Lutherans tend to get allergic to hearing preaching, let alone reading, from the epistle of James. After all, James does say in chapter two of his epistle, But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. That ought to be enough to make us nod our heads in approval with Martin Luther calling James an “epistle of straw” and “a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.”
There is always two sides to every story. James might be an “epistle of straw”, but it is also an “epistle of faith”. A key to understanding what James writes in his epistle is to understand that James is writing to an audience who already believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He calls them the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, echoing Old Testament language of the twelve tribes of Israel who have been scattered abroad.
A clue to why his audience has been scattered abroad comes early in today’s epistle: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Some scholars place the date of this epistle not long after the stoning of Saint Stephen in Acts chapter seven. Stephen’s stoning began a period of severe persecution for followers of The Way, as the Christian faith was called in those early years after Pentecost. Reading James while understanding the context under which he wrote his epistle brings us a lot of comfort as we listen to his words to those who are ready to suffer, even to death, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. That’s the last thing any of us want to do. Those of us who are Cubs fans may have found a couple of games this week to be more than we could handle. Perhaps you have already signed off on the Bears season because you can’t stomach seeing them play poor football. Comparing sports to the Christian faith is foolishness, but you see the point. When persecution comes upon a Christian, the last thing you want to do is consider it a joy to suffer for Christ’s sake.
The apostles counted it joy to suffer for Christ’s sake. Every opportunity they took to preach the Gospel was all joy. They were allowed to speak Christ’s saving death and resurrection to someone. The Jewish authorities tried to silence their witness. Some Roman authorities listened, but never really believed what they said. Others were ready to do whatever it took to silence their preaching, even if it meant killing the messengers.
The model witness, or martyr, in the New Testament who counted it all joy to suffer was Saint Stephen himself. Perhaps that’s why James writes what he does to open his epistle. Saint Luke records his death in Acts chapter seven: And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Stephen doesn’t yell at them to stop. What is more, he doesn’t hold their sin against them. He is ready to die. He is ready to forgive. Stephen stands firm to the end and receives a martyr’s crown.
Those who suffer for the sake of Jesus count it all joy to meet trials of various kinds. Perhaps it is not persecution that should concern us. All of us bear various crosses. For some it is unrighteous anger. For others it is shame and guilt over an abortion, or perhaps a divorce. These are not unpardonable sins. They are covered under Christ’s blood; paid in full. Yet the pain remains, often for the rest of one’s life.
Jesus Christ counted it all joy to suffer and die for your sin. He met a trial no one should ever go through. He was the scapegoat for the sins of every human being who ever lived, currently lives, or will live. Never once did He waver. Never once did He think it a fool’s errand to die an innocent death for the sake of guilty people. Jesus did His Father’s will all the way to Calvary, through the tomb, and to His Father’s side. All this He did for your sake.
The privilege is yours to meet various trials, especially trials that come for the sake of clinging to Christ for your salvation. In those trials you have the opportunity to speak the hope that is in you for eternal life. Your hope, your joy, is Jesus Christ. He has made it possible for you to die a Christian death. A Christian death means to fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds with the confidence that when you again open your eyes, you shall see your Savior face-to-face. James says so in the last verse of today’s epistle: Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
You may not have a death like Stephen, all of the apostles save John, or any other martyr. You will, however, have your trials. In the midst of those trials, you cling to Jesus to see you through it all. When you cling to Jesus in every trial, your steadfastness has what James calls its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James’ words to you today are not words of straw. They are words of faith, a faith that is founded on the Chief of the Corner: Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Faith for Saint James, and for you, does not merely know Jesus like someone would know answers to trivia. Faith is a lively trust in the God who has made forgiveness a reality for that faith. The ancient Christians believed that reality in the preaching they heard. You today also believe that reality, for you have seen in various trials how the Lord God has brought you through them. Count it all joy, beloved, to suffer everything for the sake of Jesus Christ, even when your faith in Him is a tiny spark. That tiny spark is perfect and complete, lacking in nothing, for it holds fast to Jesus Christ, your Crown of Life.