Friday, 11 June 2010

Sermon on James 1: 22- end and John 16: 23-end, St Matthew’s, 16th May 2009

The epistle reading for both last Sunday and this come from the epistle of James, and if you were here last Sunday at the 10.30 service and heard Charles Foster’s sermon, you’ll have noticed that he too chose a long reading from James which included the verses I read just today.

Charles spoke about the disparity between the way Jesus lived his life and the way Christians have behaved ever since His main text was from Matthew’s gospel[1] – the bit where John the Baptist – captured by Herod - begins to question whether Jesus is the Messiah. John sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the Messiah or not and Jesus tells the disciples to go back and ‘tell him what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.’

Charles challenged us to look at ourselves and to say what we see. James in his epistle also talks about looking at ourselves. He says in verse 22 that hearers of the word who are also not doers are like men who ‘observe their face in a mirror and go away and at once forget what they are like’.

The problem with this challenge to look at ourselves is that we are liable not to like what we see. And this is particularly so if we try to see with the eyes of others. Somehow many of us expect to see something better than we do. At least this is true for me and I expect many others.

But is it self evidently the case that Christians have not and do not live up to Jesus’ expectations of his followers? Philip Pullman’s new novel ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ is based on the assumption that Jesus would have been horrified if he could have predicted what would be done in his name. Philip Pullman – like many others – claims to be attracted to Jesus but repelled by the church.

And of course it is easy to find things wrong with the church. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Jeffrey John affair. We can all find events – in the past – even the recent past – where followers of Jesus, claimed to be acting in his name, but behaved in ways which shock us, appal us and may even shame us, if we see those people as somehow connected with us: our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But it’s when we turn to look at ourselves we seem to have most difficulty. OK we might not torture people, we personally may not discriminate against gay people, but we surely do not live up to Jesus’ expectations of us.

But what was it that Jesus expected of his disciples? And what does he expect of us? I think we might be harder on ourselves than Jesus is.

Now what Charles said in his sermon last week was really interesting, challenging, etc. but also only half the story. I think we can too readily assume that we are failing to meet Jesus’ standards of behaviour. As if somehow he is merely a strict parent continually disappointed in the behaviour of his children.

Firstly we might be tempted to think that Jesus reinterpreted the Jewish law to make it even harder to follow. Of course he did say that the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law was missing the point but he didn’t say that God’s standards were stricter than that of the Pharisees only different. (I guess there could be a whole sermon here).

Secondly Jesus didn’t say to anyone ‘be like me’. Or at least I don’t think he did. It is of course the case that he did tell his disciples to do things – like leave their jobs. And he told them of things that they would need to do if they were to follow him such as take up their crosses. But there are many differences between him and us. He was a man: some of us are women. He was single, some of us are married. He didn’t own a house, some of us do. He was a healer some of us are not.[2]

We are clearly not called to be like Jesus in every detail and I begin to wonder about the extent to which we are called to be like him at all.

But clearly we are expected to do something. James says we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

What would Jesus have us do? Here I think we need to return to the idea of looking at ourselves. I think perhaps that the trouble with looking at ourselves is that it’s almost impossible. Even mirrors reverse the image. What we see in a mirror is not what others see. Moreover the act of seeing is coloured by our preconceptions and assumptions. If we are inclined to guilt, what we see when we look at ourselves will tend to make us feel guilty.

James doesn’t actually commend looking in the mirror to see ourselves. What he does commend is looking into the Bible. ‘He who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets, but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing’. Looking away from ourselves, ignoring what others might think of us, looking unto Jesus, might be the best recipe both for despair at our own inadequacy and for the transformation of our lives.

[1] Matthew 11: 1-6
[2] But see 1 Peter 2: 21, Romans 15: 7 (Christ as our example).; Romans 11: 1 ‘ Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’!

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