I heard a terrific sermon at church yesterday on James 1.19-27 — a passage famous for commending activism, and activism of a potentially noxious kind.
With all its talk of not simply hearing the word but doing it, this is exactly the sort of thing that led Martin Luther to regard the letter of James as ‘a right strawy epistle’.
But what hit me like a sledgehammer was the way this section begins. There, James calls not so much for activism as for a certain kind of inaction — namely, listening:
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
Learning to listen each other prepares us to listen to God.
And we need this preparation because listening to God is something that requires a heck of a lot of effort — if my experience and the images James uses in verse 21 are anything to go by: weeding (not my favourite leisure activity) and displaying hospitality.
Even more mind-bending, though, is the way James describes God’s word. He calls it “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”.
This word isn’t already there inside us — like a hidden and unrealised capacity or tendency.
Nor is it simply something external — a barked order or categorical imperative demanding our obedience even (or especially) when it cuts across our desires.
No. God puts his word inside us. He implants it.
According to James, God’s word is like a donated organ. Or a pace-maker. It does for us something our own bodies cannot do. And, in doing so, it enables our bodies to function as they’re supposed to.
So this ‘implanted word’ is alien. That’s why we need to work with it, by uprooting anything that threatens to choke it out — “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness”.
At the same time, this gracious invader liberates us, allowing us to become more fully ourselves. This ‘implanted word’ gives us a whole new lease on life. Indeed, it has the power to save us.