The Alien Word

Jason Micheli —  February 4, 2019 — 2 Comments

James 1.18-25

True story— I heard it on NPR:

One warm summer night in DC, eight friends gathered around a backyard supper table. Toasting family and friends, clinking wine glasses, laughing— they were throwing a celebration. 

“It was one of those great evenings,” the celebrant of the party, Michael, told the host of Invisibilia, “lots of awesome food and french wine. It was a magical night.” 

It was getting late, he remembers, maybe around 10:00 PM, when it happened. 

“I was standing beside my wife. And I just saw this arm with a long-barrel gun come between us. It was as if in slow motion…this hand and a gun, and then it just really quiet.” 

The trespasser was a man of medium height in clean, high-end sweats. The trespasser raised the gun and held it first to the head of Michael’s friend, Christina, and then to the head of Michael’s wife and then he said: “Give me your money.” 

And he kept repeating it, louder and louder. 

“The problem was,” Michael said, “none of us had any cash.”

So the celebrants started to grasp for some way to dissaude the instruder out of his trespass, grasping for some way to change his mind. 

But then—

One of the women at the supper table, his friend Christina, piped up and she spoke a strange word, a word that passed from her lips to the trespasser’s ears and cut through all the angry noise and frightened chattering. 

She said: “We’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine?” 

“The words, her invitation…it was like a switch. You could feel the difference it made,” said Michael to Invisibilia. “All of a sudden, the look on the man’s face changed. The words arrested him. It was like the words gave him something he didn’t know he was searching for.” 

According to Michael— 

The trespasser tasted the wine offered to him in spite of his trespass. “That’s really good wine,” the trespasser said to Michael. 

“We had some bread too,” Michael added, “so he reached down for some of it but because he had the wine glass in his other hand…he put the gun in his pocket to free up his hand.”

The trespasser drank his wine. 

And then the trespasser said something surprising: “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” Everyone stood there in the backyard garden, the trellis walls like a sanctuary and the treetops a steeple, everything silent as a grave save the thrum of summer insects. 

Then the trespasser said something strange: “Can I get a hug?”

First Michael’s wife embraced him. 

Then his friend Christina embraced him. 

Finally, like they had no choice— like they had to celebrate with him— the whole party gathered around and embraced the trespasser. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “I’m sorry I trespassed against you.” And then he walked out into the street, still carrying the wine as though he were savoring still at how he’d been given it. 

In the episode of Invisibilia, Michael’s story is cited as an example of what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. 

But in the Church, Michael’s story is an example of what scripture calls saving faith. Michael’s story of the word of invitation to the trespasser who trespassed against them— it’s an example of how saving faith works. 

Now, I know that’s not immediately obvious to you so I’m going to say it again. 

Michael’s story is an example of how faith works. 

———————-

Despite the word on the street, the gossip’s got him all wrong. 

St. James in his four page letter— and keep in mind, it’s just four pages— does not contradict the teachings of the Apostle Paul, which, keep in mind, total almost two hundred pages of your New Testament.  And you don’t need to take my word for it. 

According to Luke in the Book of Acts, James, who was Jesus’ half-brother and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, eventually agreed with the Apostle Paul’s preaching.  In the Book of Acts, Luke records James agreeing with the Apostle Paul that absolutely nothing should be added to the Gospel of Grace. And nothing can substract from your standing in it.

So if you hear James here exhorting you that God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ requires you to respond with good works of your own, then read it again. Read it through the Apostle Paul rather than alongside him because, well, it’s two hundred pages to four pages, and James himself says that’s how you should read him. 

In fact, James here in chapter one is riffing on what St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” And what James tells us here in chapter one echoes what St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “No one can confess Jesus is Lord— no one can have faith— except by God.” In other words, saving faith comes not from within but from without. 

Faith is not your doing— that’s Paul to the Ephesians. 

James makes the same point in today’s text. “In fulfillment of his own purpose,” James writes, “God gave us birth…” God gave us birth as believers. That is, God gave to us faith. How? By “the word of truth,” James says. By the promise— by the Gospel of grace. 

