Compelling Not Compulsory
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: James 1:17-27
How many of y’all can remember the last sermon you heard on the letter of James? Anyone? We hear this letter every three years in our lectionary, but who ever preaches about it?
It’s one of those books we kind of gloss over. And there’s actually some historical reasons for this. It was one of the last pieces to make it into the canon of our scriptures, mostly because early church leaders in Alexandria, Egypt were big fans. But Western Church leaders questioned its authenticity and teachings, and only reluctantly accepted it.
Later in the 16th century, Martin Luther lobbied to have James removed from the New Testament altogether. He called it “the epistle of straw.” It seems he eventually changed his mind, though he did manage to get it moved to the back of our scriptures when he reordered the Bible during the Reformation.
This was because the letter openly incorporates Jewish thought and belief into its exploration of what it means to follow Christ. If it sounds like it has a bit of a different vibe to you, that’s why. And some Christians thought this vibe was unacceptable. Even though, as I preached a few weeks back, Jesus himself and all his disciples were born and lived and died as practicing Jews.
James was a Jew who followed Christ, talking to an audience of Jews who followed Christ, Probably sometime in the late first century. We draw a sharp distinction these days between Jews and Christians—for good reasons and not so good reasons—but that line was a lot blurrier when the Jesus movement was just starting to take off in the time of James.
Some in the Jewish community embraced Jesus as savior and some did not. Just like some in the Gentile community embraced Jesus as savior and some did not. Everyone, Gentiles and Jews alike, was trying to figure out what to do with this story of Jesus that seemed to be so compelling to so many of their neighbors. While Paul downplayed his Jewishness to appeal to Gentiles, James embraces his Jewishness to appeal to fellow Jews.
And it seems he was trying to figure out what Christ's teachings should mean to the Jews who believed that he was the savior. As a Jew, James embraced the teachings of the Torah—as did Jesus, of course. In James’ mind, as his letter demonstrates, the Torah measures the quality of faith by one’s actions. Your good actions demonstrate your faith. But Jesus added something new to this mix: grace. James seems to be a Jewish believer trying to figure out how to live his belief in Christ.
“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” he writes. “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.”
There’s something I really like about this scripture today. Something I like about the whole letter of James. He’s not trying to figure out what rules to follow. He’s trying to figure out the perfect law, the law of liberty. The larger scope of his faith.
He’s not trying to figure out if it’s okay to eat shellfish or not. Or whether God will be mad if he picks grain on the Sabbath. Or what kind of sexual activities are acceptable and what aren’t. Or what kind of gender roles or presentation are “correct.”
Sure, the teachings he follows—that we follow—have something to say about these things. And it can get confusing, because sometimes one teaching says one thing is right and another says something completely different. But James isn’t trying to hopscotch around the “wrong” way of doing things and land squarely on the “right” ways. He’s trying to live his faith with integrity.
“You must understand this, my beloved:” he writes. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.”
James doesn’t wonder what to do in particular situations, he talks about how our faith calls us to approach every situation with integrity. Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. Throughout his entire letter, he talks about how we should carry ourselves all the time: with humility, without hypocrisy, with love, without malice.
As James overlays Jesus’ grace onto his own already life-giving practices from the Torah, he discovers it’s not just about believing in grace, but living that grace across every landscape of our lives.
I was talking not long ago to some folks from our community about a faith that is compelling rather than compulsory. A faith that is compulsory is one based on unthinkingly following the rules. We go to church on Sunday because we’re supposed to. We’re baptized because we’re supposed to be. We take communion because Jesus said we should. Oh, and we Episcopalians love our rules. Just ask the Altar Guild! I think they have a love/hate relationship with a lot of our rules.
Rules are easy, because they absolve us of the responsibility of having to think through our own choices. This is great in a lot of ways. The rule is we don’t cross the yellow double line when we drive. Grammatical rules make it so we can communicate clearly. Our bishop asked that all of us wear masks all the time during worship. These rules are in place so that we can be in community together safely and effectively without thinking too hard about every situation we encounter. In our Episcopal tradition, a lot of the rules are based on necessity from centuries ago. Like we wear these robes because clergy needed a way to stay warm in their big drafty churches before HVAC systems existed.
But there have also been extraordinarily harmful rules on the books throughout history. Rules that allowed some humans to own other humans and force them to work without pay. Rules that called for Jews to wear the star of David on their clothes to be singled out for discrimination. Rules that prevented women and people of color from voting, and people of different races from getting married.
“I was just enforcing the rules” has been an excuse for all sorts of atrocities.
But what I think James is calling us to is a faith that is compelling. A faith that calls us to grace over and above rules. A faith that is about integrity. Integrity is about knowing in our hearts, in our bones what we believe. It’s about trusting our faith enough to know how to act, whatever situation comes up.
Sometimes that means standing up in the face of unjust rules or laws. Sometimes that means questioning authority. Jesus turned over tables because he had integrity. Jesus stood up to Pilate because he had integrity. Jesus died on a cross because he had integrity. Not my will, God, but yours.
And that is compelling. It’s what compelled Jews and Gentiles alike to call him savior and follow his teachings.
And it’s what compels us to this community. I hope we’re not here simply because we’re supposed to go to church on Sundays, because it’s compulsory. I hope that we’re here because Christ’s presence in this community is so compelling that we can’t stay away. I hope we’re here because God’s love and grace shine so brightly in each of us that we can’t help but be drawn together.
I hope your faith in Christ gives you life, joy, strength, that it guides you wherever you go. I hope it is such a compelling force that you can’t help but be drawn to it over and over again.
And I hope it shines out through you wherever you go, so bright and compelling that it draws others to Christ’s life and joy and strength that they see in you.