James (1): To the Diaspora
James… to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations James 1:1
These were the people to whom James’ letter was written – Jewish Christians who were living in scattered communities round the Mediterranean basin. It was hundreds of years since the ‘promised land’ had been under Jewish control. Many Jews had fled as the result of war and the territorial ambitions of neighbouring empires, most recently those of Greece and Rome. The Jews (as today) were enterprising people, many of them seeking economic opportunities far from home.
How had the news of Jesus spread among them? Acts gives us clues: in the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen, ‘all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… [they] preached the word wherever they went’ (Acts 8:1, 4); Paul travelled ever further afield, reaching not only the urban people in the cities where he preached, but, as in the case of Ephesus, staying there so long that ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’ (Acts 19:10); and as a result of Paul’s disagreement with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41), Barnabas took the gospel to his place of origin, Cyprus.
If this letter was written – as is generally believed – by James, the younger brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the fledgling church in Jerusalem, he would have heard from pilgrims coming to Jerusalem of the small groups of Christians in towns from North Africa to Rome. James’ pastoral concern for them is evident. How should Christians live? How were they to keep it up, as tiny minorities in pagan and often hostile countries?
Much has changed, but much has not changed, in the 2000 years since then. In numerous cities with large non-Christian majorities, small churches struggle. In some cases they struggle for survival; in others for recognition and influence.
Who cares about these brothers and sisters in Christ? In an age of email and easy communication, do many of them feel isolated and overlooked? ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ asked Cain, cynically. The answer is Yes. As James gleaned information and then acted on his knowledge, we can seek information about such isolated Christian communities – even immigrant churches in our own cities – and encourage them with prayer, with giving and where possible with direct communication.