“Can We Package God’s Inspiration?”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – September 23, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

     Psalm 1, James 3:13-18


    This morning, we are going examine a verbal image of what a follower of Jesus might look like. Last week, we discussed several episodes that occurred during Jesus' ministry that did not provide the most flattering images of what spiritual growth had done for his disciples. 

     It is unfair to judge the strength of a chain by its weakest link, but we tend to do that with each other.  Somehow, we make one fault much larger than the rest of his or her accomplishments.  Obviously, the writers of the Gospels did not go out of their way to sugarcoat the lives of Jesus' inner circle of men.  However, it is helpful for us to see an image that embodies what Jesus said that people can become. Later in my message, we are going to consider portions of the Letter of James that provided such an image.  But first, a little church history lesson.

     What is interesting about the Letter of James is that it almost failed as a candidate suitable enough to be included in the New Testament. The struggle for its inclusion mirrored the fierce verbal battles that took place among church leaders for nearly all the books that eventually became a part of the Bible.  Leaders and theologians tried to package verbally the nature of God in their gathering of sacred documents. It was an agonizingly-slow process.

     During the early days, there were many small communities of believers that followed their cultural preferences.  James' Letter first appeared in the Latin Church in the year 357.  In the Greek Church, James was accepted by 367. In the Syrian Church, James was not widely recognized until 545. Finally, one thousand years later, in the year 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church declared to the reading lay-people that the Letter of James was included among the New Testament Scriptures. 

     Obviously, this document appeared as a late-comer to the collection of documents that were considered sacred.  The authorship of the manuscript was attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. However, the authorship became questionable because someone remembered a reference in John's Gospel that none of his brothers had supported Jesus' ministry.  (John 7:5) Critics tried every trick in the book to keep James from being accepted.

    Not only did Church leaders share very different points of view, but these critics were also being highly selective on which books they wanted to save and which ones they wished to discard.  Documents under consideration had to contain key elements of faith.  Leaders wanted a consistent verbal image of God's Will.

     Why did so many Christian leaders have a problem with James?  First, it was felt that the letter was opposed to the teachings of the Apostle Paul.  James stressed that personal salvation was achieved by living what Jesus taught.  Paul said that people are saved by the grace of God alone.  (Ephesians 2:8f)

     Secondly, according to critics, the letter did not offer any instructions to Christians or cause readers to remember the Passion, the Resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ.  In fact, the letter only mentions Christ twice.  They hurled every insult they could think of at the Letter of James because they knew in their hearts that the letter was a fake.

     If we think that governmental differences ignite angry responses among our politicians, such expressions of anger were identical to the fierce theological debates that took place as The Way of Jesus was maturing. Few Christians today are acquainted with this darker side of church history.  The turf battles between theologians raged for centuries.  What eventually happened was bound to happen. 

     During the First Council of Constantinople in the year 381, theological-politicians weary of arguing when no one was winning declared the Scriptures to be The Word of God.  This declaration shut down all future debate and discussions in ecclesiastical forums. No other manuscripts could be added or subtracted from the body of documents that had been collected.  The Letter of James was included by a very narrow vote of the delegates.

     All of these often-bitter debates were taking place among the hierarchy of the Church. The thoughts of lay-people were never considered.  Afterall, determining what God was saying to people had to be sorted out and accurate by those who had the proper training. At the time, no one realized how uninformed they were.  Oddly enough, the political decision to confine God's inspiration to the contents of a book was not enough to silence the critics.  Looking back on these activities, it appeared as though God wanted to be liberated from the cage where human authorities were housing the nature of God's inspiration. 

     Centuries later, the battle over what God was saying was still intense.  Even though the reading-public had The Word of God, people were interpreting Scriptures differently.  A part of the Protestant Church could not tolerant such divisions in understanding.  People were departing from the orthodoxy that Biblical guidance was clearly offering.  A large International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was convened. A document was produced called, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This statement mandated that every word in the Bible had to be understood as coming from God word for word.

     This attempt to put God's inspiration in a perfected verbal framework was published in 1978, seven years after a paraphrase of the Bible had surfaced called, The Way, the Living Bible, by author Kenneth Taylor.  To cloud the waters even further, Eugene Peterson wrote, The Message, the Bible in Contemporary Language published in sections from 1993-2002. 

     The anger continued among the Church leadership that people now were being led astray by those who were manipulating God's Word by creating translations that were not faithful to the original Greek texts.   Two groups of people developed across denominational lines. One group clung to the authorized King James version while others gladly welcomed the new forms of the Scriptures that were clear and communicated much better. 

