relational side not immediately noticed. [My blog readers will know that I’m convinced about relationality; we know and serve a relational (triune) God, Jesus the Incarnate One made flesh for us, the Holy Spirit indwelling us under the new covenant, united ‘in Christ’ in intimate, life-giving communities. [ideally, smaller and ‘organic,’ with bottom-up rather than top-down structure] Some examples…

  • 1:1, James speaks of himself as the ‘slave’ of God and of Christ. We recall that as believers we have been freely ‘ransomed’ from the slave-market of sin and satan. Hence we are willing ‘slaves,’ serving out of a relationship of love as those first loved by him (1 Jn. 4:7-21).
  • 1:2, James addresses his scattered readers as ‘dear brothers and sisters’ (NLT), as those belonging to a family, not only though creation but costly ‘redemption.’
  • 1:12, God ‘blesses’ those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
  • 1:16, God is ‘the giver of every good and perfect gift’ … we are ‘his prized possession!’
  • 2:5, God has chosen ‘the poor in this world’ to be rich in faith. He has promised the kingdom to those who love him.
  • 2:12, God is ‘merciful’ to the merciful.
  • 2:25, God used a prostitute, Rahab, to deliver the Israelite spies in Josh. 2. (James is not necessarily condoning her ‘cover-up’ but demonstrating the grace of God).
  • 4:6ff, God ‘opposes the proud but gives favour to the humble.’ If we come close to God, he comes close to us. If we humble ourselves before him he will ‘lift us up in honour.’
  • 5:13ff, God plants us in a fellowship of faith and care where we may find joy, healing, humanity, restoration and answered prayer.

A glance at local church adverts highlighting ‘special guests’ and artists and performers etc in my own city cry out, ‘entertainment,’ ‘it’s all about me,’ compromise with a materialistic and hedonistic worldly system, snobbishness (they serve the best yuppie coffee in town), an almost total disconnect between profession and behaviour, a lack of common biblical ethics, a lack of  concern for the poorest of the poor, etc. I am sure you have the same kind of thing in your neck of the woods! In any case, let us make sure we ourselves repent of any such evils and draw near to the Lord who will draw near to us! [even with South Africa’s struggling economy, there are ‘sneaker addicts’ who will pay R. 20,000 for a larny pair – Sunday Times,07/05/2017. Absolute madness)

ADDENDUM:

Coming back to the point of reading the Scriptures, here is a helpful prayer by Danish theologian-philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):

‘FATHER IN HEAVEN, what is man that Thou visitest him, and the son of man that Thou art mindful of him? Verily, Thou dost never leave Thyself without a witness; and at last Thou didst give to man Thy Word. More Thou couldst not do; to compel him to make use of it, hear it and read it, to compel him to act according to it, Thou couldst not wish. And yet Thou didst more. Rarely does he do anything for nothing, and if he does, he at least would not be put to inconvenience to do it. Thou, on the contrary, O God, bestowest Thy word as a gift,- and we men have nothing to give in return. And if only Thou dost find some willingness on the part of a single individual, Thou are prompt to help, and, with divine patience, dost sit and spell it out with him that he may be able rightly to understand it; and, again with divine patience, Thou dost take him as it were by the hand and help him when he strives to act accordingly,- Thou our Father in heaven.’


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HOW CHRIST BUILDS HIS CHURCH: SOME OBSERVATIONS…

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I am busy convalescing after major surgery and a six week gap in my life over which I had no control. In the last weeks, in my more lucid moments, I had been dipping into the pastoral letters, latterly Paul’s Letter to Philemon. So much resonated with my observations of our little fellowships and of course the wider body as they have reflected at least something of the ‘life’ Paul writes about in this little letter.

You know the circumstances: Paul writes to his friend Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul is in prison somewhere (Rome?) and had been the means of Onesimus’s conversion to Christ. Now he is sending Onesimus back to his owner Philemon, urging him not only to forgive his servant but to accept him as ‘brother’ and fellow-saint! Talk about Christ’s reconciling death in action…

Philemon headed up a ‘house church’ in his home in Colosse, which in one way or another related to other fellowships around the city, making up ‘the Church at Colosse.’ I believe it was the intimacy and relationships of such a smaller group that would make it so much easier to facilitate Onesimus’ home-coming and acceptance as a full member of Christ’s household. I’ve had the privilege of facilitating organic-type house churches over some eleven years after decades in the formal pastorate. I have been involved in every program imaginable, discipleship groups, cell groups, etc, but never have I witnessed the kind of koinonia I am seeing in more recent years, as we have sought simply to let Jesus be the head of his body. As somebody has said, we can build God’s church our way or his way. There’s just nothing like the ‘functional headship’ of Jesus at work within a fellowship seriously practising the priesthood of all believers. I constantly stand amazed at the integration of believers from different age groups, cultures, languages, social status, etc. It kind of just ‘happens.’

