This evening we spent some time in our Evening Service having a retrospective look at the letter of James, as we draw near the end of a series of sermons on the book.
Over the last 8 weeks, one of the things which has struck me most forcefully is the polemic tone of James’s language, especially the way he speaks about the rich. James hints at what is to come in 1:9-11, but the opening verses of chapter are 5 are the most strident, a famous warning about the impending judgement the rich are facing.
It’s hardly surprising that James addresses these themes. He’s writing at a time in history when most wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very rich minority, and the vast majority of early Christians are very poor, right at the bottom of the pile in terms of status and economic power. The issue of wealth, of who has it and how it’s been acquired, is one of urgency.
So how does this apply to us? The similarities between James’s time and our own are striking, with the gap between rich and the poor widening. Last week, the BBC reported that senior executives in the UK's biggest companies have seen their average earnings go up by more than a quarter in the past 12 months. All of this during a year when we’ve seen long-term unemployment rise and benefits cut, and when manyemployers still fail to see the need to pay a living wage.
What would James have to say about this? The answer seems fairly clear:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.
The question we thought about tonight is how we express this truth is our own times? Is it appropriate, in 2012, in an area like Billesley or Yardley Wood, for part of the message of the Gospel to be: a day of justice is coming? One day, the rich, the privileged people who run the coalition and cut the benefits of the poor, the board members of companies who earn huge amounts of money while their staff struggle, the boards of companies who avoid paying corporation tax on UK earnings... one day, there will be a reckoning for these people. There will be a levelling, their wealth will not count anymore.
This brought us on to the topic of evangelism – the most successful tool in British churches, over the last twenty years, has been Alpha. It’s been great – but it has worked in a time of prosperity, the nineties and noughties, it’s asks quite abstract questions which appeal to educated people.
If I live in Billesley, I am not asking questions like, ‘Why should I read the Bible?’ or ‘How does God guide me?’ I am asking questions like ‘Why do I have no prospect of ever having a job?’ ‘Why is life unfair?’ ‘How come the bankers got away with it?’
Interestingly, the early Christians never became a political movement. Except for the fact that they pledged their allegiance to Jesus not Caesar! They didn’t grab power... but they were not embarrassed about talking about justice and economics and how this impacted their understanding of what God was doing in the world, and how it shaped their hope of what he would do in the future. Just as a new expression of the justice of the kingdom emerged from the flavellas of Latin America in the 1970s, is now the time for the church of urban Britain to articulate the same message?