September 12 2021
Last year I read a biography of Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, who quite famously renounced her Soviet citizenship for U.S. citizenship in the 1960’s. I picked up the book because of its interesting title, little did I know it would have so many connections to my own life, and provide such fascinating insights into the meaning of Christian faith. Svetlana settled in Princeton, New Jersey when she came to the U.S., which is where Madeline and I lived for three years while I studied theology, and lived in a house that I walked by nearly every day on my way between classes. She even worshipped at a church where Madeline and I worshipped on occasion there. After Princeton, she moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, very close to where I grew up, because she married a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright at the Taliesin West architecture program, and worshipped at a Greek Orthodox Church across the street from the condo where Madeline and I were living at the time I read the book, and frequented restaurants in Scottsdale that I also enjoyed.
While those connections surprised me, what I find most meaningful about her story is the incredible fact that she became a Christian in the 1950’s, when she was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, a Church which her father persecuted with tremendous cruelty. She was asked in interviews where she first learned about Christianity, she studied at a school for the children of leading Soviet leaders which officially taught Atheism after all. Her answer surprised everyone who first heard it. According to Svetlana, her father, Josef Stalin, taught her about Christianity. She described a vivid memory of being 13, and coming home after a lesson on Soviet style Atheism, and discussing it with her Father, who laughed off much of what she was learning because he knew it just was not true. Stalin then led his daughter to his study filled with commentaries on every book of the Bible, theological texts, and books about the life of Christ; all of which became the seed for her own faith.
Josef Stalin was at one time a candidate for the Priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church. On his mother’s deathbed, she told him that she hated who he had become since he left the Seminary, and wished he had just become a Priest instead of a dictator. As a candidate for ordination in the Orthodox Church, Stalin had all of the New Testament memorized in both his native Russian, and in the original Greek. He would have dominated bible memory games at a Baptist Summer Camp, or an Awana group, with his knowledge of Scripture. In a sense, Stalin knew God, Jesus Christ, and the Christian faith and, while I only speculate here, he might have even thought it was true.
Whenever I think about Stalin’s faith as described by his daughter Svetlana, I cannot help but think of our passage from St. James’ Epistle this morning. As it reds in the 19th verse of the second chapter, “you believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe that, and shudder.” So to be clear, none of this means that Josef Stalin was a Christian, for Demons know more of what is true about God than even our best Theologians, and as much as a man can be a Demon, Josef Stalin was one. Stalin knew the contents of Christian faith well, and rejected that faith, like a demon he did not find it to be good news, and so he pursued another means of changing the world. I bring this story to our attention this morning because I believe it lends us a helpful insight into interpreting the always challenging letter from St. James.
As our Lectionary will be in this letter for a few more Sundays, I want to offer a brief introduction to it before we dive in. The Great German Reformer Martin Luther spoke for many Christians of his own time, the past, and our own time, when he referred to James’ Epistle as an “Epistle of Straw,” meaning he did not believe it belonged in Scripture. Unfortunately, because Martin Luther could not separate what James is saying from the heretical practices of medieval Catholicism, he did not know what to do with St. James’ Epistle. Luther set the stage for how this letter is interpreted, but Luther was not alone in this feeling, and he was not the first to question whether James even belonged in the Bible.
For centuries, Christians in the Roman Catholic West have struggled with James, and not without good reason. James does not mention much of Jesus, what theologians call “Christology” is notably absent from this letter. In fact, in his preface to a commentary on James, one commentator on James named Martin Dibelius, who is unfortunately treated as a standard of reading James, said that “James has no theology.” Because of some of what we read this morning from James; passages like, “what good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” As well as, “you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” James is often read in the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions as a foil to Paul, and to Jesus, often through an anti-semitic and anti-Jewish lens.
Many Roman Catholics have reached the same conclusion about James as Martin Luther (the most famous being Erasmus of Rotterdam and even St. Augustine, who did not include James in his list of books that belong in Scripture), that the book should not be in the Bible for the reasons I just mentioned. It is worth mentioning that the Eastern Orthodox tradition has never had this issue with James, and hold this letter in high regard, and why this is the case is a long conversation that I wish I had the time to get into, but do not. As we read this important witness to Christ in the New Testament, I hope we will all see the ways that so many in Church history have misinterpreted and misunderstood James, because it truly is a much-needed witness for the Church in our time especially.
One of the central themes of James’ letter is that human beings are divided, broken, and quite literally at war because of sin. James describes us as being “double-minded,” divided within our very persons. We say one thing, and do or think another. We are like a man who looks in a mirror and immediately cannot remember what he looks like, which is what we heard from James in the lectionary last week. We say things like, “my head wants to marry him, my heart does not,” or “part of me knows it’s right, another part of me does not want to do it.”
Another way James speaks of our internal brokenness and division is in the third chapter, which we will read next week, and it is something that is probably on our minds on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 yesterday, and that is war. Why are we at war, James asks? And his answer is that it is because we are literally at war within ourselves, we are really that divided. You can be like Stalin or a Demon, so divided as a person because of sin that you hold correct knowledge about God with absolutely no fruit in our lives, we can believe true things and not be transformed. These internal wars within ourselves then spill out into the world around us: conflict in our families, in our societies, between nations, between the world: war is precisely what sin looks like.
And much of James’ letter should be read as a caution to the church: “we are at war in ourselves, that is bleeding out around us, and I see the ways that it is bleeding in the church,” the church is at war with itself, and this is not God’s intention for us as a community. I know that many of you have experienced war within the church, and you know that it is simply horrible. I was on a staff that was, for a time, at war within itself, and it felt it was killing me, it was the worst experience I have ever had in the Church; and I felt it in my body, with a tight chest, pit in my stomach, high blood pressure, and headaches, it was horrible. My own body at war with itself told me that God does not wish for the body of Christ to be at war within itself.
