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Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-17, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 4:7-12; Mark 9:38-48
“There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.” So goes the first line of the ancient text known as the Didache, a manual of instruction used by early Christians. It proceeds to lay out the Great Commandments that we proclaim at the beginning of the liturgy, fleshed out by commandments from the Sermon on the Mount. But this concise introductory sentence gets at the heart of what James has been teaching us in his letter: We are called to follow the Messiah Jesus by obeying the Law of loving God and Neighbor.
James has been addressing teachers in the Church, who had been misusing their position, showing partiality, being harsh with their speech, and generally pursuing selfish, ambitious desires rather than God, using their position to benefit themselves. The message of this letter is not just to them; no, it is to us all. What James has taught, and we have sought to learn, is wisdom. Our final passage today, encapsulates this wisdom, that our lives in Christ are to be shaped by the Greatest Commandments. God, who saves us by his grace, means to transform us into being grace-filled; and yes, this requires that we are obedient, that we cooperate with the Spirit of God to become what we were always meant to be: Those who love God and love one another.
He begins by picking up where he left off last week, where we concluded with “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And so he now continues. Verses 7-10 are a tight unit. Verse 7 says “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” and vs. 10 “Humble yourselves before the Lord.” These are the bookends, making clear the point of these 4 verses is to submit to God in humility. In between the bookends are three other paired actions, parallels that tell us what it means to submit to God in humility.
First, we are told to resist the Devil and draw near to God. There are cosmic forces in the world that are seeking to nurture our evil desires, the things we want to pursue but lead down the way of death. The Good News is that we are in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit. We, turning to God in faith, fighting our evil desires, and pursuing holiness, have by the Spirit the power to send the devil packing. Then, we are to draw near to God, and he will draw near to us. What a beautiful image! We turn to God, sorrowing over our sins, asking for divine help, and we are adopted as children.
Kids, sinning is sometimes like falling down. I remember once when one of my kids was a baby and took a headlong fall off the toilet. They bit their tongue and had a bleeding hole the size of a quarter in it. Sinning is like taking that fall, but on purpose, choosing to do what is wrong and taking a painful tumble because of it. But, when my child took that fall, they then came to us crying, seeking help, and we comforted them. That is what God does when we repent, when we see that our sin is evil and we weep over it. We draw near to God and God draws near to us, comforting us and taking us in his arms. Because God is love, even when we do the worst things, God is always ready to receive us back, to comfort us and to clean our wounds.
Second, cleanse your hands and purify your hearts. This is a total purification, that of the outside and the inside. Our desires must be directed back to God, and away from sin. The term “double-minded” here literally means “two-souled,” like we’re being torn between good and evil. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a brilliant Russian thinker, once famously said that “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” The battle is not between us & those outside the Church; the battle is within you. You are purified by repentance and amending your life, as it says elsewhere, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
Third, lament and let your laughter turn to mourning. Do not dare go to God proud and arrogant. If you truly know the depth of your sin, and the sorrow it brings to the God who made you for life and light, then tears are the only response. Your drawing near is on your knees, with true sorrow and repentance. To draw near presumes humility.
But the tears you shed, and the purifying of your souls, and the drawing near to God in humility, will all lead to exaltation. This is not you exalting yourself, but of God exalting you, raising you up as his child, taking off your dirty, tattered clothes and putting on you brilliant robes like nothing you have ever worn. You will be cleaned, and restored, and made whole. As the ancient Christian Isaac of Nineveh said, “A handful of sand, thrown into the sea, is what sinning is, when compared to God’s Providence and mercy. Just like an abundant source of water is not impeded by a handful of dust, so is the Creator’s mercy not defeated by the sins of His creations.” No sin is too great for God to cleanse and forgive, nor too great to keep us from obedience. We are able to obey the Law of Love because the Gospel is true, because God frees us from our evil passions, and because we are free of them we can live not for ourselves but for God and each other.
And so we come to verses 11-12. The point here is simple: standing in judgment over other Christians is a sin. Why? Because you are not God. Our job is not to speak evil to them, or to judge them. It is to love them. And James expands it to “our neighbor,” which we know is all people. God loves all, and therefore so must we. God loves us, and so like cups that overflow, that love is to spill out of us to others.The ultimate fate of any person is not for us to say, and so we must not treat people as if it is. God loves you. God loves Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. God loves the poor on our streets, and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. God loves the Taliban, and those who suffer under them. This does not mean some people are not evil, and that evil actions should not be called such. But judgement entails the right to condemn to life or death, and that is the right of God alone. This does not mean we cannot have discernment, limiting evil where we can and speaking the truth; but in the end all of us answer ultimately to God, and for us to act as judge is to usurp God’s role; it is idolatry.
We are to obey the Law of Love. The destruction of sin is seen powerfully when we seek our own way, but being freed by God we are now able to love God and love one another without fear. The slave trader John Newton wept over his sin, and then drawing near to God wrote Amazing Grace; St. Augustine lamented his sexual sins, and being restored wrote works of enormous blessing to the Church; the murderer Moses repented and was used by God to free his people from a tyrannical empire.
“There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.”
God loves us. So act like it! Show each other your faith by your works. Love God. Love one another. Love those who reject Christ. Love, and so fulfill the Law of God, for your good, and the good of the whole world.
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