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Sunday, September 12, 2021

Doers of the Word...

 A sermon based upon James 1: 19-27

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

September 12th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 3/12


James 1:19–27 (NRSV): You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.


     There is an old joke about five men in an airplane: the pilot, a lawyer, the smartest man in the world, a pastor, and a Boy Scout. They were flying along when the plane started to lose power. Noticing that there were only four parachutes, the pilot grabbed a parachute and jumped out.

     Now with only three left, the lawyer said, “Without me, the world would be dull.” So he grabs a parachute and jumps out.

      Then the smartest man in the world stood up and said, “I can’t imagine what the world would be like without me.” So he grabs a parachute and jumps out.

     The pastor turns to the Boy Scout and says, “Son, I’ve lived my life and I know where I’m going, so you go ahead and take the last parachute.”

     The Boy Scout replied, “No, we can both go. The smartest man in the world took my backpack!”

      The moral of that story, I guess, is that just because you think you are smart, doesn’t mean you know everything.

     Our text from James is concerned about believers who think they are ‘smart’ in being Christians, but they are missing something very important.  In fact, just like in the funny story, they have ‘jumped’ into life but are still missing ‘the power’ that can ‘save their souls’ (v.21).



     James begins by declaring what his readers are missing and must understand.  It’s is a specific form of moral righteousness.  This righteousness is should being growing out of their faith, but it’s evidently not.  Instead they are growing in wickedness.  He describes this wickedness as a verbal, outspoken anger.  Instead of being humble in their faith and having patience with others, God’s people have become overbearing, prideful, and even downright filthy in their attitude and talk.   We will see later that this was a growing favoritism toward the rich which prejudiced some against the poor among them.    

     To James this apparent flaw in their personal ethics proved how they have ‘grabbed’ the wrong understanding of faith.  Recently I received an advertisement about a book entitled, The Unsaved Christian.  Sounds contradictory and oxymoronic, doesn’t it?  How can you be a Christian, if you aren’t saved?  Well, as most of us know, this isn’t a new warning.  Its been around ever since Jesus also warned,  Not every one who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will ‘enter the kingdom’ (Matthew 7:21). 

Through the centuries, Christians have constantly been warned not to confuse religiosity for salvation.  In the book about the UNSAVED CHRISTIANS, the author was particularly discussing the difference between a being a cultural Christian and a committed Christian—between a person who believes in Jesus, goes to church and who does few good deeds, with a disciple who denies themselves,  who follows Jesus daily, and takes up their cross to allow the message and mission of Jesus to change, challenge and reshape their own attitudes and actions in ways that bring saving hope and help into their world. 

     This is the tricky part about having a spiritual, religious faith, isn’t it?   Does your understanding of faith really save, and if it does how can you know?   In James, his own example of this question is how you can look in a mirror, can yourself, then quickly forget what you look like.  The problem he is describing is that not only do you forget what you look like, you also fail to realize how you might look to others too.  While you think you are a Christians, others clearly see how you’re not or how you forgot.  

      This failure to remember what we are supposed to look like and be like is a unique blind spot for those of us who seek spiritual salvation?  Just like it was a challenge for God’s people, Moses said, that they could forget their true God who choose them.  Just like the greatest problem Jesus faced was the hypocrisy of the already religious.  Now, in James day too, even after Paul’s incredible preaching about God’s righteousness coming down from heaven through faith in Jesus Christ, some were still picking up the wrong bag and thinking they were ‘saved’, but others saw differently.   In other words, they heard the word, they knew all the words, they thought they understood the word, but they still failed to see the righteousness growing in them that’s the implanted, saving word should produce.  

      Some time ago, I stumbled upon a documentary about the Old Order Amish in America, entitled ‘Breaking the Silence’.  What made this documentary interesting is that it was an honest and constructive, being put together by some who had either left or been forced out of the Amish community. 

Now, most interestingly, they weren’t forced out for doing wrong, but they were forced out because they questioned whether their communities were really following the Bible, or just creating and living by their own versions of righteousness.  In one example, a woman told how her community refused to accept her baptism simply because she didn’t put a certain pin in her clothes in a particular way demanded by her community, This was never explained to her until they rejected and embarrassed her.  This was just the beginning.  In many other ways, she found so much pain and hurt, not because she didn’t love being Amish, but because it proved to be built more on traditions, culture and community rules rather than being based on biblical faith, hope and loving actions.

