Pastor Chris Tweitmann
What is a Christian?
How would you answer this question?
Say to a curious friend or a family member
or to someone who honestly asked
having never heard of and encountered
the term “Christian” before?
If you call yourself a Christian,
what does that designation mean to you?
What specific criteria defines whether one is a Christian or not?
Is a Christian someone who believes in Jesus as the Messiah?
Is a Christian someone who looks to and trusts Christ
for their forgiveness and salvation?
Is a Christian someone who goes to church?
Is a Christian someone who worships God through Jesus Christ?
What is a Christian?
How does one tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?
Sometimes we might observe someone who professes to be a Christian
and yet in our minds we think or even under our breath we say,
“I don’t really think that person’s a Christian.”
Is being a Christian something we can declare about ourselves
or something that evidenced by how we live?
What marks or identifies someone as a Christian?
When we talk about Christianity as a religion,
what kind of Christianity, what kind of religion does God value and bless?
These are the questions that our passage in the book,
the letter written by James purposes to answer.
Before all the possible responses we may give about what is a Christian,
Before all the other things we may try to make Christianity as a religion,
James, the stepbrother of Jesus, is going to provide us with three, specific answers.
One of the things I love about what James writes to us is how direct he is.
What he shares is clear and to the point.
There’s not a lot of interpretation necessary in terms of what he says.
He doesn’t leave any room for that.
What James leaves us with is something to chew on
– something to reflect upon and ultimately respond to.
In our passage today, James begins with
a term of endearment, “Dear brothers and sisters…”
to which he immediately adds, “Take note of this”
or in our modern language: “Pay attention!”
Three, concise and interrelated commands follow:
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”
Underline that word, “Everyone”
– especially all of you who are talking right now
– having another conversation – during this message!
What James is saying right now is for EVERYONE.
Are we ALL listening?
Because, not ironically, that’s the first thing James directs us to do – LISTEN.
Spoiler alert! This whole passage revolves around LISTENING.
Did we notice, it’s the only thing here James tells us to hurry up and do – LISTEN.
Whereas most of us are quick to talk
– to talk at each other, to talk over each other, to talk past each other,
James instructs to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Again, let’s notice James doesn’t tell us to be quick to hear.
We’re all good at hearing.
Unless we are covering our ears
or we are in some way impaired,
hearing simply happens.
We all perceive the sounds coming through our ears.
Provided we are being addressed in our language,
we all recognize the words as they are being spoken aloud.
We can hear what others are saying.
Most of us are uncomfortable with silence
so we have something on all the time
– music, the news, a podcast –
hearing is not something we need to be told to do.
The problem is what we hear, more often than not,
goes in one ear and out the other.
So to you, the one who is still talking during this message,
the one who often gets called out for not paying attention,
to those of us, who reply in response, “I can hear you!”
Understand this. James directs us to listen.
And hearing is not the same thing as listening.
Listening demands our attention
– giving our attention not to
the running monologue inside our head
but to what the other person is saying.
Listening requires focus and concentration
– away from our knee-jerk reactions
– the countless ways we immediately dismiss, insult, or critique
what is being said before the other person finishes saying it.
Listening leads us not first to our rebuttal
but to repeating back what we heard.
Listening leads us to check for understanding
– not necessarily agreement but understanding.
“Did I hear that right?” Is this what you were saying?”
Are we quick to listen and slow to speak?
Because if we ignore the first two things James tells us to do,
then we are definitely going to miss the third directive
that he gives us, “be slow to become angry.”
There’s a reason these three commands are linked together.
More often than not, our anger is borne of not listening
and being quick rather than slow to speak.
Most of us tend to have a hard time listening
but have no trouble at all, arguing.
James is telling us one of the easiest ways
not to be angry all the time is to take it slow
when it comes to our anger.
But again, that’s not our default is it?
Whether it is openly expressed – verbalized or not
– anger is not something most of us are slow in developing.
We talk of having a quick temper or having a short fuse.
We speak of lashing out or going off on another person.
We confide to another person how,
even though we didn’t say anything,
we couldn’t help but seeing red,
we were just seething with rage.