And it ‘happens’ because the living Christ is the common factor. His risen life is imparted through the indwelling of his Spirit, through the understanding of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection: ‘And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ’ (v. 6; cf. Eph. 1 & Col. 1). It is a life that binds believers together in faith and love. All these things are evident as you read Paul’s opening statements to Philemon: ‘the Good News about Christ,’ ‘beloved co-workers,’ ‘faith in the Lord Jesus,’ ‘love for all God’s people,’ ‘joy’ and ‘kindness,’ etc. Paul is convinced that since Onesimus’ conversion he will be of much greater use to Philemon and of course the fellowship in his house and city. Check out the greetings listed at the end of the letter. Were there no difficulties to be ironed out, adjustments to be made on the part of Philemon and his fellow-believers? I’m sure there were many, but Paul is confident that through the gospel of reconciliation these things would be overcome.

Yes, ‘love’ and ‘faith’ are key-elements here and in every expression of the body of Christ.

If there is no genuine faith in Jesus Christ as person and in his life on our behalf, there is no Christian life at all. During one hospitalisation I was confronted by a belligerent ‘Free Mason.’ I had no intention of engaging him but, having heard one of the nurses address me as ‘reverend’ (from old hospital records), for some three hours (5 to 8 in the morning!) he badgered me about his movement: it was just a ‘charitable organisation,’ ‘not a religion,’ Christians hated them and persecuted them, etc. It was most unpleasant. God gave me much grace to stand firm on the simplicity of Christ , and on his love for all people. Sure he had been disappointed by some local believers (which I apologised for), but I was determined to shine in this encounter. You see, ultimately it’s all about Christ! ‘It is no less significant that in John 14:6 Jesus speaks of himself primarily and predominantly as the way: not as the beginning of the way; but as the way itself.’ (K. Barth, CD 111/2, 56)

Coming to love, it is that out-poured love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit himself (Rom. 5:5), it springs supernaturally from Christ, it is not a feeling or passing emotion, it is relational, practical and caring. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about ‘practical, observable love.’ The kind of thing that amazed pagans when they observed the behaviour and attitude of the early believers and led many to follow the Way.

We come back to our original point of Christ building his Church, and how in these days this is happening inside, but more particularly, outside of traditional structures. During this time of being laid aside, I have been amazed at the folk who have ministered to my wife and children when things were critical (here let me pay tribute to my amazing biological family, who exemplified caring concern for me and Melanie during this period – as a matter of interest, all three families follow the Way). Three of our fellowship decided to set their alarm clocks for 3 am every morning (I’m not sure how they arrived at that crazy time!) to remember us in prayer. Folk my wife and I discipled years ago when they were going through domestic upheaval, having moved out of the city, have been in contact more than once, sharing how in their deep trials since then they have learned to patiently trust God in everything. They don’t belong to a formal group but are serving the Lord fervently where they are. Folk who opposed my leadership more than ten years ago, when I was heading up a denominational church, have visited and come to pray. A couple I married decades ago, having also baptised the wife, have been so supportive of Melanie – they don’t belong to any formal church group. Before my hospitalisation I had been mentoring a young man desperate for a father-figure and suffering from depression. His condition got worse, but one of the brothers in our fellowship has taken it on himself to mentor him, taking him on his professional photo shoots, all the while providing that model the young man never enjoyed from his missing dad. Dozens of believers from all over the city and different traditions prayed at my bedside while I was in an induced coma – so I was told. And so we could go on…

Onesimus’ name means ‘useful.’ As Paul indicated, he would be most useful in the kingdom going forward. But he had to humble himself, start all over, submit to his former ‘boss’ and make all kinds of adjustments. We don’t know the end of the story. There is a tradition in the early church that he eventually became an episkopos, a bishop tending a flock, maybe even in Colosse.

This morning I read a helpful blog by Wayne Jacobson on how to go about things, having left ‘church as we have known it.’ Although I think Jacobson, with great respect, defines ekklesia too loosely at times, he makes some valuable points. One sentence struck me and in many ways sums up what I am trying to say: ‘I am convinced this is what it means to pastor God’s flock. It doesn’t require a degree or a job managing an institution; it is simply the ability and the desire to help others connect with Jesus and encourage them as they learn to follow him.’

Some observations regarding Christ and his Church … I trust something of the above has inspired, uplifted or even deeply challenged you! Grace, mercy and peace…

[Other health challenges lie ahead. My wife and I look to the Lord and his saints, and are grateful for the care of our medical team]