Reading: James 5:7-20
As hard as it is to imagine what it was like to wait for Christ’s first coming — we are, in many ways in the same boat as we wait for Christ’s second coming. Christians are, at the same time, a community of Christ’s continuing presence, and a community waiting because Christ has left and will come again. Like so many things, this isn’t something where we choose which one is true, because both pictures are true in our lives and our beliefs.
You know that I love James — I love James because it is so simply written, and the advice that it gives needs little if any commentary. When I read James next to the sermon on the Mount, I see that James and Jesus sound very much alike; of course, nobody should be surprised that the earliest Christian writing was filled with saying that sound a lot like the recorded things that Jesus says — the community flows from the One that began it.
What does James tell us? James tells us that we need to be patient until Christ returns — just as the farmer is patient. He tells us that we must be careful not to grumble against each other, not to swear, but instead to always be honest, and to respond to illness and suffering with prayer, to respond to joy with song, to respond to sinfulness with confession, and to bring back those who fall away. James tells us a list of things that are clear, and the application seems obvious. I like James very much — but, I am always left asking myself if there is anything left to say after reading him. Every sentence of this passage is something that we can act on, and something that would make the world better if we acted on it.
As we wait for Jesus to come back — let us reflect on the advice that we are given. I know we pray for the sick; I know we are a community that loves music and singing together, and I don’t think I’ve heard any lies told here. I really think this is the best Christian community I’ve been part of; you all really do care for each other and pray for each other.
Now, I don’t know about you — but my greatest difficulty is combining not grumbling against one another with the need to bring back those who have wandered away from the truth. Most of my friends are Christian, and a good number of them can be found in Church on Sunday morning. Those who wander away from the truth are, by definition Church people — people who have been in the Truth so that they can wander away from it.
When I think about the advice to bring people back into Truth, I have to reflect a little bit on what it might mean to wander out of Truth. I could make it pretty simple for myself, and work very hard on what church growth consultants call ‘closing the back door’ — that is, recognize that if I can prevent people from leaving my congregation, it would be larger. The advice to bring back those who wanders from the Truth then could be a strategy for maintaining the institution.
I have to admit, I don’t think that this is what James was talking about. Our souls are not saved through building and preserving institutions. I’m also perfectly aware that institutions are perfectly able to wander away from Truth. The history of the church shows us how entire communities can wander away from Truth, and how after splits happen, both sides argue that the other side was the one that walked away.
And, therein lies the problem — how do I bring people back to the Truth? When I know somebody who has wandered away from the Truth, they are convinced that they know the Truth and are solidly there; if I try to bring somebody back into the Truth, they are convinced that I am the one who had wandered away from it. Leading people back to the Truth is hard when they don’t realize that I’m right and they are not.
I’m of course being silly — but, having been in this position I’ve learned that it is rather challenging not to grumble against other people in the wider church. There are times that, being convinced that somebody is outside of the Truth, and leading others into error, that I do grumble — not only my heart grumbles, but my mouth grumbles as well. There are even times when I say of another preacher: “He knows — he has to know this isn’t what Jesus taught,” and when I say that I can assure you that my thoughts are far from kind. The thing is, if I try to bring people back to the Truth — especially preachers, they have no idea they left it, and make the same attempt to me.
When I see all of these advices together, I realize that I really do need to accept the challenge of trying to accomplish both of these at the same time. I grumble against others because I know that I’m right and they are stubborn — doubtless, if they give me a second thought at all, they grumble against me for exactly the same reason. One thing that I can say with some confidence; people think they are right about those things that they believe in. When something or somebody challenges our beliefs, we are quite slow to examine what we believe. I need a lot of humility to ask if I might be the one who is mistaken. Those times when I grumble are times when it might be good for me to ask if I might be a little off base; I think I’m right — but, God is far bigger and greater than I can know or understand. Perhaps if I admit I don’t know it all, I can be taken a little closer to the Truth myself.
I guess that the thing that stands true for all these bits of advice is the very first one — that we need to be patient. Bringing somebody back to the Truth isn’t about who wins an argument, the metaphor that is used here is of cultivating a crop. We grow in the Truth. As long as I’m and the other person are grumbling against each other, and our study is intended to win an argument, neither one of us will accomplish much of anything. Bringing somebody who wanders back isn’t easy, because when we wander away from Truth, we rarely know we are lost — so, lets be patient, keep praying, and try to avoid grumbling.