Who am I? I’ve been a Christian for about 30 years now, in the Methodist Church. I tend to give Scripture a high priority in discerning the truth when I’m unsure. While James’ mastery of Scripture is to his credit, his intensity can be off-putting. It’s just like when I was saved and saw the truth of Christ’s words in my life. The truth I saw was in contrast to my friends’ sense of truth, which was that this Jesus thing was OK but not so important as it was to me. Why couldn’t my friends see how much God wanted them to repent, and come to the joy that I had found? My friends started to shun me. Why was this so, when it was out of love for them that I shared my faith with them? That’s what James’ intensity reminds me of in my experience. He’s been faithful to what Scripture calls him to. He sees that we can all live more fruitfully than we do now. But no one wants to hear it.
Why did he keep coming back? We have reason to wonder if James just feels a need to be always in the right, pushing his views onto those that he can intimidate with his knowledge of Scripture. In fact, I’ve felt early on that he’s a kind of a “spiritual bully.” I’ve confronted him about this, and he seems remorseful, but not enough to stop being intent on “making folks aware” of the message that he says God has given him.
So what is the core of James’ message? Some folks say that he says that he is Jesus. Wow, that’s pretty crazy. In my meeting with him, this assertion is close but not quite correct. James says that the Spirit that was in Jesus, God in Jesus as noted in John 14, is the same Spirit that is in him. He would remind us that the scripture promises the same for all who live by faith in Christ. James doesn’t say he’s the same as Jesus, but a “younger brother”, as noted in Romans.
Let me walk through how it’s possible for someone like James to make an audacious claim like this. The genesis of this is found in Hebrews 6:1-6. We who are Christians are called to mature and get past the cycle of sin/repent/sin/repent … Other verses in the New Testament also say we’re not to sin anymore. One that comes to mind right away is the story of the woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned. Jesus’ parting command to her having stood for her and prevented the crowd from killing her, was, “Go, and sin no more.” Hebrews is telling us to mature as Christ followers. This opens up a big can of worms about sin because we assume we can never get past it, even though the New Testament says clearly that we are not under the yoke of sin when we live by faith in Christ. You might want to see a post in this site where I discuss the verses in Romans that seem to talk about this contradiction.
The Wesleyan doctrine of spiritual perfection comes into play here, but let me just say this about that: growing toward the goal of Christian perfection means getting past the cycle of sin/repent/sin/repent/sin, it seems to me. This is part of our Methodist heritage. I’m happy to hear your thoughts and discussion in an appropriate forum. Perhaps the one at the end of this post?
Here’s an oversimplified view of James’ theology, as derived by Scripture: 1) belief, which is the beginning of our path to maturity. Belief, then leads to 2) faith. Faith is the vehicle, or doorway if you will, of God’s power coming into our hearts and empowering us to get past the cycle of sin/repent/repeat. Faith then opens us to 3) grace. Grace is God’s “unmerited favor” and it is forgiveness, but according to Romans it is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (see also Ephesians 1). So it would seem it’s more than unmerited favor, but God’s power at work in us. If you accept that, then grace leads to 4) glory. This would be God’s glory, which is the state that Jesus was in on Earth manifesting God’s presence. Jesus didn’t just believe God, he knew God; he knew God was working and living in him.
This is James’ core message: he feels he’s been given this pathway, found in Scripture, to share with others, so that we might grow beyond what Hebrews says about Christians who keep living off spiritual milk.
Why would we do this? In my view, the church when it began, as written about in Acts 1-3, was at its most potent state, a state we at Belmont could aspire to be like. It was a body of believers that most closely aligns with the type of world-changing followers that Jesus describes in John 17, i.e. the friends of Jesus becoming one with each other, as God and Jesus are one. At the point we come to that maturity, the world will believe God sent Jesus by what it sees in us. As the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”.