     Now, of course, this isn’t only true for old-order Amish, but it’s true of any faith tradition or religious belief.  Since religious belief is a matter and ‘habit of the heart’ and can be very personal for us,  we must all hear the concern James has about God’s righteousness as the implanted word that saves our souls.   We don’t want to be left, literally, holding ‘the wrong bag’.



In contrast to the person who looks at themselves in the mirror and then forgets what they are supposed to look like,  James challenges his readers to be  doers of the word’ and not only hearers.   This deception of hearing without doing, of believing without becoming, and of seeing without acting out God’s way is corrected by looking into the perfect law of liberty.  Now, that’s certainly an interesting way to find salvation— in the law of Liberty.  Isn’t the law more restrictive rather than releasing?   

      Part of the answer lies in what James means by the perfect law.  This perfect law refers us back to Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is one ‘even greater than Moses’.  Once, a lawyer asked Jesus: How does one enter the kingdom?  Basically Jesus answered with a trinity of love : Love God in a way that you love your neighbor just like you love yourself (Mat. 22:35).   On another occasion Jesus informed his own disciples the same lesson, but more intimately, ‘This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you (John 15:12).   The perfect law, which means the law that fulfills all the law because love reveals the laws true intention: love.  

      Unpacking what James means by looking into the perfect law of liberty can take a lifetime, but begins by understanding just how  demanding love can be----even more demanding than any other kind of law or rule.  Remember, Jesus told the lawyer that the greatest commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with ALL your heart’.   Love is the most demanding way because love also demands ACTS OF LOVE flowing from sincere hearts of love.

      Again, this kind of sincere, demanding, and active love isn’t easy or simple meaning anything goes.  Back in the 1960s, Anglican professor Joseph Fletcher taught that acts of love must be at the center of any Christian decision about what is right and what is wrong.  Love is what guides our interpretation of the Bible. 

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?   Just love people.  Do the loving thing.   All you need is love.  For some people it sounds too simple and if there is anything Jesus taught us about ‘God so loved the world’ is that love isn’t easy for the person who loves.  Love is what put Jesus on the cross.   Remember how Jesus put it:  ‘No greater love is there than this, that one lay down their life for their friends’.  This kind of love is anything but simple, but how is it perfect?  



Now, we come to the final part:  James says this perfect law of God’s love is also a law of liberty.    How does this perfect, highest, greatest and most important and demanding law become a way of liberty and freedom rather than a way that restrains and confines us in our lives?  

Way back in the 5th century, early Christian thinker named Augustine made a statement about what it means for a Christian to do good.  It still grabs your attention when you first hear it.  Augustine said the most basic rule, calling, or way of a Christian is to ‘love God and do what you want.’  Now that’s it---that’s liberty.  When you truly love God you can live and do what you want in life.    Now, you can do ‘what you want’ because you’re ‘want to’ is being guided by your love for God.   Because you love God you want to do what pleases God.  Isn’t that what you do for someone you love---you ask them what they want?   Teresa and I have had an argument that has never gotten better over 41 years of marriage; in fact sometimes it still gets worse.   It’s the question she asks me, then I turn and ask her, and then she asks me again, and then turn it back to her again.  It’s the question ‘What do you want to eat’?, then I ask, ‘It doesn’t matter, what do you want?’   That’s one argument neither of us wins, or loses.  It’s only gets better now because we eat at home more.  She controls the fork.

         This is exactly where James has been headed with his discussion.  He goes from speaking of how sin is conceived (16) to showing how God’s word gives us a new spiritual birth (18).   This new spiritual birth is proven because we look into the mirror of God’s truth and remember who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.   We only keep remembering who we are when we look into this prefect law and freely do what we know we are supposed to do, not because we have to, but because we want to.   God’s perfect law of love is what now guides, leads and liberates our lives from living in wickedness to living in God’s righteousness.  

So, finally, what is this righteousness and religion in its most perfect, purest form?   What James reminds his readers is that true faith is a righteousness of action—of both doing and being, being and becoming, which is based upon our seeing and remembering.   This kind of religion isn’t worthless, but is based on a liberating love that liberates us to love.   This kind of religion guides our speech, it protects us a sinful world, and motivates us to love and to care for our most helpless neighbors as God has used others to love and care for us in our own helplessness. 

As we all remember, during the Coronavirus Outbreak, one of the most difficult challenges in our United States was to get people ‘wear masks’ for the sake of the most vulnerable.  Many misunderstood that their own individual or religious liberties were being threatened.   But when we ‘look’ into perfect law of liberty, as James says, and we care for those most vulnerable, we are indeed practicing liberty, just like we are also practicing pure religion.   It’s a faith and a liberty for all of us, not just some of us.   Amen.

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