Before we jump into James’ conclusion to his epistle let’s remember a bit of what is being concluded here. James began with an encouragement to those undergoing persecution to not allow the evil intent of persecution to triumph, but to allow God to turn others’ ill will to our growth. Nothing intended for harm is of God, but every good and perfect gift comes from Him. James then encouraged people to pursue goodness and put away the wickedness that leads to judging and the refusal to act on the mercy God has shown us. James then warns us about the danger of judging others since each of us has areas in which we fall short of the mark and that our role is not to pass judgment but to love our neighbors as ourselves. He tells us that mercy will ALWAYS triumph over judgment and that if what we say we believe doesn’t impact our lives our belief is pointless. Then James talked about the burdens of teaching: that those who teach will be held to an even higher standard and so must be careful of what is taught, to insure that our words are ones that build up rather than tear down. James reminds all of us that the evil we speak of others, even non-believers is destructive to our witness. James continues by saying that our priorities must be different than the society around us, that we are not to exclude anyone based on external circumstances, but are to be communities in which purity of spirit, peace, willingness to sacrifice our own way and an abundance of displayed mercy demonstrate the good fruits of the Holy Spirit. James then gets back on the admonishment track saying that our conflicts in which we take sides stem from sinful desires at war within us and not from the desire to live faithfully, that these conflicts actually display a lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to defend the truth. He then commends us to embrace humility knowing that pride is of the enemy and that we must resist the temptations of judgment reminding us of Jesus’ nature who could have judged but instead laid down his life to set others free. James continues in speaking against passing judgment on our neighbors saying that there is only one judge. After this he reminds us to remember that we are under God’s authority and that all plans need to be entered with humble acceptance of the fact that we don’t hold the future. James then revisits the theme of God being extremely displeased with oppression by the wealthy, going as far as telling us that God hears the cries of those whose lives are harmed by our business decisions. Instead we must be patient, not relying on the priorities around us, but holding to the priorities of God’s way of being and doing what is right. Our patient obedience while not getting us “ahead” in this worldly system will testify to the truth of God’s salvation. James begins his conclusion with an admonition to speak the truth in all things: we must not imply through swearing oaths that there is a time for untruth to leave our lips. James commends us to a life lived in direct relationship with God praying in all circumstances, for all circumstances, and being mutually supportive of each other as we confront our own brokenness. In these things our prayers will be made effective as we humbly submit to the will of God for His vision of transformation. I get the impression from the narrative arc here that James was frustrated with the religious tendency to cast judgment. That he needed to encourage people to extend the same mercy that Jesus did through his life, death and resurrection. Jesus had come to reconcile others to God and James had to struggle to the end against those who tried to impose the same rules that favored those with wealth that didn’t have to make decisions like “Do I feed the kids or pay the rent?” James desired to see the mercy that he had received, as one who showed up with the rest of the family to try to stop Jesus from embarrassing them with his teaching given to all who tried to follow. When rules were used to push people who couldn’t live up to them away he got angry, and boy did we see that. James saw that God had a mission and that that mission had a church to carry it out. You see we’re on a mission from God. That mission is not to judge the world or others, but to be agents of God’s restoration. To come alongside of each other when we miss the mark and help each other move in the right direction. “19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:19-20
Before we go on, I want to make sure we are on the same page in terms of interpretation of a key word in today’s text. The word that we translate as sinner or sin in this text means “to miss the mark” or “one who has missed the mark”. This has a moral connotation and can also be used in terms of error, offense, or trespass, not solely sin. I will be using the term missing the mark in this sermon in order to not limit the text.
I have a younger brother who I love dearly whose life decisions I had disagreed with. Let’s be brutally honest here I judged him, told him he was doing wrong, that he was sinning. I treated him poorly and generally condemned him for his choices. I was the stereotypical judgmental Christian jerk. My judgmental, self-righteous behavior is part of why my younger brother will not go to any church. In condemning him, what I was really saying was that there was no place for him in the church and that there was no mercy to be found there. What I wasn’t doing was acknowledging the parts of his life that were very positive, very Godly, (often in ways I wasn’t), or that I had any flaws that could get me in trouble with God like I was sure he was. My biggest regrets in life are the ways I failed my brother for so many years. Someday I will have the courage to tell him that.
I had lost sight of God’s mission for the church: restoration. All through the scriptures we see a narrative of release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the word of God to be written on our hearts, the ability to walk with God in relationship, that God’s mercy outweighs judgment, to not only take communion, but to live in communion. We have the greatest gift of freedom and sometimes try to turn it into a law to judge others by, is there no wonder that a frustrated James would be prompted by a frustrated Holy Spirit to remind us of our true calling? We have an awesome gift that we can use to help each other find restoration and healing and we try to ration it to those who we think deserve it. We have the grace of God, poured out in an abundance of mercy, the true character of God on display, in order for us to share this and work to bring restoration to the world. And we can! We are part of God’s mission and that mission tries to leave no one behind. When one of us falls down the rest of us are called with all gentleness and mercy to pick them up and walk with them towards the mark again, that maybe next time we will be on target. When I fall down, and I have, do, and will again, I need my community of faith to help me improve my aim; not tell me that I am so defective that I shouldn’t even bother trying again. When I sit there and eat a burger almost as big as my head, judging is not going to help me. When you do whatever it is that falls short, does judging ever help you face into things and change? Let me tell you what got me on track to eating better and exercising. I have a friend in Philly named Derrick. The last time I saw Derrick, at a friend’s funeral a few years ago, he weighed around 360 lbs. A few weeks ago I saw a picture of him looking thin as a rail with the caption I am getting to my goal and want to help anyone else out with what I have learned. Message me if you want some help. Something clicked in me, and I sent him a message. He has been helping me and has been holding me accountable, but you know what he didn’t do? He didn’t judge me or try to shame me for where I was. He said “There’s the goal, I’ve been down this road. Let’s start walking.”
We need to work on this, to remind each other when we disagree on something or fall short of the mark: “There’s our goal, we are on this road together. Let’s keep walking.” Of course that leads us to the question “What is our goal?” Now we are in church so the answer to questions is either love or Jesus. Since the bible tells us that God is love, I guess we can say that both answers can work for this question. Seriously, our goal is to live out the same love that prompted Jesus to reinterpret the law towards the grace and mercy of God’s intent and lay everything down for the sake of restoring the broken and lost to wholeness in their relationships with God, others and themselves. As we do this, we will see our wandering hearts and footsteps come closer and closer to the mark that we miss. The bible tells us that part of our mission to those around us is to bear the message in word and deed that God no longer holds the ways we miss the mark against us. We can do this by proclaiming and acting out the fact that Jesus and his love is our goal and He has given us his mercy, the Holy Spirit and each other to help us bring restoration and be restored. Let’s keep walking.