Tuesday’s Star Tribune had an article entitled, Lessons in Longevity. It looked at Centarians and asked them about their secret to longevity. There were the obvious things, like eat right, exercise. But I was struck by a comment that said having a purpose in life will add 4 years to your life. “Know why you get up each day—called ikigai in Okinawa and Plan de Vida in Costa Rica. Do an internal inventory and identify your values, passions, gifts and talents. What do you like to do? Put your skills in to action.”
What is our role here on earth? What is your purpose in your primary relationship? What is your purpose in this academic year? How do you live out your purpose?
Being a Christian, means having a purpose. That’s what discipleship is all about. Defining and refining that purpose is what we do as we come together in Christian community.
In the first century being a Christian was a tough task. It meant more than simply coming to church on Sundays, getting your spiritual fix and then going home to turn on the football game. Making a decision for Christ meant more than joining a group of people that made you feel good all the time. There were no church buildings back then. What there was was a vital community of people who were united in common mission and a common purpose.
Before they were called Christians, the called themselves people of the “way”. Now remember, the early church was persecuted. Colluding with the Roman Empire authorities, the corporate military industrial complex of the day, some Jewish religious leaders thought the purpose of the “Way” was dangerous. People of the way followed that rabble rouser named Jesus of Nazareth who blasphemed against God and openly defied the words of Torah. At least that’s what they said in their speeches. And if you declared it loud enough and often enough, folks believed that the people of the way had a purpose that was a threat to acceptable society.
And what was this threatening purpose? James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Sounds pretty threatening to me.
Now, the early church was diverse, too. Different communities emphasized different aspects of the church and of life. The question of purpose is a question of focus.
The apostle Paul, for instance, had a very different point of view than did the disciples. The churches he founded reflected that. First of all, Paul never met Jesus while Jesus was alive. Second, he persecuted the Christians in a previous career. Third of all he spent most of his ministry preaching the good news to people who did not grow up Jewish. The cornerstone of his ministry was a line from his letter to the Romans. “By grace you are saved, through faith, not by works, lest anyone should boast.” Lots of people loved Paul and what he taught. He built up the church and preached to people the disciples ignored. But let’s face it. He did not quite teach what Jesus taught to the disciples. People then, as now, quoted Paul saying “By grace you are saved through faith, not by works.” This was and is used to let people off the hook to the radical teachings and actions of Jesus on behalf of the oppressed and outcast.
Now James, thought to be Jesus’ brother, had a different view than Paul. He was Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem. It seems that his letter, in part, was written to oppose the notion that Christianity is simply a spiritual religion with no teeth. Perhaps against Paul, the cornerstone of James’ theology was, “Faith without works is dead. Be ye doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
What James was really concerned about was that the church not lose its purpose—that the people follow what Jesus actually taught. The church must not lose its sense of purpose in the world, especially its mission amongst the poor.
The crux of the argument of James is that the faith of a Christian must be obvious; otherwise it’s not worth it. And it is obvious by the way we live our lives, or as James would say it, the way we “do the word.”
There is an old saying that goes something like this: If you were brought into court with the charge of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? That might sound trite and simple nowadays, but in the early persecuted church, doing the word meant being numbered as a subversive.
James is saying that Christianity is more than reading the Bible.
It is more than coming to church.
It is more than brilliant listening and eloquent silence.
It is more than sitting back and shaking your head in disgust at how the world is such a mess.
We are called to be doers of the word.
If we only hear, then we deceive ourselves.
Jesus’ purpose was taught to us in Matthew 25: “Come unto me, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me…truly I say unto you, just as you did it unto the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”
“Be doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving yourselves,” says James.
James ends the first chapter by saying that good religion is this: visit widows and orphans and don’t get stained by the world. How’s that for a prescription for doing the word?
Think of who a widow is. In ancient times, a widow was someone who had no power. When a woman’s worth was defined by who her husband was and how many male heirs she could bare, a widow was a sad and sorry figure. She had no hope and no power. And the world looked down on them with pity.
Then there are the orphans. They have no heir, but worse, they have no one to look up to. They are easily forgotten. I think of the many widows and orphans in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. We are called to remember them.
We know of widows these days. There are people even here in this room who have lost a spouse and we mourn with them. It’s hard to recover from that. But there are also others who have lost their hopes and dreams, who have lost work, whose relationships are struggling, who have struggled for meaning.
Some of you might especially this weekend feel like orphans. Parents have dropped you off and helped you to unload your stuff into your new dorm rooms and as they wave goodbye, you are left with a new chapter in your life. And amidst all of the excitement, you might also feel like and orphan from time to time.
But here’s the good news. The doers of the word are not going to let you feel like a disempowered widow or a forgotten orphan. The doers of the word are evidence that even the loneliest and the most forgotten are front and center in God’s mind’s eye.
Students, your main job in these next many years is to find your place in the world, your purpose in life. It is to figure out who you are aside from where you came from. It is a time for you to learn of the world, but have a faith that is strong enough that you will not become stained by the world. That’s a tall order, because this world can be a filthy place, filled with all sorts of temptation and evil.
It wears the face of popularity.
It wears the face of conformity.
It wears the face of violence.
It tempts you with fun, but too often it is fun at the expense of another.
That kind of excitement is the staining of the world.
James says we are to remain unstained by the world.
Think of a stain in a piece of cloth. We try to make it come out with the right amount of chemicals and elbow grease. Sometimes it comes out easier than others. Sometimes that stain is something that remains always in the background, but noticeable to the one who is looking for it.
Think of how you might be stained by the world.
We might be stained by some simple passion.
We might be stained by conspicuous consumerism.
We might be stained by the religiously sanctioned dismissal of the outcast.
We might be stained by the mindless militarism that pervades our world.
We might be stained by our propensity to violence.
But mostly we might be stained by our complacency—our smug satisfaction that a life of faith is simply someone else’s job. Or worse yet, it is not my job. What might people think if I actually do the word?
When you do the word, you become like scotch-guard against those stains. Violence might touch you, indifference might touch you, complacency might touch you, racism, sexism, homophobia, even judgmentalism might touch you, but if you are a doer of the word who practices their faith, then we are protected from the too easy staining that comes from the world.
If you are only a hearer of the word, as James says, you are like someone who looks in a mirror and forgets what he or she looks like. But a doer experiences life in all of its challenge and all of its fullness. A doer of the word is a person who brings out hope in a people, who lives their purpose in life.
When I think of doers of the word, I think of the people who cooked and served 2175 meals on Friday.
I think of the people who deliver for meals on wheels.
I think of the donations that come in for hungry people.
But I also think of those who have the gifts of brilliant listening, who are there for others when there is tragedy in their lives.
I think of the people who stand with those who are oppressed.
I think of the activists who take to the streets or even into the political fray in order to act on the convictions of their hearts.
I think of those who meet and greet people here in church and go beyond the platitudes of hello and goodbye. People who really make the peace of God meaningful by listening to the stories of others and standing by one another in the good times and the bad, giving the strength of Christ to another by our presence. I know I have felt this.
There is an old saying that talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. We are to be doers of the word, not hearers only, lest we deceive ourselves.
James calls us to look in the mirror and remember who we are and what our purpose is. We are to remember who Jesus is and what he called us to do and to be.
Be doers of the word, says James. It is contagious and it brings hope to this world. It will remind you of why you are here in the first place. And it will certainly help you to remember why you do what you do today, tomorrow and the next day.
May we be doers of the word and not only hearers.
Embrace your purpose. Surround yourself with people who will help you pursue your purpose. And Jesus will smile down upon us and say, “well done, good and faithful servant.”