And God gives us faith, James says, “so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” 

Fruit— just like Paul and just like his brother Jesus, the controlling image that James chooses is a passive one. We’re not the Gardener. We’re not even the plant. We’re fruit. God gives us faith not so that we will go do. God gives us faith so that we might become fruit— signs— of what he has done. 

It’s not so much that we are to bear fruit. It’s that faith makes us fruit. A couple of verses down from here, James continues with the metaphor of God as Gardener by calling the Gospel the implanted word.

What James tells you here is no different than what the Apostle Paul preaches in the other two hundred pages of the New Testament. Namely, God uses the Gospel promise to plant faith within us. 

The promise that Christ has died for all our sins, once for all, that everything has already been done, that nothing needs to be done to redeem you or your neighbor, creates faith. 

You see, when scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s not primarily faith in something— you can have faith in all sorts of things, just ask the Golden Calf or Tom Brady fans. When scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s faith from someone. 

———————-

Faith, the Protestant Reformers said, is an alien word. That’s what James means by that phrase “the implanted word.” 

Faith comes extranos, the first Protestants taught. And whenever someone whips out the Latin, you know it’s important, so pay attention: faith comes extra nos, from outside of us. Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift. A gift, not like an attribute innate to you. A gift given to you, from outside of you. 

What makes faith personal isn’t that you discovered it on your spiritual journey. What makes faith personal is that it was given to you by the person of Jesus Christ himself. We think of faith as our part of the Gospel transaction. God gives sinners like us justification by grace, and we must return the favor by giving God faith, which God needs…why exactly? Grace isn’t amazing if God demands payment in return. No, faith is not what God requires you to give him in order for your justification to be true for you. 

The Good News is better than that!

Faith is what God gives you; so that, you will trust that your justification is fact. Faith is what God gives you to trust that the party-called-salvation has already started and it’s for you— no matter your sins or your second-guessing it. The promise of the Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.

Not by faith alone. 

Through faith alone. 

Faith isn’t the expectation you must meet in order to be invited to the party. 

Faith is the means God gives you to enjoy the party to which your invitation has already been sealed by his blood.

Faith is a gift from outside of you, scripture says. 

Faith comes by what is heard. 

Not inside of you. 

Extra nos.

And notice— our way of thinking about faith, as something we do, it turns faith into another work of the Law, and then you’re left with the same dilemma as riddles all your other good works:  How do you know if the faith you have is enough faith?  How do you know you feel your faith for the right reasons? What if you can’t feel your faith like you felt it when you first felt your faith? What if you don’t feel it like the person in the pew in front of you feels it? What about your doubts and your questions? How many are too many?

Faith understood as something we do— faith as something that comes from within us— is bad news. 

It’s the worst kind of news because it makes your salvation determined not by a savior but by your own inner subjectivity.

Not only is it bad news, it loses the plot of the Good News because according to the plot of the Good News, apart from God giving you faith, you have no capacity to find it on your own.

Go back to James’ birth image in today’s text, saying to someone without faith “Well, you’ve just gotta have faith” is like telling an unborn fetus to deliver itself. 

Faith is not the faculty by which you grasp after God. 

Faith is the bruise left behind by the God who has grasped you and pulled you into newness of life.  

We’re all like that intruder in the garden. We need a word from outside of us to arrest us in our trespasses and get us to join in the celebration that started long before we showed up.

Faith is a gift. 

You can’t give yourself faith anymore than you can take away your sins. 

You need Jesus Christ for both. 

Nor can you give anyone faith. Christ is the Giver and the Preacher.  You can’t give anyone faith. 

But— You can get in the way. You can get in his way.

———————-

“Give me your money,” the trespasser said in Michael’s backyard garden.

“But none of us had any cash,” Michael told Invisibilia. 

So we started grasping for ways to dissaude him, to change his mind. 

Some of the celebrants tried guilt. What would you mother think? they asked him. Other celebrants tried reasoning with the trespasser. This is only going to land you in prison— can’t you see that mister? A couple of celebrants appealed to the trespasser’s emotions and aspirations. Is this who you want to be? How does this make you feel? Still other celebrants got angry at the trespasser. Just who do you think you are? 

All of them, the whole congregation of celebrants, they started talking at him. 

