by Mike Clymer
September 20, 2009
The verse in the middle of our scripture text this morning, James 3:17, has been one of my personal favorites for a long time. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” So I was pleased to discover that this was one of the sermon texts for today, and I am excited about looking at that scripture with you all this morning. (Hopefully you’re excited, too–or at least open to it, just as long as I don’t make us late for the potluck!) But before we delve into these verses in James, I’d like to begin by discussing another story in the New Testament, from the Gospel of Mark. (You can follow this story in your Bibles. Mark Chapter 9, verses 30-37.) This is a story about an argument among Jesus’s disciples as they traveled with Jesus toward Capernaum.
Now, by the time of this argument, the disciples had already been through a lot with Jesus. They had heard Jesus teach many times with many parables–most of which they did not seem to understand. They had seen Jesus feed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, and on another occasion they had seen him feed four thousand with seven loaves and a few small fish. They had been in the boat when Jesus woke up and calmed the storm, and again not long after that they had seen him walk on the water in the midst of another storm. They had witnessed countless healings of the blind and the deaf and the demon-possessed, even the raising of the dead. Through all of these often miraculous experiences with Jesus, the disciples really didn’t seem to comprehend who Jesus was or what Jesus was about. They just didn’t get Jesus. If you read the book of Mark, you’ll find that the disciples’ response to Jesus’s miracles was usually fear, even terror, rather than comfort. Their response to his teachings was usually confusion, rather than understanding. The disciples often seemed to be following Jesus in amazement, but not necessarily belief.
Which brings us to this argument on the way to Capernaum. In Mark 9, verse 31, Jesus had told the disciples that the Son of Man was going to be betrayed and killed, and would rise again in three days. That pronouncement seems plain and clear, if certainly sobering, to us now, but the Bible says the disciples did not understand what this meant and were afraid to ask Jesus any more about it. What commenced, instead, was an argument among the disciples about who among them was the greatest. This wasn’t the first or last time the disciples jockeyed for position or favor, either. In fact, in just the next chapter, Mark 10, James and John will request special seats of status in the new kingdom. But what this argument provided was a “teachable moment” for Jesus to explain to the disciples, yet again, just how “new” – how upside-down – his kingdom was. Jesus sat his disciples down and told them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” And he took a little child in his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
“Whoever welcomes a little child like this welcomes God?” Jesus, the Son of Man, the mighty King, associating himself – associating Almighty God, even – with a little child? Sorry, but the impact of this statement, I’m afraid, is easily lost on us 21st-century Americans. Our culture celebrates and in many ways idealizes children. There are exceptions, to be sure, but we generally accept the importance of giving children attention and esteem, even centering our parenting and education around ensuring children’s needs are met and their rights respected. Not so in 1st-century Palestine! There children had fewer rights even than slaves, and were valued primarily as potential adults, but had little value as children themselves. They were the very bottom of the social order, with the least status, and the least power.
This difference among cultures in the social status of children was made evident to me when Melody and I lived in Swaziland, Africa for 3 years in the mid-90’s. In Swaziland, when we attended a large communal meal like a potluck, the order of being served always went like this: Married men at the front of the line, then married women, then single adults and youth, and finally, the last to be served, were children. Now if you watch at the potluck in the gym after this service today, you will see that is almost the exact opposite of the order we go in here at Jubilee! Now I am not complaining about how highly we esteem children in our culture, not at all (although it was nice getting to go first in Swaziland!), but I think for us to really get the point of Jesus’s message here, we would probably have to imagine him placing somebody other than a child in front of us and saying, “When you welcome one of these, you welcome me.” Who is in the “lowest” position in our society? Who has the least status or power? “When you welcome one of these homeless…” “When you welcome one of these hungry…” “When you welcome one of these immigrants…” You fill in the blank.
The disciples, in their arguing about who was the greatest, who was going to be first, who was the favorite, were understanding greatness in the world’s terms. Jesus was pointing them to a new set of terms, to God’s terms. In God’s terms, whoever wants to be first, must be the very last. Whoever wants to be highest, like God, must become the lowest, like a baby born into poverty in a manger fit for an animal. Whoever wants to be in the front of the line, find your place in the back, with the stragglers and the uninvited guests. But of course we hear the disciples’ argument still being carried on even today, don’t we? I hear it in my own personal thoughts and attitudes, sometimes even in the words I say, and more often than I like to admit in the actions I take and the choices I make. I’m still operating under the world’s terms, placing value on status and power as if those are somehow signs of God’s favor. I forget that servanthood is the model of greatness in God’s eyes. I forget, like the disciples did, what Jesus had just told them before their argument: That the Son of Man would face betrayal and death before his resurrection. Jesus’s new way was not the path toward earthly fame and glory, it was the path toward the cross.