     A new day had come as more people realized that all of the words from God needed to be interpreted by individual readers who were reading the Scriptures through the prism of their personal needs. Today, fewer people care about which version is correct.   What students of the Bible want is understanding and guidance.  

     Finally, after all this battling among the professional Christians, listen again to the calming words from the Letter of James as they provide an image that Jesus had modeled with his own life.

Are there any among you who are wise and understanding?  You are to demonstrate it by your good life, by your good deeds performed with humility and wisdom. But, if in your hearts you are jealous, bitter, and selfish, do not miss the mark and speak your truth by boasting of your wisdom.  Such wisdom does not come from Heaven; rather it comes from the world of men. (James 3:13-15)

     In spite of their faithful efforts, Biblical scholars and theologians failed to find one understanding of God's nature that would meet the needs of all believers.  What may be the best approach for everyone is to take the kernel of wheat of our trust in God's guidance and with a breath of kindness, blow the chaff created by the professional, well-trained Christians away.

     Today, the Letter of James stands alone on its own merits.  His words are not filled with abstract thinking and theology.  He wrote about life the way most of us experience it.  

     There are so many memorable quotes that only come from James.  For instance, "We are able to tame all kinds of wild animals, but no one has learned how to tame the tongue."  (James 3:7) You can say all you want about your beliefs.  I will show you my beliefs by how I live.  (James 2:18) "Everyone must be quick to listen, but be slow to speak and even slower to become angry."  (James 2:19) 

     We are the ones who determine how our spirits present themselves, not theologians.  When we experience the understanding that God's presence is with us, that awareness produces results.  We may also find that such an understanding is not as exclusive to Christianity as we might first believe. 

     Siddhartha Gautama lived five hundred years before Jesus was born. (563-483 BC) He may have written the best words that described the freedom of the human spirit that Jesus had in mind during his ministry.  The Buddha wrote:

Do not believe what you have heard.  Do not believe in tradition because it has been handed down for many generations.  Do not believe in anything that has been spoken of many times.  Do not believe because the written statements come from some old sage.  Do not believe in conjecture.  Do not believe in authority or teachers or elders. Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, UNLESS it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.  After careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit one and all, then accept it and live by it.

     It seems that theologians had forgotten that they could not neatly package the nature of God's inspirational spirit into a book, label it as The Word of God, and have that book become the last word.  The spirit of God inspires our hunger to understand God's nature, a hunger that makes our search become intensely personal.  Our spirits can be fed by hundreds of sources like the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.  The Spirit that inspired Biblical authors is still active and is still available to each of us. 

     Many of us are grateful for the loving attitudes and deeds that guide our journey in spite of the numerous paths to salvation that come from the mouths of evangelists. Knowing that we are the captains of our own ships places us in charge of the chosen tools we use to navigate our way toward the future because we trust that God will always remain in charge of what comes next.



We thank you God, for the many forms in which love comes to bring healing to our lives.  A prolonged illness has a way of teaching us the value of our health.  A failure has taught us to become more empathic for what others have experienced.  A "yes" to a new responsibility has often surfaced new skills from within us.  Our increased financial generosity toward others has taught us how faith can overcome our fear of having enough resources for our future.  Teach us to greet change with open arms.  Inspire us, O God, to understand that our growth in spirit is what brings us peace. Amen.  



Always faithful God, we enter our sanctuary eager to find the peace that has the power to still our spirits and kindle for another week our trust in your constant presence.  The highways within our minds are so often clogged with the traffic patterns of our own creation. Always it appears as though the little things are the most irritating and disruptive.  How often, O God, our own pride and lack of understanding cause us to stand in our own shadow? 

Yet, we marvel at the many forms in which your spirit comes to us.  How often during a moment of doubt, we have heard you whisper to us, "Trust me, we can do this together"?  How many times have we found ourselves in the midst of a fragile moment, when someone appeared that gave us the insight that inspired our courage to face the occasion?  How many times have we learned that when we move away from our own preoccupations, your guidance becomes clear?  Your love evokes such peace, tranquility, and hope even when storm clouds appear to surround us.

We find ourselves in a world where so many church leaders tell us that they have the formula for what it takes for men and women to live together in cooperation and peace.  While others use their words to describe a world few of us have ever seen, help each of us to become teachers, diplomats, and peacemakers because you have inspired us to make visible what it means to be a disciple everywhere and anywhere.  Thank you for accompanying us on this journey in your beautiful world.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .