FOR THE COMMON GOOD

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James 5

James 5

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Per chapter 5 . . .at first, it looked imposing to me! Lots of seemingly disjointed thoughts about rich people, oaths, patience through suffering and anointing with oil.

Not a clean, easy text to walk a congregation through.

But then I looked a little closer. I searched for the thread to all these closing discussions in James’s letter, and I believe there is one profound way to tie this chapter to James’s previous discussions about a genuinely lived out spiritual life in community.

The thread is James’s vision for living out of a purpose that directly contrasts with the world’s prevailing current of how to be a “success story.”

 

At the outset of chapter 5, James is not condemning all wealthy people or wealth, but a specific attitude toward wealth that invades so many successful people’s lives (even wealthy Christians at times). The notion that money entitles one to power–to pre-eminence. To a sense that God ‘likes me better’ and approves of my life. To an exclusive club that tastes the “good life.”  In this case, the needs and priorities of “small” people often disappear from the vision of the wealthy person.

And others who buy into this philosophy (while still poorly resourced) embrace favoritism, angle for power in the church with gossip and selfishly slanted teaching, and overlook the real, practical needs of the poor.

When this happens, the church breaks and fractures around this communal failure. People get disillusioned. Others feel completely left out of the loop and neglected.

But it happens all the time–because it’s the “world’s wisdom” (chapter 3), the language of the devil that feels so natural to us. Promote yourself, get people to like you–to agree with you. And, don’t ever, ever admit you’re a failure.

On the other hand, James means to comfort the believers who feel like they’ve ‘lost out’ in life. Boss is breathing down their neck. Sickness has ravaged their families. Sin has weighed them down in a quiet way for years. By the world’s wisdom, they’re victims of misfortune and failure.

What hope is there for believers in this spot?

According to James, there is abundant hope! Firstly, replace the world’s broken compass with a new one based on the “law that gives life.” Stop trying to right your own ship, trying to get just a little ahead of others. Look fellow Christians in the eye, and be the first to say, “I’ve failed. I fail. I’ve sinned, and generally find myself thinking the wrong way.”

Then open yourself to others’ confessions.

Start seeing illness, and stubborn sins, and poverty, and heartbreak as part of God’s spiritual leverage to pull us back into His arms–His open arms, which look and feel a lot like the arms of the other broken people who are confessing to us, too.

God can bring actual healing, real freedom from guilt and relational restoration to a community that acts this way. It probably looks like a broken structure from the outside–no glitz or polish. But God likes it that way–it’s how He ends up getting all the credit. For the power of God inhabits the genuine, broken prayers of His people. Their reluctant, but obedient praises. Their vulnerability to tell the truth about what they’ve seen in their mirror to someone else, and then wait for that person to extend comfort, forgiveness, a word of assuring grace.

That idea of church community is, to me, James’s passion for his audience, and the gist of this final, scattershot chapter in James.
To lead your discussion, here are some questions to consider:
1) Why does wealth seem to corrupt so easily? Why do so many successful people ‘lose themselves’ when financial blessings come their way?
2) What’s James’s guidance on how to react to suffering? What should a believer learn from the prayers and experiences of men like Job and Elijah (both mentioned in this chapter for slightly different reasons)?
3) Why do so many churches look and feel like polished flatware? How should church community feel to a guest who spends one hour in our midst? What would surprise visitors to Tinker’s Creek if we followed James’s prescription for Christian community in this chapter?