Sermon for TRINITY 16 – HIGH MASS Sunday 20 September 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 1.16-2.1, 12-22; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37
Who is wise and understanding among you?
One of the hazards of being a visiting preacher is that you never know which wise and understanding person, more wise and understanding than you, is going to be in the congregation. Indeed, the same is true here at All Saints.
One Remembrance Sunday, I had preached on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant German theologian who was executed for his involvement in the July Plot to assassinate Hitler. It was only after the service that I was introduced to Professor Clifford Green – the editor of the English language edition of Bonhoeffer’s Collected Works. He was kind enough to give his seal of approval to my interpretation. It was just as well that I had read his book on Bonheoffer.
After I was preached at St. Mark’s Philadelphia a couple of Sundays ago, I was introduced to Professor Ellen Charry who teaches theology at Princeton. Fortunately I own – and have read – a couple of her books. Even more fortunately, she complimented me on not having ignored the epistle of the day which was an earlier passage of St. James. So, encouraged by Professor Charry, I begin with James today. Our passage is, in fact, the theological heart of the letter.
James has much in common with the Jewish wisdom literature from which our first reading is taken, and with a range of wisdom writings produced in the ancient Near East.
But James stands out among this ancient moral literature in four ways.
1. He is concerned about morals not just manners. Much ancient moral exhortation dealt with finding and keeping one’s place in the world as a means to success and honour. James has interest in this “How to make friends and influence people,” “How to succeed in business,” approach. He deals with moral attitudes and behaviour.
2. James writes for a community of faith not a family or household. His audience is a church of those who have chosen to follow Jesus. Their common values and convictions spring from that fact, not from the surrounding culture. He says nothing about obligations within the household or state, duties owed by parents to children or slaves to masters.
3. He is egalitarian rather than hierarchical. Much ancient wisdom assumes and reinforces differences in status, between superiors and inferiors, parents and children, slaves and free. In James the only kinship language is that of brother and sister, with even the author presenting himself as a slave rather than as an authority. God is the only ‘father’ in this community. The egalitarian outlook shows itself in condemnation of favouritism in judgments, of boasting and arrogance, slander and judgementalism.
4. He is communal rather than individualist. Against every form of self-assertion that seeks advantage at the expense of another, James calls for attitudes of solidarity, mercy and compassion.
For James God is the source of all reality (“the giver of every good and perfect gift”). God calls people into a life in a community of mutual giving and support rather than of rivalry and competition. His moral teaching springs from this theology.
He contrasts the measures of reality offered by “the world,” and by “God.” The “wisdom from below” is the wisdom of the world, which is based on desire and envy and leads to competition, violence, and eventually murder and war (3.13-4.3).
In contrast, “the wisdom from above,” that given by God through the “implanted word,” measures reality according to God’s gifts rather than according to human possessions. It leads to a life lived in cooperation and peace (3.13-18).
James speaks of this contrast in terms of friendship, which in the ancient world meant a profound form of sharing all things. Friends shared not only their material things but above all their view of the world: they were of “one mind” (2.14-26).
James reminds his readers that they cannot be “friends of the world” and “friends of God.” “God” and the “world” represent entirely different and opposed understandings of reality 4.4).
He is speaking to people who may understand these things in theory, but in practice do not live up to their profession. They want to be friends of God, yes, but also friends of the world. James calls them “double-minded” (4.8), because they want to live by two standards at the same time. We would say they want to have their cake and eat it. He sets out show the morally illogical and self-deceiving this is.
So at the heart of the epistle is a call to conversion, to repentance, to turn to God and flee the devil, to turn from double-mindedness to that “purity of heart,” that single-mindedness, which is to will one thing.
The key to understanding what James means is that he describes the wisdom from below in terms that would be instantly recognizable to ancient readers but not to us.
