I have shared with some of you that later in September, I plan to begin teaching a ten-week course online called Christian Ethics. What is Christian Ethics? Christian Ethics is simply the way that people think about moral questions from a Christian perspective. Christian Ethics is not about telling someone what they must think about a social issue. Although, some churches and denominations do prescribe what congregants are to think through a catechism. If you are interested in reading a book on ethical responses to a variety of circumstances, you can borrow my copy of the catechism for the Roman Catholic Church. Even with fine print, the catechism is 845 pages long. Christian Ethics that I will present is more about helping to organize our thinking from a Christian perspective. If we know how to think like a Christian, then we can apply that understanding to whatever circumstance or issue comes our way. There is no need for someone else to write a book telling us what must think about an issue.
Now what Christians and non-Christians believe should be done in a situation or on an issue is guided by three primary considerations. First, what we decide to do can be dependent upon what goal we hope to achieve. Second, what we decide to do can be dependent upon what duty I feel I must fulfill. Third, what we decide to do can be dependent upon what kind of person we should be. So, let’s say that this afternoon, you are in your front yard just enjoying the moment. Across the street from you is your neighbor who is in their front yard also just enjoying the moment. You get along with your neighbor, even though they seem a little sketchy. One thing you do know is that your neighbor is an atheist; they do not believe in God in any way, shape, or form. As you are both enjoying the day, a car drives slowly down the street between your house and your “across the street” neighbor’s home. You recognize the car as belonging to someone who lives down the street. The driver of the car is known to be a very disagreeable person, to everyone. As the car passes by, you notice something odd. There are small pieces of paper coming off the roof of the car. The pieces of paper look like money. You see that your neighbor notices the paper coming from the car as well. After the car has passed by, you and your neighbor calmly walk to the street and discover the paper coming from the car are $100 bills. You collect 10, $100 bills and your neighbor collected 4, $100 bills. That is $1400 between you. Your neighbor says, “Why not give me all the money. I will take care of this matter if you like.” What you decide to do, and what your neighbor will decide to do, will be guided by ethics. Your decision, and your neighbors, will be guided by a combination of goals, duties, and what type of person you want to be. But here is the thing. Although you will have the common ways of making a decision, that is goals, duties, and what type of person you each want to be, the Christian Ethics you will use is different from worldly ethics your neighbor will use. Or at least it should be.
This was the point James was making in this weeks’ reading from the book bearing his name. James was concerned about how Christians make decisions. Do Christians make decisions based upon the wisdom of the world with its goals, duties, and role models. Or do Christians make decisions based upon the wisdom of God with its distinct and different goals, duties, and role models? James asked in verse 13, “13 Who is wise and understanding among you?” Being wise here has nothing to do with intelligence or education. It has everything to do with being having a solid foundation, a solid relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus explained being wise through the story of two builders found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. One person built a house by first digging down deep into the soil and laid a foundation for the house in the rock. The other person built a house on the ground without a foundation. Then the heavy rains came. The house built on sand was washed away by flood waters but the one built on a good foundation could not be shaken by the flood. Jesus said, “24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25). To be wise then is to know the words of Jesus and to make Jesus words the foundation of their way through life. James’ question focused on whether Jesus’ words formed the basis of his reader’s goals, duties, and type of person they were being called to be. James asked, “13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13). Whoever has Christ in them, the very wisdom of God, then let that person show it by the way they live that life. James wanted his readers to live life like Jesus lived his life. James wanted his readers to do things in humility; that sense of wanting to serve others without a desire for status or ambition or repayment. In the New Testament, this type of love fueled desire is described by a Greek word for love, agape. Agapeic love is not reciprocal. You simply give requiring nothing in return. Agapeic love was the type of love Jesus spoke about when he addressed the host of a banquet. Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). The purpose of giving was to express love leading to righteousness.
A couple of weeks ago, Becky and I met with the parents of a young man who died at the end of April. The parents shared about their son and his desire to help other people. Some of those this young man helped were kind and others were, quite frankly, dangerous people. What struck me was that this young man was as humble with kind as he was with the dangerous. This young man gave to each type of person knowing that those he gave to could not or would not ever return his love. That is agapeic love moved by humility. We cannot learn humility from a book or a course. We can only learn about it through experience. James wondered aloud if anyone who was reading his letter was wise and understanding of the ways of Jesus and had shown those qualities in humility through experience. Living agapeic love is difficult. Let me illustrate. When Jesus was approaching Jerusalem just before his death, two of his disciples asked in secret for seats of honor; one on each side of Jesus. When the other disciples heard of the secret request from the two disciples an argument sprang up among the Twelve each arguing they were greater than the other. Jesus interrupted the argument and said, “11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). James was asking in his letter, “Who among you is the greatest servant of the others?” If that is who you are, then that is wonderful, continue following your Lord, Jesus Christ.
