Sermon for the 18thSunday after Trinity
The Letter of James is a New Testament book strongly influenced by Old Testament wisdom. The author – maybe James the “Brother of the Lord,” maybe not – uses literary forms associated with that tradition such as aphorisms and admonitions. James wants us to cultivate “the wisdom that comes from above”, which he says is “pure, peaceable and gentle, willing to yield and full of mercy.” He is critical of the selfish rich who oppress the poor and of Christians who distinguish in their assemblies between haves and have-nots. It is the best kind of Jewish ethics, the genuine voice of the Old Testament with its passion for righteousness and its option for the poor. But, as this evening’s selection demonstrates, it is not without complexity. Indeed the part we have just heard has featured in numerous debates in the history of the Church.
Are any among you sick, he asks? Then let them call the presbyters of the Church who will anoint them with oil in the Lord’s name. How useful, thought post-Reformation Catholics embroiled in polemics about the sacraments with their Protestant neighbours! It’s a nice clear “proof text” to establish that of course there are more sacraments than two. Doesn’t this indicate clearly that Jesus had instituted a sacrament of the sick and appointed priests to administer it?
But of course it doesn’t quite do that. It uses the word presbyteros(elder) but it was to be at least a couple of hundred years more before any Christian minister would be designated “priest.” And there isn’t a word here – either – about Jesus explicitly commissioning such an anointing, even if it is done in his name. Catholics erected a sacramental system on top of this one text – actually nothing unusual in the history of the Church. Protestants – inclined for that reason to ignore it altogether, let the oil slip through their fingers and disappear, at least until the more ecumenical climate of the second half of the 20thcentury.
Once again, the text says we should confess our sins to one another so as to be healed. There we have it again don’t we: validation for another sacrament? We’re on a fast track to the confessional. But it doesn’t say we should confess our sins to clergy but to one another! Indeed until Catholics and Protestants clashed over this in the 16thcentury, there were respectable examples of confessing sins to lay people in both east and west. In some monastic traditions, Byzantine and Celtic, that was done; and even Ignatius Loyola, that paragon of Catholic sacerdotalism, confessed to a fellow layman after being wounded as a soldier at the battle of Pamplona. But once more, in an era of confessional conflict, Catholics turned confession into such a clerical monopoly that Protestants largely ignored it, even Anglicans – notwithstanding that confession and absolution survived in the Prayer Book Order for the Visitation of the Sick.These controverted interpretations are a good reminder to let Scripture speak and not to read it anachronistically, finding in the past what we think we need in the present.
And the letter itself has not had an easy time in some sections of the Church. Luther, in his 1522 Preface to the New Testament famously called it “an epistle of straw” – something his opponents never allowed him to forget. In exemplary Jewish fashion James exalts the works of the Law and Luther feared that in so doing he fell short of the justifying faith so emphasised by his beloved Paul. In fairness though, Luther also warmly praised the letter. He certainly found it deficient by comparison with Paul, Peter, and John, but solely on this matter of the primacy of faith. In every other respect he commended it. And most important of all, he did not take it out of the Biblical Canon, for its inspiration had been recognised for centuries.
All of which brings me straight to the point of this evening’s sermon and explains why I am focusing on this reading at our first Thursday Eucharist together. The point is this: we Christians do not just have a single book called “the Bible.” We have a Canon of Scripture. The Canon is a collection of texts recognised as the Word of God by the Church in an evolving process guided by the Spirit – the Word of God speaking to us through human words.
Having a canon of scriptural writings means therefore that many voices are heard, and not just one: not just the zealous but strident Paul hammering on about faith, but the practical James as well, with his insistence on good works; not just the loving John with his communal spirituality but the hierarchical Peter too, whom at least one part of the Church still calls, “Prince of the Apostles.” And not just men – but all those glorious women of the Jewish-Christian tradition, stretching from our first Mother Eve to the great Mother Mary, via Judith and Esther and yes, even Jezebel and Delilah and some other marvellous villains of the piece. The Canon of Scripture teaches us that truth is symphonic and salvation history a rich polyphonic motet. Polyphony means many voices.
The diversity represented in our sacred writings has considerable implications for our understanding of the Church and for the small embodiment of it which is the Westcott Community – for as we hear nightly at Compline, we are “the Body of Christ in this place.” Like the Canon of Scripture, a Christian community like ours is also composed of many different voices, all trying to sing in harmony, even if at times they come to clash.
If I may be permitted for a moment to show a little “zeal of the convert,” I think the Anglican tradition at its best has often done that well – though of course it hasn’t always been at its best! A genuine Anglican spirit recognises that so-called polarities like evangelical and catholic, liberal and traditional, should not be competing ideologies but reflective of a rich diversity. It is after all a foretaste of the heavenly community that awaits us. The Common Worship Daily Prayer calendar is a good expression of that spirit. It cheekily puts together people like Cranmer and Loyola who would hardly have managed to spend five minutes in the same room without an explosion!
Yet they can be celebrated in the same liturgy because in heaven such divisions are reconciled. That ought to begin here on earth – here with us. Like the diversity in the Canon of Scripture the diversity of the Church’s witnesses testifies in many wonderful ways to the unfathomable richness of what has been revealed. One voice alone is never enough. And as it is in the great Church, so it ought to be for us as well in our small community.
Just as the voice of James is not drowned by the over-assertive Paul, so in the community no one voice, no one opinion, should dominate the others. We should learn to live in harmony and when we can’t manage that, then to disagree in charity. The golden rule is that trying to maintain communion is always more important than insisting on one’s own opinion. If love is to be sacrificed on the altar of a truth relentlessly asserted, then community will wither and die.
To prevent that happening we need some degree of self-emptying. And to help us we have those wise spiritual disciplines recommended in our Rule of Life– contemplative prayer, mutual listening and especially silence. We need to heed what we heard in last Sunday’s sermon about cultivating genuine self-knowledge and finding our true identities. We need to work at those virtues James extols in this evening’s reading: prayer for one another and – a wonderfully Jewish notion – covering a brother or sister’s multitude of sins with mercy even as God covers ours. Each one of us needs periodically to turn down our volume a little bit so that the voice of the other can really be heard. The poet Rilke puts it beautifully: “Go stop those bells that you were ringing, the quieter time is here!”
Tonight after Compline, we will enter that quieter time and extend it into tomorrow during the day of quiet. That is not something to be feared or avoided but rather to be embraced with joy. In some parts of Galilee observant Jews still go out on Friday night to welcome the incoming Sabbath, greeted as a loved one coming home. Let us too greet and love stillness, called by the Greek Fathers, hagia sige: “Holy Silence.” There, in her gentle embrace, quiet before the Lord, we come to hear our own authentic voice speaking to and with God. We learn to become “peaceable, gentle and full of mercy.” We learn to let all voices be heard, all those other voices that make up the rich diversity and beautiful harmony of our common life together here, united in the Body of Christ.
May God bring us, together, to experience that peace: amen