And just in case, we count ourselves
as those who don’t rush to judgment,
who don’t go off half-cocked,
as those who are not reactive but deliberate and slow burning
and thus, justified in the regular expression of our anger,
James elaborates further as he adds:
“because human anger does
not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
James draws a line of separation between human anger and righteous anger.
Let’s break this down for a moment.
First of all, James is not saying we cannot ever be angry.
James writes to be slow to become angry;
he does not write do not every become angry.
Certainly, a place exists for us as human beings to speak up
and to speak out against situations of abuse or misconduct.
Jesus, in his humanity, exhibited anger towards the moneychangers in the Temple.
Anger is a natural, God-given emotion we can and should have
in the face of an injustice or a wrong that has been done.
What James is cautioning us against is what we do with our anger
– where we let our anger take us – particularly in terms of how we respond.
The word for “anger” used by James here refers to
a frustration that has been allowed to constantly build,
that has become deep-seated and is expressed
either as an unspoken, passive-aggressive resentment
or an explicit, unrelenting rage.
Leaving no wiggle room, making no exception,
James declares the expression of such anger
– typical, boilerplate human anger short-circuits
the righteousness God desires in our lives.
Whereas the apostle Paul normally used the word “righteousness”
to describe the status that God gives to us as a gift in Christ
– the gift of being able to live as God intended,
James is emphasizing the fruit of righteousness, or righteous living
– living with each other as God intended.
As followers of Jesus, we are to be known
for our love and not our anger.
The fruit of the Spirit includes love, peace, gentleness,
kindness, and self-control but not anger.
From where does the expression of such anger come from?
James reveals the answer as he writes,
“Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent…”
The implication is the source or the catalyst for the kind of anger James
has been warning us against are the ways of the world apart from
the righteous way of God.
In other words, any form of human logic or emotion or impulse
that glorifies vengeance over making peace,
that defends retaliation instead of reconciliation,
that champions getting our pound of flesh
rather than bearing the burdens of another,
that justifies dehumanizing or destroying our enemy
over against seeking to forgive and love
those who wrong and oppose us.
this is the moral filth, this is the evil that James is invoking,
these are the postures, attitudes, mindsets
that taint the spirit of a believer and
hinder our right relationship with God and with others.
We can disagree without being disagreeable.
Anger that rages out of control does not represent God’s way of solving problems.
Regardless of what our political or theological position is,
whether we are advocating for the protection of the unborn,
whether we are protesting against racial equality or injustice,
whether we are lobbying for so-called traditional values
or so-called progressive values,
whether we are trying to defend God or to protect our right to worship God,
whether we think COVID-19 is a serious threat or totally overblown,
human anger expressed through callous verbal abuse
or acts of violence is not righteous rage; it is sin. It is moral filth. It is evil.
And as such it brings disgrace and not honor to the God we worship in Christ.
We can be right in terms of a position and still be wrong
– if how we express that position is exercised out of
unchecked and destructive anger.
Justice and righteousness exercised out of human anger
leads to reform in the sense of a transfer of human power.
And human power – taking control – corrupts absolutely – every time.
Perhaps we are all nodding our heads in agreement with what James is saying here.
But let us not overlook how James is calling us not just to agree but to get rid of such anger in our lives – to shed this moral filth and evil like a pair of dirty clothes.
Filth or “disgusting dirt” gets on us based on the spaces and places we occupy.
We get dirty by playing or hanging around spaces and places that are dirty.
So the question is what the places and spaces we occupy that are modeling for us,
that are emboldening us, from which we are learning that indulging our anger,
not just getting mad but also getting even, that fostering fear and distrust,
that insulting and mocking others, is righteous and healthy behavior?
How much time are you spending on social media?
How much attention are you giving to people ranting and raving on television
– not reporting news but spouting their opinions
– points of view expressed to either make you mad at them or enraged with them?
Human beings are inherently imitators. We mimic whatever we marinate in.
So what flavor are you giving off when you speak and act?
Is it all just piss and vinegar? Griping and grumbling? Mocking and jeering?
We expose ourselves to all kinds of voices and influences
– many of them, most of them, honestly
– are not reflecting what Jesus would say or did say.
Do we recognize this? Then why are we still letting those voices become our voices?