However, James knew his readers and was aware that few if any of his readers were living a life of humility and agapeic love. So, James offered an alternative view in verse 14. James wrote, “14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” James had a simple view of life. Either you were fully like Jesus or you were envious and selfish. There was no middle ground. James said of those who had envy and selfishness in their lives, “15 Such “wisdom” [such an attitude] does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” I suspect he was called a lot of things in his time but the “life of the party” was probably not one of them. James was blunt and James pointed out something we could easily miss. James said that envy and selfishness, that type of wisdom or attitude, is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. James was not using three adjectives to describe the same condition. James was describing the inevitable progression of envy and selfishness. James’ point was that envy and selfishness is at first earthly, meaning we put on a façade, our relationships are superficial, we avoid people who offer conflict, we may be friendly but for the most part indifferent to the problems others face. If left unchecked, uncorrected by God’s intervention, then our approach to life develops into that which is earthly and unspiritual. We develop other priorities such as money. We allow dishonesties to enter our life; small ones at first and then larger ones. We avoid the truth. We criticize the church and openly doubt the goodness of God. If left unchecked, uncorrected by God’s intervention, then our approach to life that is earthly and unspiritual becomes demonic. With demonic elements we want what we want when we want. We seek attention, power, and greed. We no longer care if we upset people; too bad, deal with it. We are easily tempted. We no longer even try to understand someone else view or experience. It does not matter. They will just have to deal with us the way “God made us.” Except God did not make us this way. We chose this path and are following demonic leadings. Envy and self-centeredness have a progression to them; earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. To see that progression unfold in someone’s life is frightening and we want to intervene and change that person. The truth is we cannot change someone who is on the progression toward demonic behavior. Only God can change that person.
This change away from earthliness, and unspiritual and demonic behaviors was James’ next point. James wrote, “17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” James shows that wisdom from heaven, a transfusion from God, follows a progression and corrects what is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. This progression and transformation occur when we first accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. The transfusion of Christ, Jesus living within us, begins with purity, the very character of God. The Apostle Paul said it this way, “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a). With the purity of Jesus, we then become considerate meaning we want to just towards others and avoid being abusive. We then become submissive toward the truth in God’s Word and we want to follow it. We progress and acquire the desire to express mercy and to produce good fruit. Our deeds are not self-centered, they are rich in agapeic love. We care for those who are in need because doing so is good for them. Finally, we understand the being impartial and sincere is the mark of a focused person. We are no longer doubleminded being concerned about the things that concern God and being concerned about how the world see and respects us. We are devoted only to God and to a positive spiritual life from which flows a life lived like Christ. The transfusion of Christ, the wisdom of God, brings us peace.
To be a peace with God, to be a peace with one another, to be a peacemaker is the Christian life. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Congratulations from God are in order for those who have taken God’s wisdom from heaven which is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17) for they shall be God’s children. James put Jesus words this way in the final verse of chapter 3 of the letter bearing James’ name. “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). James’ final words form the basis for our Christian Ethics because peace and righteousness from God serve to inform our goals, duties, and the kind of person we want to be.
What do we do with James’ words which can be hard to hear? James’ words, like all of Scripture, are focused on life. And because we can hear and read James’ words there is hope for renewal in our life. Let me illustrate. One time, two young men worshipped God. One worshipped with purity and sincerity. The other worshipped in an earthly and self-centered manner. The one who worshipped with sincerity found peace with God. His name was Abel. The one who worshipped selfishly found no peace with God nor with Abel, who was his brother. His name was Cain. God could see the conflict within Cain. God saw that Cain was acting in an earthly and unspiritual manner and so God intervened. God said to Cain, “Cain, why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7). God was offering to restore Cain and confirm upon Cain the acceptance of a loving father. But Cain would have none of it. Instead, Cain progressed from earthliness and being unspiritual to demonic. Cain, in a rage of selfishness, lied to Abel and then murdered Abel.
God knows that each one of us is tempted to be earthly, unspiritual, and, yes, even demonic. God offered to restore us and confirm upon us the acceptance of a loving father if we would just receive Jesus and live a life like Jesus lived; that is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). Jesus is the wisdom of God from heaven. The questions then we need to ask ourselves is, “Have I received the wisdom of God through Jesus?” If I have, am I using that wisdom to form my goals, determine my duties, and establish what kind of person I should be by living my life like Jesus lived? If you have not received the wisdom of God through Jesus, then today is the day to ask God for that transfusion of Christ. If you aren’t sure what that all means, let’s talk because I know that God wants each one of us here today to be known now and forever as children of God. Let’s pray.