God gave us Jesus Christ to free us from this warring. God is nothing like us, God does not say “yes,” when he means “no,” God does not forget who he is, God does not experience division within himself, in the eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, God does not experience double-mindedness, because God is at harmony with himself. God is whole, and Jesus Christ is whole, and he has given us himself so that we also might be whole, and no longer exist at war within our very selves, both as individuals and in community.
James’ specific concern in what we have just read from James is that the lack of wholeness in the church is manifesting itself through the creation of human distinctions, particularly between those who are rich, and those who are poor. During the twenty years when James served as a leader in the church in Jerusalem, Jerusalem was plagued by terrible famines and economic crises, which exposed a growing chasm between those who were extremely rich and extremely poor in that city, a chasm which was also playing out in the Church; reflecting the broken world and broken lives we lead before we encounter the wholeness of Jesus Christ, a brokenness which has no place in the life of the Church. Distinctions within the Church, whatever form those distinctions take, are not a marker of genuine faith. A lack of concern for the needy among us is not a sign of genuine faith, but quite the opposite.
The division and brokenness in the lives of Christians that is reflected in the practice of making distinctions in the church comes down to an even deeper issue that James identifies in our passage this morning. The warring division within ourselves that we all experience is leading us to literally break up and divide Christian life from belief, Christians are so distorting the faith that belief and works are pitted against one another, the very Christian life is at war within itself.
If we think it was only after the 1960’s that the Church divided among the crude distinctions of those who care about correct theology, and those who care about social justice; we can at the very least see parallel distinctions in the early Church that James served. James pivots in verse 17 to a dialogue with a hypothetical speaker, who believes that what he does is the only thing that matters, he has so divided Christian faith that he says, “you have faith, and I have works.” If we need proof that James is arguing for works-based righteousness as interpreters like Luther believed, we need look no further than James’ response here to see that this is simply not true. James says that the person who believes that works for the poor and oppressed replaces faith is just as much in error as someone who says they are a Christian while neglecting the poor; “show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
In reading this correction from James, I am reminded of conversations with so many parishioners and fellow clergy, who have become quite active in social movements recently, all with the best of intentions. A helpful phrase that I have begun to share in spite of its pithiness, is the phrase, “justice without Jesus is just us.” Of course, this phrase and the principles behind it are a two way street; for if we try to divide the Christian faith into true, Orthodox belief about Jesus and pit that against social justice, we too are substituting human wisdom for Christ, it is also “just us.” You could say “Jesus without justice is just us.” It is God’s intention for us that faith, our trust that God is good and loving, and exactly who he has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ, and that our works which follow this true belief, not exist in division, or God forbid, exist at war with one another, but in harmony.
James points to Abraham as an example of a person in whom faith and works act harmoniously, who in the moment of preparing to sacrifice his beloved son is not at war within himself. Did Abraham have faith because he heard God’s request that he sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and said something like, “I think God is good and that Isaac is a miraculous answer to God’s promises, so something else must be up, but I would rather not risk it? God I trust you in an intellectual sense, but not enough to do something that crazy.” No, he had faith because he moved his feet up the mountain with Isaac, motivated by a trust that God was not the kind of God who would ask him to kill his only Son for him, because he believed that God would provide something or someone in Isaac’s place, a ram in anticipation of God giving his only Son on a mountain one day. So James can say that Abraham’s deeds and Abraham’s faith were working together, not in conflict, so that in that moment Abraham had true faith. Abraham’s faith and Abraham’s actions were working harmoniously.
Does this all mean that we have to be perfect all of the time or that we are not really Christians, or that we really are saved by works and not by faith in Jesus Christ? Not at all, but the fact that we fixate on this question is unfortunate, because it really is not what James is talking about, and we should not try to force him to. James is well aware of the fact that Christian communities are filled with sinners, which is why his letter also speaks often of the need to forgive one another and pray together, and to foster healthy behaviors in ourselves, which bear fruit in Christian community. Christian faith is not a verbal profession without lived behavior; it is not empty talk with fruitless action, and if we mistakenly believe it is either of those things we will suffer, and God has not given us the church so that we would cause our own suffering, but so that we would be made whole.
For James and for us, the church is still a hospital for broken sinners in need of God’s healing and restoration, which is precisely why the way we live and treat one another as Christians is so important, because we are fragile, broken, and in desperate need for the grace of God, we should be careful, thoughtful, and gracious to one another. Just as we should never cough on a cancer patient, so we should never harm a fellow member of Christ’s body with careless speech or action, or with human distinctions, they too are hurting, fragile, and in need of grace.
If you are still struggling to make sense of the connection between the faith, works, belief, and deeds, grace and christian life; that is probably a good thing because it means you are really wrestling with it. I will preach on James again while we are reading it in the lectionary, but if you are expecting me to solve challenges in interpreting James that Christians have struggled with for 2000 years, please do not hold your breath. Sometimes wrestling is the best we can do, and God’s grace is not something we ever really understand, so much as it is something we constantly cling to.
And the grace we cling to in James’ letter to us this morning is the good news that in Jesus Christ God has come to free us from the oppression, the hurt, the brokenness, and the wounding that come from living as fractured, divided people in a fractured, divided world. God does not wish to see us war within ourselves, our churches, communities, nations, and world. God comes to us in Jesus Christ to make us whole. Jesus Christ has given us the Church as a place to receive healing, wholeness, restoration, and relief from the brokenness that harms our souls, our families, our communities, and the entire world. It is because of Jesus Christ, the one who was broken, the one who is fractured and torn apart by the world on the cross, that we can know wholeness, unity, for in his broken body, we are made whole. Amen.