The website “Preaching Peace” points out that many Christians today share the disciples’ penchant for comparing and ranking each other in God’s eyes. Our church has the right view of scripture, so God favors us. Of course Jesus holds our version of the Christian life in the highest regard. It’s all too easy to view ourselves as sitting at the table of God’s privilege, enjoying our position, considering ourselves worthy, somehow. Like the disciples, we have developed a theology of glory, rather than a theology of the cross. Jesus says our desire to be first in his kingdom should be founded on our willingness to go the bottom of the pile where there is no glory, no glamour or fame or fortune. While we may be sitting at the table, God’s eye is shining on the ones standing back in the corner, the ones whom we have perhaps disdained or excluded. God’s favor rests on the ones serving the table. Preaching Peace notes that “across the spectrum of American Christianity those who sit at the table arguing amongst themselves far outnumber the servants who care for them.”
About a year and a half ago we decided to form a church council here at Jubilee. Next week we will be approving the at-large members recommended by the leadership discernment team to complete the new council for this year. I suppose in some contexts, maybe in some churches, a “council seat” may be seen as a position of power, of status, of “greatness” even. And it certainly is an important position of leadership–the council represents and makes decisions for the members of the congregation. But I submit that, in the light of Jesus’s teaching, those of us who find ourselves on the church council see ourselves as “the servants of all.” When we serve the needs of others–when we value their concerns, give voice to their perspectives, seek their good–Jesus says we are really serving Him. I can testify that Jubilee has been blessed to have been served by our church council in many of these ways this past year. Of course, Jesus’s call to servanthood applies to all of us, not just council members!
Which brings us to the verses in James Chapters 3 and 4 read earlier. These words from James almost read like a sermon themselves on the story we just reviewed from Mark. At least it seems to me that James is making essentially the same point that Jesus did to the disciples. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts…such wisdom does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” And then the central verse, at least for me personally: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” That is quite a list of qualities! Each one deserves contemplation and reflection, more than we have time for here. But I’m struck by how “out-of-touch” this list may seem to those the world considers wise, or great, or powerful. Many of these qualities, in truth, are commonly held up for ridicule by the world. Think of the derogatory names and terms that we associate with some of these qualities: Pure… peace-loving… considerate… submissive… full of mercy… impartial… sincere. Or am I the only one who has heard such qualities dismissed as signs of “weakness” or too “idealistic” or “not practical”? These are unrealistic, aren’t they? They just don’t make good common, earthly sense! (At least that’s the tape that often plays in my head.) The wisdom that comes from heaven appears an upside-down wisdom just as Jesus’s model of servanthood appears an upside-down vision of greatness.
Finally this morning I want us to look at conflict through the lens of wisdom. James makes the point that the kind of wisdom we employ (earthly or heavenly) greatly affects how we deal with conflict. Peacemakers who sow in peace, James writes, raise a harvest of righteousness (which also means justice). But then he proceeds, in no uncertain terms, to lay out the destructiveness of earthly wisdom. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.” James says we don’t get what we want because we don’t ask God, or because we ask God with wrong motives–to use what we get for our own pleasures. A few verses later James calls us back to a more heavenly wisdom: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” James reminds us that the Scriptures say that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. That sounds a lot to me like Jesus telling the disciples that whoever wishes to be great, must be the servant of all.
I don’t see James chastising Christians for having conflicts. Of course there will always be disagreements and different perspectives among us, even when we are all striving to follow Jesus faithfully. And there will be times, even as Christians, when we will be hurt or wronged by others; I don’t think James is blaming us for being victims. Rather it is how we respond to the conflicts that arise in our lives that is determined by our wisdom. Selfish wisdom, earthly wisdom, leads us to quarrel, fight, and kill to get what we want. God’s wisdom, the wisdom that comes from heaven…well, that wisdom leads us to purity and sincerity of motives, consideration of and even submission to the good of others, and sowing seeds of peace and mercy, even in the midst of conflict. Heavenly wisdom recognizes the fruit of such a humble approach to conflict is righteousness, justice, and God’s grace.
Now I realize that it may seem like I was being a bit hard on the disciples this morning, and maybe on myself and the rest of us, too. I think it’s true that we do struggle, like the disciples, to break free from this world’s hold on us–our cultural understanding of greatness, our assumption of earthly wisdom, our theology of glory. But we have Jesus’s teachings and James’s writings to challenge and instruct us, and we have the promise of God’s Spirit and grace to empower us–to save us, really. To lead us into the blessings of servanthood and righteousness and the wisdom that comes from heaven. William Stringfellow reminds us that, despite all the disciples’ shortcomings, on Maundy Thursday Jesus promised his disciples that they would be made sufficient by the power of his Spirit to be the witnesses to Christ’s reign throughout the world. That promise was later reaffirmed after his death when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in Luke 24. On the day of Pentecost that promise was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit was given to them, and the book of Acts attests that the disciples became worthy of that promise. Praise God that today we have that same Jesus, that same Spirit, to lovingly redeem us, too.