Doers of the Word

 I suspect that you haven’t heard many sermons on this passage. I’ve preached more than 840 sermons, but in my files are only two based on James. My bias is probably typical among mainline Protestants, whose theology bears the strong imprint of Martin Luther. As you may recall, Luther called the Letter of James an epistle of straw, and thought it best to relegate it to a dark corner of the Christian canon.  Luther’s strong feelings against James were rooted in his unique experience: for years, he tried to earn God’s favor, eventually coming to the realization that the heart of the gospel is salvation by grace through faith alone, that God’s favor is never earned, and always a gift.  We who are in the Protestant tradition tend to be suspicious of a theology that might take too much pride in human achievement. So we have focused more on the New Testament letters of Paul, and less on the one by James.

 Yet, there are good reasons to pay attention to James. The first is the possibility that James was the biological brother of Jesus, the same James who was the head of the Church at Jerusalem. In the early Church, scholars like St. Jerome and St. Augustine said that this letter accurately reflects the teachings of James, and, therefore, is another important voice in the collective apostolic witness to the good news that God proclaimed through Christ. Another good reason to pay attention to James is the fact that the content of his proclamation is consistent with other portions of Scripture. When James says, “be doers of the Word,” I think we hear the echo of Jesus, who said things like “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” If we were to excise James from the Bible based on his emphasis upon ethics, then we would have to consider cutting out Matthew, the prophets, and a good portion of the Law, too. Through the centuries, the Church has returned to James repeatedly as a sort of measuring tool that tells us something about the quality of faith.

 For James, the quality of faith has much to do with our relationships to other people. During the course of writing the letter, he turns his attention to fair and compassionate treatment of the poor, wisdom displayed by careful use of words, and humility proven through a gentle spirit of peacemaking. Our text today contains a very simple and direct admonition to be doers of the word, not just hearers of it. In context, “doing” the word is a public rather than private expression of faith. It begins with acts of devotion, but must proceed to acts of service.

 You might remember an old marketing campaign by Nike, the company that makes athletic shoes and apparel.  For years, the Nike marketing department said “Just Do It.” Don’t talk about exercising, the advertisements told us. Don’t become a couch potato watching others practice a sport for you.  Get off the couch, get into the action, and just do it.  James is saying something similar: don’t let others live out religion while you observe. When it comes to practicing what Jesus preaches, “Just do it.”

 Next Sunday marks the milestone at which we pass into the busy season of a new program year, and at this time of year there are many ways we can just do it, and become more active doers of the word. 

 You might consider involvement in the outreach ministries of this congregation. Historically, members of this congregation have been especially active in the Glen-Ed Pantry: members of its board, volunteers at its site, participants in the preparation and distribution of a monthly sandwich night. They’ve been especially active as volunteers for Faith-in-Action, a local ministry that provides transportation and in-home assistance for seniors and special needs individuals. Several years ago, volunteers from this congregation worked with District 7 to implement a mentoring program for at-risk students next door at Columbus Elementary. These are just three examples of a couple dozen available avenues of mission outreach.

 Perhaps you would like to be more involved in our ministries of faith formation and education. The New Experiences Together Sunday School program always needs the involvement of volunteers, and there are a variety of ways to serve depending upon the gifts you possess. Our Youth Ministry program is probably the best conceived and implemented of any middle-sized church in the area, and certainly needs the continued involvement of parents or other volunteers to remain strong.

 Closely connected to the idea of doing the word is the concept of Christian vocation. When we talk about doing the word, we are also talking about following God’s call, not missing out on the experience of doing all that God created us to do. A lot of people miss out on the sense of satisfaction that comes with doing what they were created to do because there are so many other priorities competing for their attention, and so many other voices competing for their hearing.

 John Buchanan called to my attention the story of Albert Schweitzer, and the way in which his opportunity for doing the word played out. As you may know, Schweitzer had the brilliance to be just about anything he would have wanted to be.  He was a professor of philosophy, published author, and concert musician. One summer morning, a new idea came to him: he needed and wanted to follow the call of God in a new way. And when the idea took a more concrete form that he should be a medical missionary, he fought tremendous battles with relatives and friends. He says he was tormented by them for what they believed was the foolishness of his new purpose. His friends concluded that he was not quite right in the head, and treated him with what he calls “affectionate ridicule.”[1]

 It’s not necessarily easy to know your calling in life, and to follow it. When you’re thinking about practicing your faith more fully, and getting involved more deeply in the life of your church, it’s amazing how many other projects will pop into your head, and how many voices will try to dissuade you from your course.  But if you’re going to be all that God has called you to be, to know the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling your life’s potential, you need to listen only to the voice of God: Be a doer of the word. Don’t wait any longer. Just do it.   


 [1] Albert Schweitzer, as told by John M. Buchanan, “Doing What You Need to Do,” a sermon delivered to the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 10 September 2006.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 2, 2012.

4 Responses to “Doers of the Word”

  1. My father used a story to describe what James was talking about and why the book of James is important. The story goes like this:

    A tightrope walker set up a rope across the Niagara Falls and started putting on a show walking back and forth. Then he put on a blindfold and walked across. Then he pushed a wheelbarrow across. The crowd was awed by his skill. He shouted to the crowd, “Now I’m going to go across blindfolded, pushing the wheelbarrow with someone in it.” Then he turned to someone standing nearby and asked them, “Do you believe I can do it?”

    The person replied, “Yes, you can do it.”

    The tightrope walker answered, “Great, hop in.”

    Saving faith is getting in that wheelbarrow.

    I am sure my father originally heard that story from someone else, since I have heard it from others since he first told it to me. But it sums up James’ message.

  2. I Really Liked the Sermon. It spoke to me.

    Thank you John,

    Nathan Albrecht

  3. That’s a good story, some pcguy. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Nathan, thanks for reading, and for your feedback.

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