In fulfilment of his own purpose [God] gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures (James 1:18)
We have finished exploring together John 6 last Sunday, and today the Lectionary presents us with another cycle of readings. From this Sunday the gospel readings return to focus on the evangelist Mark, while our second readings (once called “the epistle”, the letter, and very often the undisputed territory of the Apostle Paul) give way to five consecutive passages from the letter of James.
Out of all the books of the New Testament the Letter of James is probably the one that has received more criticism and scorn. This is mainly because some 500 year ago Martin Luther belittled the letter by calling it “the epistle of straw” on account of its alleged lack of spiritual weight and teachings when compared with the letters of St Paul. Fortunately however, God does not let his word to fail and most biblical commentators are reconsidering the importance of James’ work, casting aside Luther’s opinion and its influence on late Bible commentators.
In our passage we find James’ affirmation that we have come to birth, and we have been called to be children of God in order to fulfil God’s purpose, God’s holy will for his new creation.
In a world where responding to a call from God is often misinterpreted primarily as selfishly fulfilling one’s own desires and aspirations, James reminds us that only the opposite should be true; that we ought to respond positively and generously to our vocation because this is the fulfilment of God's plan, not ours; the accomplishment of his purpose, not ours. Of course, by doing so we would also be blessed with true peace and lasting happiness, but only as the result of faithfully serving our God.
If this is so, then James’ words light up for us a path to understand afresh our call to be Christians. By this I mean that according to our second reading we are called into being and have received the unchanging light of God’s grace not because we have some special attribute or something better than others; rather because this call is in itself the fulfilment of God’s plan for the whole of creation. We are the means through which God in Jesus Christ brings about his plan of salvation.
In itself this should lead us to meditate on the words the priest addressed to us, however many years ago, at out baptism, Christ claims you for his own, receive the sign of the Cross. Christ claims us for his own. He does not say, “This is what I would like you to do, if that’s alright with you”. He does not say: “Come and follow me, when you find a little spare time”. In fact, he doesn’t even say “Please, follow me”.
He claims us for his own, and he conforms our lives to his life, by giving us the sign of this Cross so that we might be a kind of first fruits (James 1:18) of the new creation. He conforms our lives to his life so that we my live as he does and be true children of God.
Then we see that to live the Cross is Christ’s own “mission-shaped Church”. This is what God calls us to do in order to fulfil his purpose, his holy will. However daunting or aloof this may sound, James tells us that by following Jesus in this way we follow the law of liberty (James 1:25) that trains us into worshipping God with perfect religion.
Therefore, as I did six weeks ago concerning John’s gospel I do today and I strongly encourage you to read the whole of James’ latter at home in your personal time of prayer.