James, instead, calls for us to singularly attune
– to become fluent and to reflect only one voice,
only one influence in how we think and speak as he calls for us
to “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
James is not just talking about reading our Bibles more
– though being in the Word is a necessary and good place to begin.
Quick pulse or gut check.
On any given day, in any given week,
are we spending as much time and energy being in the word of God
– being influenced and shaped by the word of God
– as we are being influenced and shaped by
our social media accounts or our preferred news network?
If not, why not?
And what would change – in us
– if we reversed this trend?
But again, James here isn’t talking about being in our Bibles.
When he writes of the word planted in us,
he is making reference to a promise God made to us
through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Do we remember it?
It was the promise to instill His word
– to write His law, His way, His instruction onto our hearts.
It was the promise that being in His word would become more than
sticking our nose in a book or perking up our ears for a message;
it would become the Lord speaking directly to us
– leading, guiding, correcting, and growing us into
who we were meant to become from within our minds and hearts.
This promise was fulfilled first through God coming
to be with us in Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh
– a visible, tangible model of our humanity in perfect communion with God.
Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life that God created and intended to be for us.
This promise continued to be fulfilled through God
coming to be in us through the Holy Spirit – the Word of God made flesh,
the Spirit of Jesus now in residence within our hearts and minds – producing faith, extending grace, cultivating love, and fostering growth towards maturity for us.
In other words, the Word that saves us
is the Word that continues to guide and to shape us.
God’s word, God’s words to us, indwell us, become part of us,
they do a work from the inside out as it were.
The Gospel is more than accepting the Word of God
– accepting Jesus in order to receive forgiveness and salvation.
Too many of us dispense or set aside the Word of God after our conversion
– but that’s just the planting of the seed
– there is fruit to be harvested in us
– we are to become more than we are in Christ.
Being humble – open and receptive,
being influenced and marinating in
the work of the Word both in us and through us
via the Holy Spirit is the posture
James is calling us to adopt.
This God’s full offering of grace.
This is the means of our full blessing.
To be informed and transformed by God’s word,
to be strengthened to persevere in faith and holiness,
to be guided in how we act.
This is the way we are to live.
This is the antidote to a life lived out of
a constant stream of anger and bitterness.
James, however, immediately clarifies
something important about all he has just said:
“Do not merely listen to the word,
and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
Implanted means access, not instinct.
Just because the Word and the Spirit are within us,
doesn’t mean what the Word and Spirit seek to cultivate in us
automatically happens despite us.
We have a free will. We make real, consequential choices all the time.
We are called to follow Jesus to become like Christ.
Jesus Himself once said in Luke 11,
the blessed are “those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
So, James echoing his brother, underscores, listening to the Word is not enough.
We have to actually do what it says – respond to the truth and the wisdom,
the guidance and the direction, the conviction and correction the Word provides.
James warns if we perceive obedience to the Word of God as optional,
we are deceiving ourselves.
In other words, we are lying to ourselves, but we are not fooling God.
Despite what he has just said – including this sobering warning,
James assumes our ignorance and disobedience
– that we are not or will not listen to what he has just told us.
So, he repeats this idea of being not just listeners
but do-ers of the word by way of a brief analogy.
James says those who listens to the Word of God
but doesn’t do what it says are like a person
who looks at his face in a mirror and then,
when he walks away immediately forgets what he looks like.
The key failure is forgetting.
Forgetting what one looks like is compared to forgetting the Word of God.
It’s intended to be an absurd example.
How can someone forget what he or she looks like
– especially after just looking at him or herself?
It’s not really about honestly forgetting.
It’s about refusing to act on what one sees
– choosing not to obey what the Word of God says.
The person who listens to the Word of God
but does not follow it, is a person who sees what God has made him or her to me
– the image of God in each of us – the reflection of who we can become, are meant to be in Christ but then refusing to let that image shape his or her life.
James says the person who looks intently
(in other words, stopping and really looking at something
– to observe it, to gaze upon it, with penetrating absorption),
– the person who looks into the Word of God
(the perfect law that gives freedom – a beautifully different way to describe Jesus!),
and “continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard”
– in other words, doing what it says, following where it leads,
James declares that person will be blessed.
