(John 20, 19-23; James 1, 1-27)
What does it mean to be a Spirit-filled Christian?
I was reading an account the other day from a blog called ‘Charisma News’ of what happens when you are ‘slain in the Spirit’. He discussed the discomfort some Christians feel at accounts of people falling backwards, shaking crying and emitting strange noises and contrasted them with his own experience:
“When I got slain in the Spirit, did I receive prayer and the laying on of hands? Yes … and no. Yes, I received prayer and felt a powerful electricity go into me—thus, pushing me to the ground. I also fell to the ground when the manifest presence of God entered the room and sovereignly touched me—with no human aid. I simply say, He is God; let Him do what He wants!”
There are two accounts of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. In the story in the Book of Acts, which is the one we usually hear at Pentecost, the Spirit comes like a violent, rushing wind and tongues of fire. The disciples immediately receive supernatural power, and begin to speak in different languages. From being afraid, and hiding themselves away, they are changed into bold preachers of the Good News, and immediately go outside to share their experience with strangers. They are so changed, that the people outside think they are drunk!
By contrast, in the account in the Gospel of John, the Spirit comes on Easter Day, and the Spirit comes quietly, when Jesus breathes on the disciples when they first seem him after his resurrection. Through it they receive peace, and the power to forgive sins. There seems to be nothing supernatural about the Spirit’s effects. This picture of the Spirit is also found in Paul’s epistles: in 1 Corinthians, Paul describes many gifts of the Spirit, some of them involving supernatural powers, others of them spiritual gifts; but he concludes that the greatest gift is love; in Galatians, Paul says the Spirit-filled person is recognized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The Letter of James, which we are studying in the Bible Month, is also trying to work out what it means to be a Spirit-filled Christian, although it never mentions the Holy Spirit, and only mentions Christ twice.
We don’t know who wrote this letter. There were at least five people named James mentioned in the New Testament; traditionally, the letter is attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, who became a prominent leader of the early Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, but if it had been written by him, it is unlikely that it would have taken as long as it did to be accepted into the canon of the New Testament.
What we are told is that it was written to ‘The twelve tribes of the Dispersion’, that is to Jews who lived around the Mediterranean, outside their Jewish homeland, but who were following the Way of Christ. There were many of these in Jesus’ lifetime, and even more after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, at the end of the Jewish Revolt.
The letter has a very Jewish character. It doesn’t have any theology about the person of Christ, or the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Its thoughts and words reflect the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophets and the Wisdom literature, as well as other New Testament writings. It talks a little bit about God, but mostly it is about practicalities. How, it asks, as those whose faith has been shaped by the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (what we would call the Old Testament) do we live out our faith as Christians?
At first sight, Chapter 1, which we are looking at in detail this morning, seems to be a muddle of brief unconnected thoughts. But that is how the people of the time wrote letters of advice and counsel. First they summarised the content of their advice in an introduction, known as an epitome; then they went into more detail. Chapter 1 is the epitome of the letter of James.
The first half of this first section deals with what believers are to expect from God. They are warned that they will undergo trials, which they are to face with joy, in the knowledge that such tests will strengthen their faith. They are to ask God for increasing wisdom in faith, and continue to trust in God’s good purposes no matter how bad things become. Those who fail to trust, they are warned, will not grow in wisdom.
Then the writer takes up the theme of God’s bias to the poor – a theme that is found in much of the OT prophets and the Gospels, and will be taken up in more detail later in this epistle. The writer then moves on to urge the believers to resist temptation, which he insists does not come from God, but from evil desires within the individual. Although written two thousand years ago, James shares the insights of modern psychology – that it is our inmost, uncontrolled desires that lead us to temptation, and then, frequently, into wrong action. This section ends with a repetition of the assurance that all good things come from God, who is all benevolence, and through his gifts is giving believers new birth into a new and different kind and quality of life – another Pentecost theme.
Then James moves on to summarise what is expected from Christians. He talks about listening before speaking, and controlling your tongue and your anger – themes that are found in Proverbs and other Wisdom literature, and will be discussed at greater length later in the letter. In words that echo Jesus’ Parable of the Sower he urges his readers to allow the word of the Gospel to be planted into their hearts, and to allow it to grow and produce action. He also echoes Paul’s reference to looking into a mirror from 1 Corinthians, when he says, those who listen to the gospel but don’t live it, are like those who look into a mirror, and immediately they look away, forget what they look like. It is the doers who will reap the blessings of belief, not those who just listen, he says.
His words remind me of the prayer of St Ignatius Loyola: Dearest Lord,
teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward
save that of knowing I am doing Your Will.
After another reminder about controlling the tongue (a subject that seems to be very close to his heart), James concludes his introduction by summarising what he believes true religion is all about: caring for those in need, and not conforming to the standards of the world.
Some people don’t very much like the Epistle of James. Luther, whose great insight was that we are justified by faith, not saved by our actions, called it a ‘real strawy epistle’ with no ‘evangelical character’, compared with the letters of Paul, the Gospel of John and the first Letter of Peter, which Luther judged ‘show you Christ’.
I don’t think this is a fair judgement. The Epistle of James may not be as long as some of the other letters of the New Testament. Its theology may not have evolved as much as the theology in some of Paul’s major epistles, or the much later writings of John the Evangelist. It may not draw on deep philosophy. But being a Spirit-filled Christian is not just about knowledge and theory, or saying particular prayers or believing certain things about the person of Christ. Jesus and Paul are both emphatic that belief without action is of no use.
True faith is demonstrated in the actions that flow from it. As Wesley wrote “Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbour as one’s self.”
The Letter of James, short and traditional as it is, is evangelical in showing the Spirit-filled believer how to imitate Christ in putting faith into action, day by day.