Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Paul, the Apostle, wrote some really good stuff. I admire his character, and his writings. His writings. What’s this got to do with James and Mark, I hear you thinking. We’ve not had any readings by Paul today. Well, there is a connection, as you will see.
Paul has been much maligned by the church, particularly by women. Paul is someone who apparently said that all women should wear their hair covered, or shouldn’t speak in church, or hold any position of authority and certainly shouldn’t be ordained.
But that goes against many of his writings. I want to read to you from a chapter of a book. This chapter was one of the first readings we were given at Edinburgh, on a course all about the apostle Paul. It was written by John Knox, called: Chapters in a Life of Paul.
‘The writing of a life of Paul would appear to be a simple undertaking. We have a first-hand source – letters from the apostle’s own hand. We possess a straightforward narrative of his life, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. From the time he was a persecutor through to his arrival in Rome. But do we have the right to this assurance that Paul did all his journeys in the way the book reports?’ That he converted to Christianity in the way Acts supposes he did?
Read the book of Galatians alongside and you will get an idea that actually not all is as it seems. One book of one person’s life isn’t going to give a true image of that life – even now, in the 21st century. Each writer of each book (those included in the Christian Canon, and those that weren’t) had their own particular axe to grind. They wanted to portray Jesus or Paul in ways that the church required, at that particular point in time.
Paul’s writings came into being before the four Gospels were written. As the chapter I read to you earlier states: ‘they were written for the use of the Gentile churches of the late first and second centuries and in response to their interests and needs. We can gain trustworthy knowledge of the original facts only be allowing accurately for the effect of the later situation on the documentary sources. … The writings did not achieve the form in which they have survived until a generation or so after their author’s death. This happened only when someone collected and edited his letters, and as has been said, this collecting and editing took place in response to the needs, and for the use, of the churches of the late first and early second centuries.
‘We do not know the name of the collector and editor – and we cannot know what his [or her] motives were. We should expect, however, that such a one would be moved principally by devotion to Paul and by the conviction that what Paul had written to several churches between AD 40 and 60 was important to the entire church of a generation later. Knox goes on… we can be sure that the editor did not leave the letters just as he found them. We know that he gathered, possibly selected the letters. He arranged them into an order he thought appropriate. We know that he joined together materials from two or more letters to make what we know as II Corinthians, and he might have done the same with Philippians. Many scholars claim that this unknown editor rewrote sections of Colossians. And then there as those people, possibly even the same editor who wrote ‘fresh’ letters ‘by Paul.’ Pseudepigraphy. The letter to the Ephesians is one such work.
Why do I think this is important? Every time I sit down to read Sunday’s readings, I want to know my sources. That is Knox’s point. We should know who wrote what we’re going to preach on, and I think it’s important for you to know who wrote what in the Bible too.
You might have noticed that when I put up the Epistle on the slides, I do not always mention the name of the apostle who we think wrote the letter. For example, I never announce the Epistle as ‘Paul’s letter to the Ephesians’ or ‘Paul’s letter to the Hebrews,’ because most scholars accept that Paul did not write these letters. What we do know, and is accepted by the majority of scholars today (and even John Knox when he wrote his book would agree) that we know that I and II Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, I and II Thessalonians and Philemon belong to Paul. Possibly Colossians, but not in the form we have today.
And so, we come to James. The letter of James, by James… possibly. It might have been James, the brother of Jesus. Who, by inference in other books of the New Testament became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. We also don’t know and will never know if in fact James was a direct brother or stepbrother or even a cousin of Jesus.
The letter might also have been written by someone who wished the letter to come under the patronage of James. More of pseudopigraphy than penned by James. The New Oxford Annotated Bible describes the letter as ‘lacking in other formal characteristics of a letter. It has a greeting, but that’s it. Jesus is only mentioned twice in the whole letter, and the style of writing suggests that it was written to a structured Christian community. Although this letter, or partial letter does not appear to have come from the James that Paul met in Jerusalem, the author of the letter uses the patronage of James as a revered figure who could reformulate the teachings of Jesus and also has the authority to counter the false slogans about ‘faith and works’ that are attributed to Paul.’
Having looked at our sources and worked out whether or not James wrote this letter, we then knuckle down and work through the readings. Does what James says, ring true? Does the Holy Spirit within you, jump with recognition of the Father’s voice in the words of James?
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose, he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
God does not change. He is the same forever and ever. There is nothing we can do that can change his plan for us. We might try to manipulate, we might get exasperated that thing do not go our way, but nothing will change God’s love for each and every one of us.
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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.”
God is so completely relaxed with who he is that he doesn’t need to change. He is complete. If that sounds like a contradiction, think of those around you who are genuinely happy people. They do exist, and if you don’t know anyone like that, perhaps you should find one. People who radiate contentment. A presence of being that is so completely relaxing.
Yes, we need to change, but by asking God to change us. Those amongst you who are married or were married will know that you couldn’t change the person you are or were with. That is something you cannot manipulate, because it ends badly. James asks us to imitate God in knowing what we are like. But that begs another question, do we really know ourselves in the first place. Are we comfortable in our own skins? James suggests that we need to look at the unchanging nature of God to see ourselves properly. As we get know who we are through God’s eyes, our lives will align with the great consistency that is God.
That is the essence of the passage from Mark’s Gospel too. The readings from both James and Mark are both obvious, I think. It’s not what we eat that matters, but what we say and do. We won’t have to strive to do God’s works because they will come from the essence of our being. By focussing on God, aligning ourselves with his values, and his love, we involuntarily change the nature of our being. It becomes natural to worship him, as he is, and as we are.
Glory to God, Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit, Amen.