James 1:2-11 (Part 2)

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:4)

According to James, one of the ways God wrests good from a bad situation is by allowing perseverance to fully develop within us. The Greek word James uses here is hypomone, meaning endurance or steadfastness. “Perseverance” is also a good choice for its English translation because perseverance implies a sense of hopefulness… patience for the bad situation to finally right itself, and patience for us to mature from the experience so long as we just hang in there!

You see, perseverance in and of itself is not the end-goal. James says, when perseverance finishes its “work,” we will be “mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” There! That is the goal. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, referred to that goal as, “Christian Perfection.”

In 1741, during the earlier part of his preaching career, Wesley published his sermon on the doctrine of Christian perfection. In doing so, it became one of the most distinguishing features of his theology and influenced many of his other sermons throughout his career. However, it was met with a good deal of disagreement from Protestant Reformers at the time of its publication.

Dr. Kenneth Kinghorn, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Asbury Seminary from 1965-2003, concisely summarizes the disagreement in his modern translation* of Wesley’s sermons:

“Reformers powerfully championed the biblical doctrines of justification and adoption, which are works of grace that God does for us to change our position before God…. [Nothing we do – no works – can gain this for us.] To be sure, Wesley agreed with the Protestant Reformers, [however] Wesley also accentuated a “realized righteousness” which God imparts to believers to change their state.” Wesley was primarily standing up against the incorrect belief that all one needs is faith, and that good works are not required.  At all! (Kinghorn, p124)

Wesley’s choice of the term “perfection” for this doctrine wasn’t received any better by the Reformers than his concept of realized righteousness. They said perfection could only be attained by God, thus the need for God’s grace; humans could not be “perfect.” But Wesley drew the term “perfection” from the Greek word teleiosis – the same word used by James in verse 4, translated as “mature and complete.”

For the Greeks, teleiosis conveyed not just the state of being mature and complete, but the continual growth and movement toward an ever-greater maturity. For Wesley, Christian perfection is a process of becoming what God has always wanted for his creation. With that definition in mind, consider Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of James 1:4 from The Message:

You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:4 MSG)

To me, James 1:4 says (well… actually, in my mind it yells):  Hang on! Don’t give up! Don’t you ever give up, because God is going to use this horrible thing you’re experiencing right now – that he never wanted for you – and he’s going to show you how redemption works, how faith can flourish in the weeds, and how you can become more like Christ while standing in the middle of a mess. Yes, this right here. Yes, right now. And, yes, praise God, you!


In Part 3, we’ll see what James says about how we find the strength to hang in there. We’ll also check in with another of John Wesley’s sermons to get his perspective on how our actions, including our responses to challenging times, spring from the root of our faith: our hearts.

* Kinghorn, Kenneth Cain, John Wesley on Christian Practice Vol 3: The Standard Sermons in Modern English, 34-53.

Links to previous entries: Intro to James and Part 1

All About Works

Or Is It?

Hello! Hope everyone is well this Monday morning. G and I are still working from home and quarantining for the most part – a good decision for us. If you are staying in as well, find ways to keep connected to others. If you are going out and about, be a blessing wherever you go.

I started reading a few commentaries on the Letter of James this weekend, which was quite enlightening. I’ve never spent a lot of time studying James and in my recent memory, I can’t recall a devotion centered around any scripture in James. That said, I recognized several of the scriptures and realized a few appear elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments.

For the most part, the author James – most likely the brother of Jesus and a leader in the early Christian church – remains singularly known as “the one who disagrees with Paul about works and salvation.” Which is really too bad. Unlike one scholar who refers to James’ letter as the “junk mail of the New Testament,” I’m finding it holds many gems, including James’ thoughts on works as an expression of our faith.

Saint James
Orthodox icon of Saint James

For instance… In Cory’s sermon yesterday, he read from Philippians 2:19-30, a personal section of Paul’s letter where he talks about Timothy and Epaphroditus. These two have been serving as messengers between the Philippians and Paul during his imprisonment, and no matter how much difficulty they’ve encountered, they have remained loyal to Jesus and to Paul. Epaphroditus almost died from an illness, to which Paul says, “honor people like him because he almost died for the work of Christ.” He risked his life to help Paul on behalf of the Philippians to ensure the continued spread of the gospel.

