Whatever you did for the least of these… you did for me!

As we continue our exploration of the letter from James we are discovering that it is intensely practical.  James wants us to understand that genuine faith in Christ is not simply intellectual assent, rather it is a response that so transforms our hearts that it produces changed behaviours. James writes: ‘As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.’ (James 2:26 NIV2011) Good deeds don’t make us right with God, but good deeds that are the outworking of faith are the evidence that we are right with Christ.

Since James was the brother of Jesus it is perhaps not surprising that so much of what is taught in this letter has parallels in the gospels. Jesus told a parable where he likened Judgement Day to a farmer separating sheep from goats. Jesus said that the sheep represented those who would be invited to share in Christ’s inheritance; whilst the goats represent those cast into the eternal fire. The basis for the judgement was how they had treated Jesus, in other words their deeds. Both groups in the parable seem surprised by this and ask for an explanation. Jesus’ response is: ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40 NIV2011)

Jesus shows how acting with compassion to those in society who are marginalised, despised, sick or needy is in fact to show practical love towards him. People who act in this way are true Christ followers and get to share his reward. Those who ignore those who are vulnerable in society however are judged to be ignoring Christ and are condemned for it.

In the parable the marginalised included the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner. What vulnerable people do you come into contact with on a day by day basis that Jesus would point to today? What acts of compassion are you able to do that would win Christ’s commendation: ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’?

This blog post featured in the June 2014 edition of Lifelines

A Toolkit for Christian Living

Read almost any newspaper or magazine and you will regularly find articles giving lifestyle advice. You name it and at some point you will find guidance about almost every imaginable lifestyle choice: diet and fitness, health and medicine, personal image, clothing, finance, relationships, family life, the list goes on.

Much of the advice is good, based upon sound observations and good logic. Yet, no matter how expert the advisors are, it is impossible to escape the underlying worldview behind what is offered; a worldview that ignores God and considers only the time frame of the present, rather than taking an eternal perspective.

If we wish to live as genuine followers of Jesus we need guidance on how to live as Christians. The book of James is a great starting point for anyone looking for Christian lifestyle advice. Unlike most of the other letters James is short on doctrinal teaching, but is packed with down to earth practical instructions on how to behave. Martin Luther famously dismissed the book as ‘an epistle of straw’ because it lacks the magnificent descriptions of grace, and salvation by faith found in books like Romans and Ephesians. Yet James is not a legalistic book of rules, rather it is a description of what people gripped by grace and living by faith look like. It provides us with a yardstick by which we can evaluate whether our lifestyle is truly Christian or has been hijacked by worldly values.

Some see a similarity between James and the Old Testament book of Proverbs. When we recall that the author of James was almost certainly one of Jesus’ brothers, a better comparison might be with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Over the summer months we shall be looking at James in our Sunday meetings in a series called A Toolkit for Christian Living. My prayer is that you will be encouraged and challenged as we read together the direct and practical teaching of the Apostle James who helped shape the early church.

This blog post featured in the May 2014 edition of Lifelines

Gone Fishing!

The only time I ever went fishing was when I was ten years old and away at camp. I vaguely remember sitting beside a river on the Norfolk Broads with a rod and line for hours, not catching anything. Nothing about the experience has ever induced in me the desire to go fishing again!

One of the first encounters with Jesus recorded in Luke’s gospel is when, after an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Jesus commands Peter & Andrew, James & John to let out their nets again on the opposite side of the boat. The four business partners are astounded at the extraordinary number of fish they catch, so they leave their nets and follow Jesus. Jesus speaks directly to Peter and tells him that from now on he will fish for men.

If we are to understand that fishing for men is a picture of gathering people to become Christ followers then it is also helpful to reflect upon the kind of fishermen these were. My fishing with a rod and line was essentially a solitary activity. The two pairs of brothers however would work together as a team, operating the boat and their fishing nets in partnership. Making disciples is a corporate activity for the whole church, working together in partnership, rather than a specialist task for a few key individuals.

In a recent prayer time I felt that God was inviting us to draw an imaginary circle round each of us to represent the different places we go and the different people we meet. As I looked I realised that many of these circles overlapped and created a net that covered our locality. A regular part of the fishermen’s work was mending the nets. The reorganisation of our small groups that we have undertaken over the last few months is akin to mending the nets, getting them ready for fresh fishing adventures.

In one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances we find that these same disciples have returned to Galilee and gone fishing. Again they had caught nothing. Again Jesus tells them to throw to their nets out of the boat. Again a huge catch is landed that threatens to sink the boat. As we launch Connect groups straight after Easter let’s do so in the expectation that Jesus knows where the fish are, and that he will bring in a huge catch. Let us do so recognising that fishing for new disciples is a team activity which depends upon strong connections between the different parts of the whole church.

This blog post featured in the April 2014 edition of Lifelines