We find ourselves today in the Epistle of James. The author of this letter was Jesus’ half-brother. They shared a common mother, Mary. James’ father was the carpenter, Joseph. Jesus’ father was the creator of the universe, God. James showed great leadership within the early church. According to Acts 15, he was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. However, he did not write this letter just to that congregation. James wrote this letter to the twelve scattered tribes among the nations. Who were those people? They were members of the early church, who left Jerusalem. They didn’t leave the Golden City because they wanted to go. They left the Golden City because they had to go. You remember the story. After the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), the rules changed. Their safety was no longer guaranteed. Their greatest fear was to end up like Stephen, dead. It is true of every generation. Everyone dreams of the perfection of heaven, but no one is in a hurry to go. They left for their own safety. Now let me state the obvious. This was not a time of advanced communication. There were no cell phones, texts, or e-mails. There was no social media. When you left, you were gone. James did not know what had happened to his people, so he expects the worst. That is why our reading for today speaks of trials. If they were going to remain in the faith, then they must persevere. I can not over stress the point.
Two thousand years ago, being a follower of Jesus Christ meant you were in the minority. The percentage of true believers was very small. They were a minority who were not welcomed by their world. Guess what? Two thousand years later, being a follower of Jesus Christ means you are still in the minority. I am not talking about being a church member. I am talking about being a true disciple of Jesus Christ. The word is discipleship. I am talking about having a relationship with God that is altering the way you live. It is altering the way you spend your time. It is altering the way you spend your money. It is altering your personal opinions or attitudes. This is the sad truth. It is also altering the way that other people look at you and relate to you. If Jesus Christ really is altering your life, then you truly are in the minority. The majority is always trying to tell the minority to compromise. In our case, the world is telling us to compromise the faith so we will conform. American writer Rita Mae Brown (born 1944) once said, “I think the reward of conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.” As a disciple of Jesus Christ there are certain things you must never give up. This whole message revolves around verse 4, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.”
Craig James (born 1961) was a star running back at Southern Methodist University. In time, he ended up playing in the National Football League for the New England Patriots and in the United States Football League for the Washington Federals. After his playing days, he turned to broadcasting. At first, he worked for ESPN. Then, he worked for Fox Sports. His employment there did not last long. Shortly after he was hired someone found an old tape from 2012, when he was running for the US Senate. On the campaign trail he made comments that were politically incorrect about gay marriage. His story reminds us, the world is listening to what we are saying. If you are going to tell everyone Jesus is your only hope of salvation, then you are telling all the other religions they are wrong. In the world of political correctness, everyone is right, and no one is wrong. If you are going to promote Jesus, then you had better be prepared for the consequences.
First, we will never give up Jesus. This letter was not just written to anyone. It is written to that small group of people who really believed. Their names and stories differed, but somewhere in their lives they experienced Jesus. The question is not, how did you come to know Jesus? The question is, have you experienced Jesus? Once you experience Jesus, everything changes. Jesus was not just a good man. Jesus was not just a wise man. Jesus was not just an interesting man. Jesus was not just a motivational speaker. Jesus was not just an influential person from his. Jesus was one of a kind. Jesus was the incarnation of God, who was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. He is our only hope of salvation. If you are going to tell the world Jesus is our only hope of salvation, then you better be prepared for the consequences. How could you give up on Jesus?Jesus runs through the next two points.
One of my favorite Bible stories comes from the eighth chapter of Acts. You know the story. We have looked at it last week. The main character is Philip. He was directed by an angel to go to the road that runs between Gaza and Jerusalem. It covers about fifty miles. Philip does what he is told and meets a foreigner. The scriptures identify him as an Ethiopian eunuch. His life is complex for a variety of reasons. When Philip meets him, he is trying to untangle the mess. With nowhere else to go, he is reading the scriptures. The problem is, he did not understand what he was reading. Does anyone here have a hard time understanding the Bible? The good news is, Philip helped him understand what he was reading. He was reading from the suffering servant passage, Isaiah 53. It is about Jesus’ death on the cross.
The sixty-six books of the Bible are united by a common theme. Every word in the Bible is about Jesus. The Old Testament is about everything that happened before Jesus’ birth. The Gospels are about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The book of Acts is about the Holy Spirit and the creation of Jesus’ bride, the church. The rest of the Bible is filled with testimonies about the difference Jesus made in individual lives. Revelation is about how Jesus wins in the end. Never give up the Bible because it is all about Jesus, our Lord and Savior. How could you ever give up the Bible?
I have been serving in the United Methodist Church nearly 34 years ago. Time goes so quickly. When I was going through the ordination process, I was required to turn in a certain amount of paperwork. One of the papers I wrote was on Ecclesiology, the study of the church. I learned something while I was writing that paper that I have never forgotten. Paul and Peter viewed the church in two different ways. Paul believed the church was visible. In other words, he believed if your name was in the church directory then you were part of the true church. Peter believed the church is invisible. He believed your attendance is only one sign that you are part of the true church. He believed that only God knows who makes up the true church. In other words, you can be a member of a church and not be part of the true church. The opposite is also true. You cannot be part of a church and be part of the true church. I believe Peter is correct. There is more to the faith than church membership. There is more to the faith than supporting a religious organization. There is more to the faith than holding a fundraiser or serving on a committee. What do you believe? Let me go a few more steps down that road.
I believe man-made denominations mean very little to God. The only thing that really matters is your belief in the resurrection. That is Biblical. Romans 10:9 says, “… if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Many believe that verse is the very first creed in the church. Your belief and witness of the resurrection is everything. That is why I have very little problem crossing denominational lines. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans believe in the resurrection. Non-denominational churches believe in the resurrection. The Roman Catholic Church believes in the resurrection. The Orthodox Church believes in the resurrection. The traditions and customs of all these churches are different, but each one believes in the resurrection of Jesus. I am open to any group that believes in the resurrection of Jesus. I am uncomfortable with groups that reject the resurrection. Maybe the devil is in the details? Maybe instead of promoting our differences, we should promote what we have in common, the resurrection of Jesus! People promote differences. God promotes what we have in common.
Third and finally, we will never give up the church. The only thing that should really matter in the life of every Christian congregation is the resurrection of Jesus. Administrative structure really doesn’t matter. The number of small groups you have really doesn’t matter. The denominational name on the sign does not really matter. The only thing that really matters in the life of the church is the resurrection of Jesus. On the day we stop talking about the resurrection of Jesus, we will stop being the church that God intended. How could you ever give up on the church? Let me end with this story.
There was a time when Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was considered one of our greatest presidents. His boyhood friends remembered him in a different way. They thought of him being quite common. They knew of other men who had more talent, but who never succeeded. According to his childhood friends, Jackson only excessed at one thing, stubbornness. He just did not give up. How stubborn are you? We call that perseverance. I hope that is your story as a well.
Let there be no doubt about it. We are in the middle of a great spiritual battle. We are nothing more than soldiers. In our lives, we will experience both victory and defeat. However, in the end, God will win, and we will reap the benefits, so never give up. Scottish naturalist Walter Elliot (1888-1958) once said, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.”