Now I may be out in left field here, but isn’t our goal to become more like Christ? Wouldn’t a life like that reflected in Romans 6, a life free from sin, be preferable? Romans 7 speaks to what we know: if we depend on ourselves, then we’re trapped in the sin cycle. But what Romans 7 says makes more sense when we read it in context of the promise in Romans 6: it’s not we who accomplish the work of grace, of getting beyond the sin-cycle, but God in us. My perception is that the early church was living more in line with Romans 6, or at least the apostles were. I’m happy to be in an offline conversation about this.
Why does James keep coming back? Surely, he’s picked up on our non-verbal cues that he’s tolerated, but not welcome. After a year of visiting with him, I can affirm he’s long picked up on that. In my view, we’re trying to be polite by not confronting him that he’s largely not welcome. As I said earlier, I’m not a trained psychologist, but I’m not convinced he’s got some sort of defect. You may certainly have your opinions.
So once again, if you accept my view of it, then why would he come back? He believes he’s been given this message and that the “times have reached their fulfillment.” That is to say, that if God’s people don’t return to him, then the apocalyptic language in 2 Peter 3 will be fulfilled. Many of us have opinions of the end times spoken of here and in Revelations. I understand that. But if we step back and look a little objectively, is it too much of a leap to see that there could be an analog to Isaiah’s time? Isaiah and Jeremiah also were living with a population that saw the same threats the prophets did, but felt that God was protecting them and that they could manage those threats. We now know in retrospect that God used the Assyrians, then again the Babylonians, to decimate Israel and Judah.
I won’t go into all the reasons James sees are signs that God is removing his protection from us, but I will say this: while they may not be plausible, they are not outlandish. There are many things happening today that could be signs of God wanting his people to repent and turn to him. Some of you have heard me say privately that we at Belmont do NOT want to be the bad guys in the gospels: the Pharisees. But are we? The Pharisees are those who truly wanted to be closer to God, yet didn’t want the disruption that Jesus brought into their tidy world.
Do I believe that James is who he says he is? A person who has gone beyond our level of spirituality that he has the Glory of God in him, like Christ. He says he has gone past believing God to knowing God. It’s possible, but I’m not there yet. I do believe he’s someone who has read the Scriptures and trusted that God will do as promised. He speaks of having gone past believing into knowing, knowing in the sense that God has been faithful and has done what He promised to do. While I’m not sure, I will say that James is a spiritual person (Romans 8:9-11), one who seeks to be directed by the Spirit of God each day.
We all seek to be directed by God each day, so what’s different about James? James’ heart is filled with Scripture that he can use that to discern what is true, what is godly, as he goes through each day. The heart of God can be found in Scripture, and Scripture helps him and helps us see how God sees each situation that arises. This is not to say that just memorizing verses and spitting them back out helps anybody. It’s more than just the words on the page; it’s about sensing what the Holy Spirit is revealing and the way the Spirit is leading us, as promised in John 16.
Do I believe we should be like James? I struggle with this. James admonishes me to take the step to becoming someone, like James, truly aware that I have been given the grace of God, and that in doing so I will understand why James is like he is. Does that makes sense? Note that the definition of grace in this context is the more muscular one mentioned above. That is to say, to become like James is to accept his message—the New Testament message—of God’s glory in us, and the natural progression to being a child of God.
Herein lies the conundrum: if we don’t like when he’s around, then why would we follow him on this path? Most of us don’t want to be like him, all fire and brimstone if you will. May I suggest we step back a little? Like Jesus, his vitriol is pointed to those who claim to be close to God but are actually far from Him. I sense the reality is that most members of Belmont, and the church at large, never feel that they “own” God and always sense that we’re not as close as we should be. It’s more like God moving toward us when we feel close to Him. In my year of visiting with James, I can share that James outside of church is more personable – more “human”, if you will. For instance, I remember Marcie having arrived late to class and mentioning that she encountered James praising Hamilton for the speech he gave. James is very human. I sense we know that, but perhaps we’ve not fully thought it out.