This past week our church’s seminaries in Ft. Wayne and St. Louis had their call services as fourth year students received the call to the first parish in which they are going to serve as pastor. Next year, James Peterson will have the experience of receiving his call at such a service.
There is an old joke on the seminary campuses, which says: “You know what you call a seminarian who gets A’s? Pastor. You know what you call a seminarian who gets C’s? Pastor.” Over time you learn that just because someone got A’s in seminary, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be a good pastor. And likewise, getting C’s doesn’t guarantee a poor pastor.
One can be a brilliant student and deep thinker getting A’s, but if you don’t have interpersonal skills, empathy and common sense it’s unlikely you are going to be a good pastor. At the same time, if a seminarian is getting C’s because he is a lazy person, there are probably going to be issues. In truth, a solo pastor has little oversight. Honestly, you don’t really know what I do during weekdays. Maybe I go home and work on my trains all the time! For a motivated, self-starter this freedom allows a person to organize one’s schedule in the ways that will be most productive. But if you are inclined to be lazy, the parish will provide much opportunity to be that way.
A seminarian can get C’s and still turn out to be a very good pastor. Greek and Hebrew may not be your thing. Writing papers may be a chore. You may not be a particularly deep thinker. But if you have a good handle on Lutheran doctrine; if you let the hymnal and agenda guide your practice; if you care about people and are willing to work hard in ministering to them, you can be a very good pastor.
That’s the way I think about James, the brother of our Lord who is the author of this morning’s text. If you are looking for profound theology from a deep thinker, you are in the wrong book. The apostles John or Paul are the ones you need to read. You are not going to get that from James. That’s just not who he is. Instead, James clearly has a very deep and profound faith in Jesus Christ. He really believes that this faith guides how a Christian lives. And so in his letter, that’s what he talks about.
Now to be sure, James does have a few moments when he gives us some stuff that is deep. Most of those occur here in the first chapter of the letter. Just before our text, James writes, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
No doubt you will recognize the opening statement from the explanation in the Small Catechism to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. James gives us an important description of the way sin takes hold, grows and develops, and ultimately produces death. He uses the metaphor of conception, gestation and birth to describe the way this takes place.
You experience this in your own life. Sin doesn’t stand still. The old Adam in you wants it to move forward. He wants it to grow. He wants it to infiltrate more and more, like the tentacles of cancer cells. You think you have been wronged. You feel hurt. So you stew on it as hurt turns into anger. Your thoughts turn against the other person. The anger grows into hatred. The hatred in your heart leads to harmful words and actions directed against that person when the opportunity presents itself.
James knows that by nature, this is who we are. This is what the Fall has done to us. But he also knows that there is more to the story – much more. And having spoken about sin being conceived, growing and giving birth to death, James now points us to another birth that has occurred.
He says in our text, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
Sinners produce more sinners. Sinners generate more sin. If anything different is going to happen, it has to come from outside of us. It must come from God. James tells us that God is the one who gives good and perfect gifts. He is the Creator, the Father of lights – the One who cast the stars into the night sky in his action of creation. He is reliable - with him there is no variation or shadow due to change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Again and again we hear the refrain in the Old Testament that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
This is who God is, and this is who God is for you. You know this for certain because of what he did for you in his Son, Jesus Christ. Now normally, in talking about this in a sermon I quote a verse or two from the text or the immediate context or from somewhere in the book as whole that in some way refers to Jesus Christ’s saving death on the cross. I bring in some direct statement of Gospel.
And that’s the weakness of James’ letter. It doesn’t actually have any verses that speak in this way. Martin Luther famously described James as the “straw epistle” because of this. The Reformation was about the rediscovery of the Gospel – the free gift of forgiveness and salvation by God’s grace on account of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This occurred in the setting of the medieval Church that had turned the Christian faith into a matter of doing – into Law. Understandably, Luther heard James as more of the same.
However, James’ description of the Christian life is certainly rooted in the Gospel. It is grounded in what God has done for us. We hear it in his statement, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
It was God’s will to save you. He is the One who brought you forth – gave birth to you – by the word of truth. He did it through the Gospel. He caused you to believe. You could not by your own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. By his word God caused us to be born so that, as James says, “we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
Once again, James shows us that he is by no means shallow. Christians are brought forth – they are born – through the word. He is talking about the spiritual rebirth that the Holy Spirit works through the word. And then James says that this makes us a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures. First fruits are the first part of the harvest that shows what the rest will be like; it guarantees that the rest will follow. This spiritual rebirth of the Christian not only points forward to our own resurrection of the body on the Last Day. James says that it also points to the renewal that the various creatures will experience that are part of the world God made.
It was God’s will and action to give you spiritual life. He did it through his word, a word that James describes as being an “implanted word.” It was God’s doing and not your own. It is Gospel. And we must understand that this drives what James has to say. We are those who have been born through God’s word.
It is because of this that he adds, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James knows that the life of faith plays out in concrete actions. There is much in James that has the feeling of the Old Testament book of Proverbs – what we call wisdom literature. There is a very good reason for this. James says that those born of God live on the basis of God’s law. God’s law is his will according to which he has ordered his creation. It has been written on the human heart and is known by all people, and so when we hear it we recognize that it makes sense.
So the life of faith is quick to hear and slow to speak. Listen and understand before you talk. It is slow to anger because of the recognition that our anger does not produce the righteousness that God wants. We like talking about “righteous anger,” but that’s mainly because we like to have an excuse to be angry. We enjoy being angry and thinking we are in the right at the same time. Yet James warns us that when go the way of anger, more likely than not we will end up in the wrong. So recognize anger as being something that a Christian needs to avoid and reject. It is not something for us to embrace.
James says to put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness. Instead, in the verse after our text he adds, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Clearly, this is something that requires your effort and attention. If it didn’t, if it just automatically happened, James wouldn’t have to say anything.
But he does say something because he believe it is possible for those whom God has brought forth through his word of truth; for those who have received the implanted word. I am making no claims about perfection here. I am certainly not saying that this life of faith merits salvation. Instead, I am simply pointing to what James says: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God has given you birth through the Gospel and so, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”