When I was about nine or so, alone in my room, I prayed a version of the sinner’s prayer than I found in the inside back cover of a small King James New Testament, and I asked and accepted Jesus into my heart, and I was saved.
And I felt saved.
But it didn’t take long before I started to ask, “Now what?”
From the Letter of James we just heard:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Sometimes I wonder if we read quickly through parts of scripture like this—scripture that can seem like a bunch of vaguely spiritual words strung together to inspire us—and say, “That sounds nice, but get to the point, James.”
But what if this kind of scripture isn’t just vaguely spiritual words strung together to inspire us? What if it’s actually practical truth that James has learned through years of experience of life in the Holy Spirit?
For a variety of reasons, I’ve been reading a lot of pretty old stuff from spiritual masters. I’ve been working my way slowly (and hopefully prayerfully) through the Desert Fathers and Mothers since last Lent (I read them off and on all the time).
I’m also reading through the Philokalia slowly. It’s is the book that the Pilgrim carries with him in that short Eastern Orthodox spiritual classic the Way of the Pilgrim. (Sometimes I wondered how he carried it. It’s sort of big. The version I have is four volumes and counting in translation.) Philokalia is a Greek word that means “love of the beautiful,” and it’s a huge collection of spiritual classics in the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries and collected in the 18th century by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth for use by monks and mystics.
I’m also reading a book of sayings by St. Macarius the Spiritbearer, and I go back regularly to St. Cassian and others.
And lately what I’ve been tuned into as I read these works is that there are deep and rich and clear practical traditions of prayer and the spiritual life that these writers are steeped in, and have been passed down for centuries. So they explain things like
• this kind of prayer helps in this particular situation;
• if this kind of virtue is cultivated, then these other virtues are more likely to follow;
• these kinds of demons will encourage this kind of vice that will make it likely that these other kinds of temptations will be harder to resist;
• to resist this temptation or this demon, this kind of prayer or this kind of activity has proven useful;
• at this point in your spiritual growth, this is the kind of temptation you are likely to encounter.
You get the picture.
They’re writing from their own experience and the experience that their masters have passed on about the very concrete ways that we can work with the Holy Spirit to activate the grace given to us in baptism and eucharist and the other sacraments and ultimately grow in holiness.
I don’t claim to know or even understand this stuff in detail. I’m trying to learn, though.
But as soon as I read the Epistle this morning, this stuff is what I thought of. Because with the distinction between good and bad wisdom and his description the fruits of each of them, it feels to me like Saint James is writing near the source of this stream of traditions—as if these later writers were building on what people like James had experienced and learned and passed down from the earliest days of the Church.
And I thought that this was going to be a distraction for me as I tried to write the real sermon. But a challenge at this week’s homiletics meeting that maybe this wasn’t a distraction, but was the sermon kept coming back to me. So here I am talking about it. But I’m in no position to teach you this tradition—especially in the context of a sermon. So what’s the point of talking about it?
A few weeks ago we heard James tell us that “religion that is pure and undefiled… is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” 1
And this week we hear him raise the question about from where the conflicts and disputes among us come. In the Greek πόλεμοι (“conflicts”) can be translated as “wars” so some translations of that verse read more like the Revised Standard Version which reads, “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you?” And even in our own New Revised Standard Version translation the response is “Do they not come from your cravings at war within you?”
According to St. James, wars, the conflicts of all kinds, including the wars, violence, and conflict that are so embedded in our daily lives, so systemic, that we barely recognize them as wars—like the slow, grinding everyday war that is poverty and racism and sexism and heterosexism. These and ALL WARS out there, come from the wars within us.
And if we don’t deal with the wars within us, then all we’re going to bring to our justice work, to our resistance against Empire, is just more Empire, more wisdom from below, more demonic wisdom, if maybe rearranged or in a different form.
So maybe the point of this sermon is just that there are these streams of Christian tradition that we can tap into to deal with how to keep ourselves unstained by the world, how to work with God to replace the wars within ourselves with God’s peace, so that something besides the devilish wisdom that gives birth to more conflict, more war, more envy and selfish ambition, more Empire (however subtly disguised), might come through us when we engage the world in acts of resistance and justice—
• something really new;
• something born of the wisdom from above—the wisdom that gives birth to works done with gentleness;
• something of God’s Kingdom.
All those years ago, I asked after I was saved, “Now what…?” Well it turns out, this, now and for the rest of my life.