Harrowing Of Hell
August 29, 2021

Sermon on James

The Rev. Dr. Peter Strimer

I am sad to say this will be my last Sunday with you before my wife and I get our house ready to go on the market and we make our move to Florida a permanent one.

I am happy to say, however, that for this last sermon one of the assigned readings is the beginning of the Letter of James which will be our Epistle lesson for the next five weeks. It makes for a perfect text for a farewell to a church community that I have come to respect and love in the four years I have had with you here.

We are so lucky that this book made it into the Bible. Martin Luther would obviously disagree since he called the Letter of James  “an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” 

It is easy to understand why Luther felt this way since nearly everything contained in this letter goes against Luther’s basic theology of “Justification by faith alone which is so dependent on Paul’s letters. In answer to Paul, James states clearly,” faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Who was this James whose letter plays for us such a counterbalance to Paul’s theology? By tradition and possibly in history our author is none other than the earthly brother of Jesus, raised along side him in the home of Mary and Joseph. We know from the book of Acts that within a few years after Christ’s resurrection, his brother James had risen to become the head, we might even say the bishop, of the Church in Jerusalem. He sat in the chair as the presider of the very first ecumenical council in the City of Jerusalem in 50 AD. There he compromised with Paul in a decision that opened up the Christian faith to the Greek and Roman worlds. But he himself stayed as head of the Jerusalem Christians, a sect that saw themselves still firmly within the Jewish tradition. In the years immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the believers did not see themselves as a separate religion.

They continued worshipping in the Jewish Temple, saw themselves as a movement within the Jews, much as Wesley saw his Methodists as a movement within Anglicanism, not a separate denomination. James, Matthew, and others in Jerusalem appear to have supported and sought to maintain that status as a movement within Judaism instead of a separatist movement.

The Roman historian Josephus reported on his death by stoning at the hand of Jewish priests who took advantage of a Roman power vacuum in Jerusalem in 62 AD.

When you read the Letter of James, his Jewishness shines through. The letter of James communicates, among other things, that Jesus’ followers are not apostates from Judaism, but rather faithful members of the synagogue who live according to the Jewish moral tradition and are faithful to the Torah. So for James, the line that is to be drawn is not between Judaism and Christianity, but rather between true and false religion. And true religion requires right action.

From the earliest years of the faith, through the Reformation and the Enlightenment and into modern times there has been a tension between faith and works and James’s letter is the primary source material for a theology of works. Luther hated this letter but another Christian hero I mentioned, John Wesley, loved it. Luther was all about faith alone, Wesley was all about striving for perfection. He saw this theology summarized in the lesson we have from James today:

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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. 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.”

I said this tension between faith and works has been a thread throughout Christian history. It probably came to a head most prominently in the 1960s and 70s in the emergence of Liberation Theology. For Liberation Theologians the big question is not what is to be believed, but what is to be done. The starting point for Liberation Theology is not the eternal, abstract truths captured in sacred books and tradition. Instead it is the concrete, historical experience of a particular people at a particular time. That is why there can be so many different Liberation Theologies – for blacks, for women, for the LGBQT community, even for you in your unique life experience. Gustavo Gutierrez who coined the term Liberation Theology said, “Theology begins at Sundown.” What he meant was the work of the people goes on during the day and at night we reflect on our actual, concrete, communal experience in light of scripture and tradition. The story is ours, not one dictated to us.

Needless to say, the emergence of Liberation Theology set the Roman Catholic Church on its ear. It was left to Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, to try to put out the fire that it had created in the church. As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger labeled Liberation  Theology a “singular heresy,” He blasted the new movement as a “fundamental threat” to the church and prohibited some of its leading proponents from speaking publicly. In an effort to clean house, Ratzinger even summoned outspoken priests to Rome and censured them on grounds that they were abandoning the church’s spiritual role for political activism.

I have a very personal experience with Liberation Theology. I literally had a conversion experience to its principles in my first year of seminary studying with the eminent scholar and practitioner Dr. Letty Russell. Eight years out of seminary I had the opportunity to re-open an abandoned church building in center city Columbus Ohio and create the Third Ave. Community Church building it on Liberation Theology principles. The key concept, was PRAXIS, that is action combined with reflection. Action first, reflection following. Our tagline became Just Do It. And we did. In a short time we created a Teen Drop-in Center, an Alternative Performance Space, an AIDS ministry, a feeding program and more. All on a shoestring. All pretty messy and rough around the edges. But all based on the Liberation Theology principles that our salvation is collective, not individual, that salvation happens in history not in some sphere outside of time and space and that the actual personal experience of the people is the most important sacred text of all.

Just like the Letter of James offers a counterbalance to Paul, Liberation Theology offers a counter balance to tradition Theology. These opposite expressions are not a problem to be solved with one answer. They are polarities to be managed, held in tension, always seeking a faithful balance. Is faith more important than works, or are works more important than faith? The answer is yes.

Today I am wrapping up my four years with you as an assisting priest and I want to say how much I have loved being part of this community and witnessing its journey of faith and action. Epiphany is truly a place seeking to find that balance between faith and action, between the contemplative and the engaged, between the transcendent and the immanent. In our common life these are not poles or camps. Instead we offer so many different ways to live and express our faith, not honoring one or foregrounding another at the expense of the whole.

That said, we are a church of action. One new parishioner with absolutely no background in the church shared with Doyt that what he loved about Epiphany was there was always something you could be doing to help others. Building small houses. Stuffing backpacks. Making sandwiches for the hungry. Hosting a night shelter.

But we also offer so many ways to connect to the Spirit. The rector’s bible study, adult forums, the Sacred Ground gatherings, Education for Ministry, our worship services, or something as simple as the chapel being open to anyone who needs to simply sit still and pray.

Laura Sargent and the whole staff and volunteer team have provided me with the perfect sermon illustration to end this last time of teaching and preaching with you. Your assignment is to go home and using your computer or smart phone to go and visit the new ENGAGEMENT page on our website. If you click at the top of the home page where it says GATHER AND ENGAGE you will see a banner – GET INVOLVED. There you will find these categories:

Help on Sunday

Serve the City

Gather in Community

Learn

Pastoral Care

Help on Campus

Children and Youth

Music

Under each tab are specific actions you can take to get more involved in the life of our community and your own life of faith. There are so many great examples of what you can do. One of my favorites that I saw under Help on Sunday is:

  • Thurifer 
    Swing incense during the 11:00 am service and on special occasions

That could be you. There are so, so many ways to get involved, you may find one you had never thought of before.

You all are a Cloud of Witnesses and now in the Cloud is a fabulous list of ways to live out your faith in action.

My wife and I plan to return each summer for an extended vacation so hopefully we will see you in the years to come.