Quick point here.
By “blessed,” James doesn’t mean when we listen and do
what the Word and Spirit direct us to do
that God rewards us with bonus points
or additional favors.
We are blessed when we listen and do
what the Word and Spirit direct us to do
in the sense that God’s way is the right way
for us to go, the best way for us to follow
– hence it is the blessed way
– the way God intended life to be.
But does it practically look like
to both listen to and do what the Word and Spirit tell us?
The tense of the Greek verb translated “be doers” stresses continuous action.
In other words, James is calling us to an on-going lifestyle
of practicing the Word of God – again to not only receive the Gospel,
but to continually and consistently live it out as well.
It is not so much about our willingness to do what the Word says.
It is about abiding in the Word.
Humbly receiving the Word planted in us by faith means to focus on it,
to remember it, to guard it, to listen to it. This is abiding.
As we abide, the Word works in us, upon us, and ultimately through us
– moving us to obedience – to following where the Word leads us both within ourselves and in how we engage the world.
In short, being in the Word and the Spirit leads to doing – being influenced, directed, and shaped in terms of our thoughts, words, and actions by the Word and the Spirit.
To underscore that what he is writing about is not about
becoming ritualistic – just a checklist of to-do’s and to-don’ts,
James concludes this section by talking about religion.
When James speak about considering ourselves religious,
he is talking about the external, observable qualities of a life of faith.
James means the visible signs of to what or to whom we worship or are devoted to.
In other words, James is about to answer what does it mean to be a Christian.
James is telling us what distinguishes Christianity from other religions.
What stands out here is what James doesn’t say.
A lot of people define being a Christian, the religion of Christianity
by pointing to acts like praying, fasting, attending church, or professing faith in Jesus (making a decision for Christ).
James mentions none of this.
What James does mention he will go into more detail later.
But for now, let’s just notice how it relates to all he already has shared with us.
For James, echoing where he started,
a Christian is someone who watches their mouth
– who is quick to listen and slow to speak.
Notice how James frames this
– those who can’t stop talking for or at God
instead of listening to God
– listening through the Word and Spirit planted within us,
listening through giving our attention to others
– people whom God can and does speak through
– James says THEIR religion is worthless.
In other words, that’s not Christianity, that’s not following Jesus.
For James, being a Christian,
the Christianity, the religion that God accepts is
being compassionate towards the hurting and the helpless
and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world.
The second part – being polluted by the world is
a reference back to being shaped and formed by the anger
– the violence, verbal abuse, and callousness of the world.
The first part sounds like something new but if we think about it, it really is not.
James has stressed that listening to the Word of God
must result in doing what the Word of God says.
Well, what is the summation of what the Word of God says – according to Jesus?
“Love God, love our neighbor as ourselves.”
If we were to put a little more accent on this,
whom does God have a particular sensitivity and heart towards?
The orphans and widows. Yes but…
In first-century culture, orphans and widows had no standing in society
or any ability by which to support themselves.
This grouping was shorthand, representative of anyone who is
The helpless and the hurting.
The victimized and the alienated.
The abused and the persecuted.
Again, James is going to dig into what he’s said in these two verses later,
but for now, we need to sit what might be a very uncomfortable realization,
If we have no heart for the helpless and the hurting,
If we can’t watch our mouths,
If we can’t live counter to a culture of outrage and bitterness,
then we are playing religion and not actually following Jesus.
For James, being a Christian means
being and becoming by the grace of God someone who follows Jesus,
listening primarily and exclusively to what Jesus says
– how Christ directs us to engage this world.
Being a Christian means reflecting Christ to others not through our anger
but through our willing to listen first and then speak
– and in particular to listen first to the cries of those in need.
Being a Christian means doing what Jesus told us to do – which is to love others by serving them not arguing with them, by forgiving them not condemning them.
Being a Christian is about religious words and practices, being a Christian is about words of justice, mercy, and grace expressed in action. It is reflecting the same love that God has, the love that God has extended to us in Jesus.
So maybe the question right now isn’t what is a Christian, maybe the question we each need to be asking ourselves is am I a Christian? Are you?