18th Sunday after Pentecost
James was not there the day that the disciples quarreled and argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest. He wasn’t there that day to hear Jesus step in as peace maker and say, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
The author of our epistle reading for today was not one of the 12. The James who wrote the words of this letter was James, the son of Joseph, that is Jesus half-brother. He identifies himself as James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was not an active follower of Jesus during the three years of Jesus’ ministry. It was only later, after Jesus death and resurrection, when Jesus appeared to many that he became a servant of the Gospel in the manner of St. Paul.
Now while he was not there on that particular day, I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t present on different occasion. A time early on in his brother’s ministry where there were huge crowds gathered around to hear the message of this new Rabbi Jesus. I wonder if he wasn’t there to hear his half-brother’s words when he preached the sermon on the mount. Because the words of James epistle, that I just read, bear some striking similarities to great to ignore.
In that sermon from the hillside Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
I wonder if James wasn’t there to hear those words, of his half-brother who claimed to be the Christ, the messiah the savior of Israel. I wonder if they didn’t strike him as they must have struck many Jewish people who heard them that day. I wonder if these words of Jesus were a reason for James NOT to follow Jesus. Meek? No, I am a Jew and proud of it! Merciful? Jesus you want me to be merciful to others who don’t deserve my mercy! These Romans and their governors and their legions have brought untold pain on our country and to our people! Pure in heart? The only thing that is pure in my heart is my desire to get rid of these invaders! A peacemaker? I want peace through strength! I will only have peace when the romans are gone. You claim to be the messiah, Jesus? Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do? I am none of those things! Nor do I want to be! I want to be the master of my own destiny! I want to be empowered to live the life I want to live to do the things I want to do.
Those feelings would have been common to any Jewish person living under roman rule. They saw the Romans as dogs to be driven away from where they were not wanted. This was certainly common to the disciples, who argued amongst themselves as to who would be greatest in the “New Kingdom of Jerusalem,” on earth!
But for James, these words must have resonated in his mind, in order for him to eventually write, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
It must have taken some serious soul searching to be able to write that. It must have taken a change of heart that only the Savior, his half brother Jesus could have brought about in him. Beacause James is no mere moralizer, telling everyone how they should live. It’s evident from his words that he has thought deeply about the human condition, the natural inclination of the heart – because they were the natural inclinations of his own heart!
Expose the problem:
This is what James is talking about when he says, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” People are no different now than they were back then.
We realize with James that the conventional wisdom of the world says that it isn’t wise to be a peace maker. Conflict is profitable and empowering. Will not selfish ambition and jealousy reap tangible rewards? Isn’t this how we get ahead in life? Isn’t this how we make a buck? Isn’t this how I improve myself? Today we hear these words thrown around like empowerment – becoming stronger in one’s own right, claiming your rights, being the master of your own destiny. Who doesn’t want to hear that? Who doesn’t want to be empowered to do the things they want to do to be the person that they want to be. This is attractive to us. By all that we can see and touch in the world around us this is indeed wisdom! The obvious problem is that this love of self, selfish ambition or envy, is an ingrown love. It’s one that only ever points inward. And like an ingrown nail, in the end it becomes destructive and painful.
As James says, “16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” For example, world of business or the world of politics is dog eat dog. A peace maker in the world of politics? No way! It’s a realm fueled by envy and selfish ambition. Where the mentality is to turn the opponent into nothing more than a face and a name? Because it’s far too difficult to humanize your enemy. Is this one where a Christian feels comfortable? A brother of mine in the ministry said this the other day, “Your soul is not healthy if your politics don’t allow you to feel empathy for your opponent!” Because, at the end of the day the opponent, “the enemy” is a real person just like we are. A person who has a family, and interests, hobbies, cares and worries. A person who has a heart, and a soul, someone who draws breath just like us.
And most importantly, a person that God loves! They are not just a face and a name or a caricature to be made fun of or attacked. They are a person who God has called us to make peace with, just as he has made peace with us.
As I said before, James is no mere moralizer commanding the way that people live. He is not advocating for a virtuous lifestyle for the sake of virtue alone! He is saying look at who my brother was! Look at what he came to do! Look how he made peace with me – a man who thought he was crazy for saying he was the messiah, the savior of Israel.
James, the servant of his brother and his Lord Jesus, wants believers to emulate our savior, because his love was anything but self-centered or ingrown! He was the polar opposite of selfishness, or enviousness. He had the wisdom from heaven because he was from heaven! Truly the love of Jesus was – first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Even so much so that he, one so selfless identified with the selfish as he hung with two thieves on the cross. Jesus who lacked envy of any kind, died for envious. He took on himself the punishment for our own ingrown love, selfish pride, vain ambition and hatred of our enemies. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us! He took those sins of Jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition and nailed it to the cross with him.
And in so doing, Jesus made peace with us. We who are by nature his enemies, and hostile to him. Jesus made peace between a holy, just and righteous God and sinners like you and me. As Isaiah says, the punishment that brought us peace was on him! Christ is the ultimate peace maker.
And so this has a profound effect on who we are in this world. It effects how believers view the world and the people around them. It affects how we act and think about who we are in life. As James says in the first verse for today. Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. The wise and understanding person that James is talking about is one who sees what their savior Jesus has done for them. That just as he saw that our greatest need was him, the only way we would have peace is through him. Christians have been called to be sowers of peace – not to convert people to our political views whether republican or democrat or green party or socialist or whatever – but to see that their highest and greatest need – the only way that they will really have peace, is through seeing the peace that their savior Jesus bought them – the peace of sins forgiven the peace in the hope of heaven.
There is a prayer in the front of our hymnal that sums all this up nicely – that peace makers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Be a peacemaker. Amen.