"Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." (James 1.22)
The lessons for this fifth and final Sunday of the Easter season lead our Easter meditations on new life in Christ to a very practical conclusion. Last Sunday's lesson from the Epistle of St. James reminded us that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above," and comes down from God. (James 1.1 7) And his best gift is the gift of our new life in him. "Of his own will he brought us to birth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of all his creation." (James 1.1 8) That is to say, we have new life, because we know "the word of truth," the immeasurable good will of God, revealed to us i n the Passion and Resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. And we know that the unshakable, eternal good will of God, "with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," (James 1. 1 7) is the fundamental law of human life, and indeed of all creation. To know that "word of truth," that word eternally true, and now revealed to us in Christ our Lord, to know the love of God as the basis of all existence, is to be born again, to see ourselves and all creation with new and different eyes. "The former things have passed away: behold, all things are new," (Isaiah 42.9) for we have seen the truth of God in Christ. That word of God, implanted in our hearts, is our salvation, life, and resurrection.
But now, today's Epistle lesson, also from St. James, adds a further, necessary note: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only"; for if we are hearers only, we deceive ourselves. "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was." The word of God, the "Perfect law of liberty," is not just words, but something to be remembered, and something to be done, and something to be lived. Our religion must be our living of the word.
"If any man among you seem to be religious," says St. James, "and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." The word of God is like a mirror. It is the reflection of God's charity. We are to see ourselves in that, and to frame our speech and all our deeds accordingly. By the word of God implanted in our minds and hearts, we are to be mirrors of the charity of God, mirrors unspotted by the ways of worldliness.
This is a very practical conclusion: "Be ye doers of the word." And yet, its practicality is perhaps not very obvious to us. Bridling the tongue, for instance; how practical is that? "Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths," says St. James, and later in his Epistle,
Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm .... Even so is the tongue a small member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is afire, a world of iniquity. . . it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. (James 3.3-6) By malicious words, or even just by careless, thoughtless words, we sin against the charity of God. But that is only an example. In countless ways, in thoughts, and words, and deeds, we sin against the charity of God. We look into the mirror, and forget. How can we be doers of the word of God? How can that be practical?
"Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you ... ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full." The practicality of new life in Christ, the new life of charity, is only possible by prayer. Therefore this final Sunday of the Easter season is the Sunday of "Rogation," which means "prayer." And it is crucial that we understand just what this prayer is all about. For many, I suppose, prayer is just a matter of asking God for this or that, according to particular occasions, or particular emergencies. But really, prayer is something much more basic than this or that particular request. It is a much more radical sort of asking. It is the habit of relating, the habit of referring all our thoughts and words and deeds, and all our circumstances to God through Jesus Christ. It is not just particular petitions; it is thanksgiving, it is adoration, it is penitence and intercession. Prayer is not some magic charm employed to change the will of God. Prayer is looking into the mirror of the charity of God, and remembering, and being changed by what we see.
The practicality of Christian life is not the practicality of rules and standards, good as those might be. The practicality of Christian life depends upon the practicality of prayer. And I don't mean just "saying prayers," though that is a beginning, a sort of method of prayer. By prayer, I mean habitual, continual awareness of our life as being plainly in the presence of the Father, in every instant and in every circumstance, and a steadfast willing of the will of God. The perfect pattern of such prayer is the prayer our Saviour taught us. We place ourselves in the presence of our Father, and adore his name: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." We place our wills and every earthly circumstance within his will: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." We recognize our immediate dependence upon the charity of God: "Give us this day our daily bread." We relate our life of charity to the charity of God: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us." We ask that all of us may be delivered from temptation and the evil one: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." And finally, we refer it all to the all-sustaining, all-encompassing will of God: "For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever."
That is the pattern of Christian prayer, not just as a form of words, but as a state of life. But for most of us, I think - for me at least, and perhaps for you as well - that state of prayer, that union of the soul with God, is not easily attained. It requires a thousand disciplines of discouragement and disillusionment to wean us from our worldliness. It requires a thousand repetitions of the lessons of the Gospel and the grace of sacraments, a thousand tribulations of the world, until we come to believe the word of God in Christ and to wait upon his Spirit.
The disciples, in the Gospel for today, are confident that they have grasped the word of God.
Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no parable. Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea is now come, that ye shall be scattered every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. And in the providence of God, that tribulation has its place, for only in that tribulation would they come to understand his word, and learn to share his overcoming of the world. Only then could they be truly doers of the word; and so it is with us.
Father Ed Bakker,
The Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne,