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Church as the People of God

 

Lectio 1- James 1:1-8

by Fr Giuseppe Fabbrini

Introduction

The Church as the ‘People of God’

The Second Vatican Council (cf ‘Lumen Gentium’) chose the ecclesiological model ‘People of God’ to denote the Church.
This model comes from Holy Scripture; it gives a full relief picture of the Church, showing not only its historical nature and its historical subject (the ‘people’), but also its hidden mystery (its being God’s property / heritage). In addition to that, given that it comes from the Biblical tradition, it may be an ecumenical model, accepted by both the Orthodox and the Protestant.
I propose for this year’s Lectio the Letter of St James, from which we will draw the criteria through which the People of God may be identified, and the ecclesial criteria with which it must be informed.

Lectio

James 1:1-8

1] From James, servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Greetings to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.
2] My brothers, consider it a great joy when trials of many kinds come upon you,
3] for you well know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance,
4] and perseverance must complete its work so that you will become fully developed, complete, not deficient in any way.

Meditatio

1] From James, servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Greetings to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.
The Author begins by stating his name.
This could be James “the brother of the Lord”, who had a relevant role in the community of Jerusalem and who was martyred by the Jews in the year 62 AD. Or it could be James “the son of Zebedee”, killed by King Herod in 44 AD.
Perhaps it is the former, also known as James “the son of Alphaeus”. At least most scholars would subscribe to that. The Letter may have been written by his disciples at the end of the first century or at the beginning of the second.
It is written in a polished Greek.
James (whose name in Hebrew means “he who grasps the heel”) defines himself as the “servant of God” and of Jesus Christ, exactly like Moses, David and Joshua did. To be a ‘servant’ denotes the special stewardship entrusted to him by God and Christ. Thus, the words of the Letter derive their authority directly from them.
The Letter is addressed “to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion (‘diaspora’)”. This could denote the people who have come to the faith but live dispersed in the world, as the true home of the believers is Heaven. More probably it denotes just the Christian communities – some specific communities – living outside of Palestine; and whoever lives out of the boundaries of the Holy Land is considered to be part of the ‘diaspora’. In any case, this Greek text is addressed from Jerusalem to all those who speak different languages and belong to different nationalities, and live in different countries.  
“twelve tribes”. Judaism, as a confederation of twelve tribes, ceased to exist in 722 BC. Consequently, by mentioning the “twelve tribes”, James must be referring to the Church as the People of God, as purported by Christ the Messiah. The Church is the People of the Twelve Tribes, the eschatological Israel living in the messianic time of salvation.

2] My brothers, consider it a great joy when trials of many kinds come upon you,
3] for you well know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance…
James calls the addressees of the Letter “his brothers”, thus implying the communion between them.
The Author knows that the brothers are being put to the test. These trials (be they either temptations or persecutions) are putting to the test their faith. Faith alone is not sufficient: it must be put into practice, it must be subjected to the test of real life, with all its trials. This is why St James exhorts them to ‘perfect happiness’ even when one is put to the test.
The joy of those who are being put to the test is not due to the trials themselves, but to the victory over them, to the fact that one did manage to overcome them without losing his faith.
The joy of the believers is justified by the fact that by overcoming trials “the testing of faith produces perseverance”. Just as gold is tested in the crucible, so trials prove that faith is genuine and firm.
‘Perseverance’ means hope with regard to what has not yet been fulfilled: if I am aware that the journey is not over, I will be patient and persevering.

4] and perseverance must complete its work so that you will become fully developed, complete, not deficient in any way.
Such perseverance is not an end in itself but it must complete its work in man, so that he can be fully developed and complete. The perfect work is man who lives in union with Christ. “The glory of God is the living man”, writes Irenaeus of Lyons. This perfection is not worldly but eschatological. Faith put to the test produces then a path of perfection whose destination is God, in Whom nothing lacks.

Conclusions

The beginning of the Letter of St James provides us with some ecclesial criteria, through which we can start to define the People of God.
The People of God is formed by ‘servants’ of the Lord who refer to one another as ‘brothers’. This is the criterion of both communion originating from identity and a task. We are brothers not just for us to love one another and be happy with it; but also to serve the Lord – by our own fraternity.
This People cannot be distinguished from the other peoples of the earth, but it can be found ‘in’ the peoples of the earth (it cannot be identified with the Italians or the Americans or the Africans and so on; but it is to be found among the Italians, the Americans, the Africans…). This is why it is “in diaspora” on the earth, and for ever journeying towards that Home which is in Heaven. Here it is a guest of humankind, in the same way as each and every human being is.
Its motivation is faith as a concrete and historical experience, becoming real by encountering Christ. This faith comes to the fore when one gives witness. It is therefore put to the test. Trials can be overcome thanks to faith itself, provided that faith is willing to come into play.
When his faith has stood the test, man is ‘refined’, brought to perseverance and patience, along a path leading to that perfection which will be possible when we are in the Lord.

Oratio

I, too, belong to this People. I am one of its living stones.
I pray that each and every member of the People of God, as a living stone, may rest on Christ, the Cornerstone.
I pray that the People of God may always live in fraternal communion and give witness to it.
I pray that the People of God may discover the joy of belonging to it even when it is put to the test.
I pray that each and every member of the People of God may be holily proud of patiently persevering along the daily path, leading to the “day without end”.

Contemplatio

I can now read my personal history with reference to the words of the Word.
I can now contemplate the grace of Baptism which made of me a member of the People of God.
I can now contemplate the moments when trials occurred to me, but I could overcome them thanks to the Lord’s grace and driven by faith. I was not overwhelmed… On the contrary, my faith could grow.
I can now see with God’s very eyes my own vocation in the People of God.