Ancient moralists saw virtue as health and vice as sickness. Socrates is said to have described envy as the “ulcer of the soul.” This captures the gnawing character of what Aristotle called a “certain sorrow,” experienced because someone has something we do not. Why “sorrow?” Because envy derives from the “wisdom from below” that identifies being with having. A person’s identity and worth derive from what can be acquired and possessed. To have less is to be less, less real, less worthy, less important. So id we do not have something, we feel a sense of loss and, therefore, of grief and sorrow.
To have more is to be more real, more worthy, and more important. This “wisdom from below,” tells us we live in a closed system of limited resources and so we are fundamentally in competition with each other. In the realm of material things, for one to have more means that another must have less. The logic of envy demands competition for scarce resources.
The ancients saw the vice of envy underlying all sorts of rivalry, party spirit, and competition. For them, as for James, envy is associated with hatred, boorishness, faithlessness, tyranny, malice, hubris, ill will, ambition, and above all “arrogance” – a better translation than the “proud” of our version. “Arrogance” conveys the sense of competition and implicit violence that “pride” does not. Arrogance manifests the envy that creates the desire to have that will stop at nothing to acquire what it seeks . The ancients saw that such craving knows no limits, and that the logic of envy leads inevitably to social unrest, battles and war. Ultimately, envy leads to murder. Killing the competition is the ultimate expression of envy. This is the true face of the arrogance God resists. This is the wisdom of the world that turns even prayer into something wicked, because it seeks to use God as a means of fulfilling envy’s incessant cravings.
For James, “the world” is not a neutral term, but used in contrast to God and to faith. The “world” represents the wisdom from below. It helps to know how the ancient world understood friendship. To be friends with another meant to see things the same way, to share the same outlook. To be “friends of the world,” meant for James choosing to live by the logic of envy, rivalry, competition, violence and murder. Even to “wish” or “choose” to be a friend of the world in this sense is to be established as an enemy of God.
James’s call to conversion is aimed at those who want not to have to choose, who seek to be friends with everyone, living by God’s measure but simultaneously acting according to the world’s standards. James will not have it. The “wise and understanding” must show it by their good life, by deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom, not by the violence inherent in the competition generated by envy.
James is not writing to those “in the world” who explicitly embrace the logic of envy and whose competitive desires lead them to violence, war and murder. He is addresssing people like us, members of the Christian community who gather in the name of Jesus and profess faith in him, but whose attitudes and actions are not yet fully in friendship with God.
Conversion for James is not a once-for-all thing which sees turning to Christ to be the final answer. Everything in a person’s life before that turning is thought to be darkness, and so everything after it must be light. This ignores all ambiguity in Christian life. James sees that conversion is never complete. It is a process. There is always double-mindedness, even among those who truly want to be friends of God. The wisdom from below is not easy to abandon or avoid, precisely because the “way of the world” is inscribed not only in the language and literature of our surrounding culture but in our very hearts.
If we recognize this fact, then we are better able to deal with the continuing ambiguity experienced by all believers, even after the initial conversion to faith. Complete consistency in life does not come with a first commitment. It is won slowly through many conversions, day by day, as we flee the devil and turn to God.
Here we find reassurance in today’s Gospel. Jesus has been teaching the disciples in private about his forthcoming death and resurrection. The lesson, the second in a series of three which Mark recounts, does not seem to sink home. You would think that after such serious talk of what is to come, the disciples might have something better to do than squabbling like children in the playground over who is going to be top dog but, no, and when Jesus calls them out on this, they look at their feet in embarrassed silence.
There is something hopeful here for us who are compromises, faltering and uncomprehending Christians too. We too can move from hearing Jesus teach in the gospel and celebrating the mystery of his death and resurrection in the eucharist, in almost the twinkling of an eye – certainly by the time we have got to the church courtyard.
So we can find hope that Jesus’ relationship with the disciples is not like an episode of the Apprentice where people are tried, and if found wanting, told “You’re fired.” The disciples and we would no doubt fail the test applied by Lord Sugar or Donald Trump. But Jesus does not say to them or to us, “You’re fired.” He perseveres with them and with us. And we must persevere too in that daily business of resisting the devil and turning to God.