This cacophony of anxious, angry chattering. 

None of it— not their anger or anxiety— made the situation right. 

“I remember thinking,” Michael told Invisibilia, “it was getting so noisy…this is headed towards a bad end. Someone is going to get hurt. If all our noise had drown out Christina— if the trespasser hadn’t heard Christina’s words because we were raising so much other commotion, if he hadn’t heard her words of invitation, because of all the other angry noise we were making— it would’ve ended bad.” 

———————-

Despite the grapevine, James and the Apostle Paul do not contradict one another on the miracle that is the unconditional mercy of God in Jesus Christ for sinners like you. But unlike Paul, James spends a lot more time on the noise that can get in its way. 

Faith comes by what is heard, scripture says— by a promise where Christ is the Preacher. 

But unfaith comes by what else is heard— in the church. 

“…your anger does not produce righteousness” James warns the church today. The New Testament teaches us that righteousness is ours through faith; in other words, your anger frustrates God’s work in the church to give to another faith. 

Whenever I hear someone lament that Christians today need to be more like the early church, I usually respond with “What are you smoking?” I mean, James’ church in Jerusalem makes Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity seem like kissing cousins. James’ church was diverse with believers from different races and religious backgrounds, rich and poor. So the congregation was divided into clicks and factions, insiders and outsiders, and they were consumed by conflict. 

Conflict over politics. 

Conflict over worship traditions. 

Conflict over leadership. 

Conflict over how they allocated their time and their resources. 

I know it’s difficult to imagine such a church— just do your best. Unlike Paul, James spends so much time on behavior because his congregation was a congregation beset by conflict, consumed with anger and apathy, gossip and back-biting, undercutting and second-guessing, hypocrisy. So James warns them here: “…your anger does not produce faith.”

You see— James is not saying that your anger or your gossip or your second-guessing disqualifies you from what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. No, nothing can undo what Christ has done for you. Your anger and all the rest of it— it doesn’t disqualify you. It just disables another from hearing from Christ what he has done for them. 

James’ point is not that gossip or back-biting make you a poor Christian.  His point is that your gossip or back-biting prevent another Christian from being made. We do not have the power to create faith in Christ, but we do, James is saying, have the power to create alumni of the Christian faith. A survey just this week in Christianity Today echoes James’ point— most of the people who leave church do so (any guesses why?) because of people in church. 

Sticks and stones we say but words…but think about it. If God’s work in the world is oral and aural, then any other racket we add it does hurt. ALL YOUR NOISE—stop getting in my brother’s way with your behavior. You see— James would have you think of the whole church as a pulpit or an altar. Just as you expect Chenda or me to have nothing on our lips but Christ and his mercy for sinners, James would have you bear nothing on your lips but grace and mercy. Don’t let anything you say or do get in the way because you never know when the real Preacher will show up. 

———————-

“We later found the empty wineglass the trespasser had taken with him. He’d wiped it clean and placed on the sidewalk in front of the house” Michael said. 

But before they found the wineglass, Michael said, they cried. 

In gratitude. 

“We had no idea that words— an invitation to a celebration— could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like this miracle. It was like a miracle. But it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t heard those words, if we’d gotten in the way of the miracle.” 

Faith in Jesus Christ

Faith in the promise he preaches to you (“Your sins are forgiven”) 

Whether it’s the size of a mustard seed or a mountain, it’s not your own doing. 

Faith in Jesus Christ is never not a miracle. 

And don’t forget—

No one knows that faith in Jesus is always a miracle better than Jesus’ brother. 

Don’t forget—

James thought his brother was crazy. James was not with his mother at his brother’s cross. James did not bury his brother, as was his obligation under the Law. Yet James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Until he was condemned to death. By the very same Sandhedrin who sent his brother to a cross. 

Like Paul, James knew: Jesus Christ is not dead. The one who came preaching the forgiveness of sins preaches still. With his word, with water, with wine and bread. Faith is his work to do. Just don’t get in his way.

Because the wine? It’s really good.

Jason Micheli

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2 responses to The Alien Word

  1. I’m going to re-read this every day. Thanks for boiling this down so clearnly!
    By the way, we have wine.

  2. ❤️❤️❤️

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