Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the fifth Sunday after Easter, 5/14/2023. The service was broadcast live on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Easter5 Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the fifth Sunday after Easter, click here.
When the children of Israel became impatient, they spoke against God and against Moses. They accused God of freeing them from Egypt, so that they could die in the wilderness. They complained as people who had been sentenced to an unjust exile, when they had so recently been freed from slavery. Though God could have hardened their hearts against Him, He was merciful; telling Moses to:
“Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. verses 8-9
Now, I need you to hold onto that as we meditate on today’s Epistle from St. James.
If we take James’ admonition to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, to mean that we simply need to improve our behavior, and do better, we’re missing a lot.
The Christian is called to be a doer of the Word, and not a hearer only. And this absolutely does mean a call to a sanctified life. If you are a gossip, shut your mouth. Consider the eighth Commandment because it applies to you.
“We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” Luther’s Explanation of the 8th Commandment, Small Catechism
Likewise, Christians are called to live lives of mercy and care for the defenseless; chief examples of which, in first century Jerusalem were widows and orphans. You don’t get to live a life only concerned with yourself. I don’t need to tell you what charities to give to or how to do it, but it is part of the Christian life, and you know it.
One thing coming hopefully this summer is a Sunday where we have a sort of expo to familiarize you with all the works of mercy FLC is involved in through you. Places like The Central Food Ministry, or our pro-life clinic, the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices.
You are a people who have been made alive. Do not live as those who are dead.
This text is not about justification: i.e. being forgiven. It is about sanctification: i.e. living forgiven. The Word Christians are to do is the same implanted Word that is able to save their souls. This was the concluding verse of last week’s Epistle, which leads right to our reading today.
Here James describes that Word as “the perfect law, the law of liberty…” (verse 25) This is the same concept St. Paul develops in Romans 8, when he writes:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:2
For both Paul and James this new law is God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
It’s like the Sermon on the Mount’s closing parable about two men building houses: one on the rock and one on sand (Matthew 7:24-27). In both, hearing of the Word is followed by doing. In the Sermon on the Mount, refusal to do the Word brings disaster (27), but James lacks that sense of finality. He ends with admonition to take the Word seriously and to do some spiritual introspection.
Like Jesus’ warning to remove the log out of your own eye (Matthew 7:3-5), this can only be done correctly when God’s Word is held up as a mirror.
“The perfect law of liberty,” then, is the law which has been perfected by Christ’s atonement, which releases Christians from the fear of condemnation in their fulfilling of it. Since Jesus has taken away the sting of the Law’s condemnation on the cross, the Christian may live according to the Law without fear of its judgement.
This is the only time in the New Testament when the Law is referred to as “perfect.” But this isn’t a hymn praising the Scriptures. The word translated as “perfect” (teleios) suggests completion and fulfillment. Much like in John’s epistles, the Law includes Christ’s fulfillment of God’s requirements by His life, death, and resurrection. The Law, then, is not presented to Christians with its demands alone, but with the fulfillment of these demands in Christ.
The Christian, then, is not walking on eggshells while seeking to accomplish what God desires. The Law without Jesus is constricting, burdensome, and deadly. But in Christ a positive dimension is opened, and it becomes a new kind of law.
The difference between doers and non-doers of the Word, then, is in the Christian congregation. It isn’t between Christians and pagans; but between those in the visible church who have faith and those who don’t.
In addition to the ethical implications, which I’ve already pointed out, this is a matter of accepting what Jesus has said. The problem is not one of intellectual assent, but the understanding of Jesus’ words as true for you – i.e. receiving God’s Word in faith.
Thus, in the parable of the two foundations both men have heard Jesus’ words, but only one person follows His word. The other, who disregards Jesus’ words, is met with destruction.
Ironically, the firm foundation on which the house is to be built, is faith in Christ, while the sinking sand is trusting in one’s own performance of the Law’s legal demands. All that to say: James is teaching precisely what Jesus taught.
The problem is not that some are unaware of what Jesus has said, but that it makes no lasting impression on them. That staring in the mirror of God’s Word, to find defects in our lives, is not done away with, but supplemented by a life which is embedded in Jesus Christ. Only he who is in Christ will be “blessed in his doing.”
The Rev. Dr. David Scaer summarizes the blessing of verse 25 thusly:
The one who peers into and remains in the law which has been completed in Christ’s atonement and who has been given the freedom to live up to its already fulfilled requirements shall be recognized as belonging to Christ as he does it. This promise applies not to the person who hears but fails to believe, but only to the one who actually accomplishes what God requires.
I recognize that this might feel like a bit too much discussion for a few lines of text. But consider: What would have happened if Moses had been a hearer of the Word only, and not a doer? What if Moses would have heard the command to put the Bronze Serpent on the pole, but didn’t? What if he had just left them to improve their lives, and practice gratitude?
Likewise, what would have happened if the children of Israel had heard to look at the Bronze Serpent, to trust in God’s power to heal and save, but didn’t look? Didn’t trust?
And what if they did look, and were healed, but went on just the same as before?
Dear Christians, Christ is risen from the dead, and you are His disciples, His followers. You are the children of the new Israel. You are sons and daughters of God. You are free, and not slaves. You are alive and not dead.
As you come to this altar again, where Jesus places His Body and Blood on your tongue, let that tongue be tamed and used in prayer. Let Christ who lives in you reign in you. It is not a figure of speech.
Note: This sermon relied heavily on commentary in James: The Apostle of Faith, Scaer, David P. Wipf & Stock, 2004.