James says something pretty similar in 2:14-25 when he writes: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

In much the same way, I know Paul appreciated the Philippians prayers on his behalf, but he also made clear his appreciation for the tangible ways they helped him. Sending Epaphroditus – and his willingness to make the journey – was one of those ways, not done to garner favor with Paul or God. No. Their tangible help was an expression of the depth and authenticity of their faith. It was living out the command to love their neighbor as themselves.

Well, all that to say, there’s more to James and his letter than you might think! And once we examine the context of both writers, he and Paul might not be so far apart on faith and works. Tomorrow, I’ll share information regarding the commentaries I’m reading, and provide a brief background/overview of the Letter of James. As I said before, this isn’t a formal study, but I hope you find some interesting bits of information if you’re reading along.

Have a great day!

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)

Check it Out

Every Thursday, I post a short book recommendation. Some of these are my favorites (like today’s selection)… others, not so much. But they’ve all made me think. I have copies of the books I post about, so let me know if you’d like to borrow one before buying.

Today’s read is Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans.

From Amazon: From New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans (1981-2019) comes a book that is both a heartfelt ode to the past and hopeful gaze into the future of what it means to be a part of the Church.

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

A memoir about making do and taking risks, about the messiness of community and the power of grace, Searching for Sunday is about overcoming cynicism to find hope and, somewhere in between, Church.

Personal Note: An open mind and a willingness to have your beliefs and notions challenged are required when reading Rachel Held Evans. She can be polarizing — readers seem to either love her or hate her — but no matter how she makes you “feel,” she will always make you think. And she will always… always… remind us of just how much God loves us. Sadly, Rachel passed away last year after a short illness; I’m so thankful to still have her words.

Helplessness

kalasWe’re on Chapter 11 this week of Longing to Pray, and we’ve come to a topic I’m sure we’re all quite familiar with these days:  helplessness. We not only feel it when we read the news and witness others struggling against COVID-19, but we may also feel it within ourselves as we adapt to our “new normal.” But, helplessness is something I’m sure you’ve also experienced at other points in your life. I know I have.

Helplessness can make us feel frustrated, irritable, angry… lonely and sad. Alone.

Dr. Kalas packed several points of insight into his chapter on helplessness, and this week I’ll be writing a little more in-depth about five that stood out to me:

  1. During times of helplessness, we often build close, lifelong friendships that help us discover our full humanity – both human and divine.
  2. We know very little about ourselves – truly – until we see what we are like when backed into a corner or at the end of our rope.
  3. Acknowledging helplessness is one path to humility. We don’t know it all. We can’t do it all. And, that’s okay.
  4. Dr. Kalas makes the argument that God is also helpless at times, but his helplessness is self-imposed. We cry, “Where is God?” and God responds,  “I am here. But the battle is in your hands.” An interesting thought.
  5. Dr. Kalas also asks us to consider that God may not always be on our side in every argument. To some, this will come as a shock! We must admit helplessness and humble ourselves before God. It isn’t wise to make assumptions when it comes to “knowing” God’s will.

If you’ve yet to read Chapter 11, I hope this list of highlights has piqued your interest! Be well this week.  Consider your helplessness, and… contemplate its worth.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)

P.S.  Shout out to all the Star Wars fans today.  “May the Fourth Be With You!”

Check it Out

Today’s read is Disciplines of The Spirit by Howard Thurman.

From the back cover:The quiet radiance and certainty that illuminated Howard Thurman’s faith shine like a beacon through every page of Disciplines of the Spirit. Dr. Thurman explores five major dimensions of the spiritual life: commitment, growing in wisdom and stature, suffering, prayer, and reconciliation.

“In this book Howard Thurman is helping not merely to describe the Christian life, but to indicate how one is being invited to go on in and to live it.” – Douglas Steere 

At the time of his death in 1981, Howard Thurman was Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco. He also served as Dean of Rankin Chapel, Howard University, Washington D.C.; as professor at Howard University School of Religion; and as Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, Atlanta.

Founder of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first interracial, interdenominational church in the United States, he was honorary Canon of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City. 

Poet, Mystic, Philosopher, and Theologian, Dr. Thurman authored more than twenty books, including Meditations of the Heart, The Inward Journey, Jesus and the Disinherited, The Centering Moment, The Creative Encounter, The Search for Common Ground, and With Head and Heart, his autobiography.