For Christians, there can be no option but to engage with these issues. This is the central message of our second reading today, from the Letter of James. In some ways, it is an unusual part of the New Testament. Much of the other New Testament letters are, for example, concerned with themes which do not appear in the Letter of James. Indeed, it reads in some ways more like a Hebrew book of wisdom, like the book of Proverbs. For this reason, the great Reformation theologian Martin Luther called the Letter of James ‘an epistle of straw’. He thought the letter was worthless, or, even worse, a distraction from his central teaching of how we are saved, or justified, by God’s grace alone: by faith, not by works, not by anything we do or can do.
Now we, as Anglicans, quite agree with Martin Luther, that salvation is ultimately God’s work, not ours, and that there is nothing we can, or, thankfully, need to, do but respond freely to the grace God offers to us. To that degree, we also do not tend to spend too much time on the Letter of James. Yet we do read it, and we also need to ‘learn, and inwardly digest it’. For there is an important message in it.
The Letter of James is a vital corrective to our human longings for what another great German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called ‘cheap grace’. Bonhoeffer stood up against the Nazis and called others to stand up for human rights, precisely because this, he saw, was part of God’s salvation. God’s grace is a costly grace, he said. For grace involves discipleship. Grace involves bearing the cross. Grace involves living, and witnessing, in Christ. In other words, it has practical consequences.
Martin Luther was a little unfair about the Letter of James. It is not a part of scripture which ignores God’s grace as central to salvation. As we read in the passage set for today, we are encouraged by it, to ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.’ This is the heart of the Gospel. Yet it becomes ‘cheap grace’, meaning nothing, if it is not lived out. This is the message of the Letter of James to us all. In a profound sense, like the UN Secretary General’s heartfelt plea for action on refugees, it calls us to a deeper solidarity with all.
Christian faith is not a simple transaction between you or I, and our God. It is about transformation: the transformation of you and I, of all that we are, and of all that we are connected to in the world around us. It is not just about believing something, but, much more importantly, it is about becoming something: becoming something new, more loving, more alive. That is why the Letter of James calls us to action as well as to reflection, to deeds as well as words, to living out as well as acknowledging our Faith. For doing is a part of being, deeds are part of loving, caring for others is a part of becoming more like Jesus, sharing in God’s grace-filled transformation of all things. Let us then, as the Letter of James says, ‘be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive’ ourselves. And may that action include the part we too can play in the transformation of the plight of the refugees of our world. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, for Pentecost 14 (day of prayer for refugees), Year B, 30 August 2015