9th September 2018
James Chapter 2 verses 1-17
Maggie Cogan - Reader
On a sweltering August day in 1963, a quarter-million people travelled to Washington, D.C. for the largest civil rights demonstration in American history. Gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the crowds heard a 34-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. His words struck home in the heart of America. Something inside the nation stirred when he said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Those four words—“I have a dream”—came to be the rallying cry of an oppressed people who would no longer be denied justice.
Prejudice takes many shapes and forms today, including discrimination based on race – gender – faith and sexual orientation. James identifies the source of these divisions as being a matter of the heart. He identifies the propensity humans have to carry private judgements against certain type of people, in a way that impacts the way our behaviours and reactions toward them.
The Apostle James addresses a problem in congregations of his time. When a well-dressed newcomer appears, are we guilty of saying. “Have a seat here, please.” “Would you like a cup of coffee?” But when people turn up dressed in the latest from hand me downs, do they get the same treatment? James identifies this as prejudice. He wonders whether people who act this way really believe in Jesus.
On the next few Sundays, as Cheryl said last week we will hear other passages from the Letter of James. Each of us might read that letter on our own as well. It’s short—only four or five pages in many Bibles. The Letter of James is clear and practical. We won’t find much there that troubles us because we do not understand it. We may find much that troubles us because we do understand it, because it is all too clear in the challenge it presents to us.
Tom and I have just spent a fabulous holiday touring Italy mainly by train visiting different cities. As many of you know I have a passion for studying Judaism and the lives that these people have endured from the beginning of time and whenever we visit a city – having seen the glorious Cathedrals – we head for the Ghettos and the Jewish Museums. If I have noticed anything at all during this holiday – it’s that the Jewish people are again being judged for their faith and their way of life. Most Museums we could only enter by ringing the bell and being allowed in. One Museum had electronic gates that had to be opened to let you in ------ Why – where is their dream of living a free life – open and without fear. Whether Jew or Christian we believe in one God
Genesis Chapter 1 says, “All people are equally created in God’s image.”
John Chapter 3 says. “All are loved by God.”
Romans Chapter 3 says, “All are stained and tainted by sin.”
Revelation chapter 22 says, “All are able to be redeemed.”
Those four facts form the basis of the doctrine of Christian equality. All people regardless of their background are significant.
But there is a sense in which “all men are not created equal.” That’s an equally true statement. We don’t all have the same background - the same culture - the same language - the same abilities - the same opportunities.
The early church wrestled mightily with these differences. The New Testament bears witness to many divisions among the first generation of believers in Christ. We all make snap judgements
Jews and Gentiles - Greeks and non-Greeks - rich and poor - slave and free - circumcised and uncircumcised - male and female - young and old - Sabbath-keepers and non-Sabbath-keepers.
The church has wrestled with these issues for 2000 years. James shines a light on the problem of partiality by focusing on an issue most of us never think about. He uses the example of the “man with the gold ring” to force us to face our hidden tendency to discriminate inside the church of Jesus Christ.
James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you believe with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
What would qualify as favouritism? The word means to judge on the basis of outward appearance. You can get an idea of how this works by perusing an issue of Hello magazine – which I love to do when I go to the hairdressers. You’ll see pictures of the current “beautiful people,” such as “The Royals,” or the latest pop stars in their homes. If you read Hello and similar magazines you’ll find out who the world considers beautiful. You’ll know who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, and who’s down. You’ll discover whose marriage is on the rocks, which couple is no longer a couple, and so on. There must be a market for this because you find these magazines in every supermarket
James says in verses 2 – 4 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
This is the strange case of the snooty usher. This sort of thing happens all the time. The rich and powerful get the good seats, while the poor are told to stand in the back.
What’s the problem here? Is it that we care so much for the rich man, or that we care so little for the poor man? James isn’t arguing we should do less for the rich. He’s simply saying we shouldn’t discriminate against the poor. Why would we favour the rich man? The answer is obvious. Because he has money! We like to say the ground is level at the foot of the cross, but it’s not always level in the church.
James now gives us two reasons favouritism inside the church is a sin.
Favouritism denies Kingdom principles.
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him
How can we reject those whom God has accepted? Who are we to reject those whom God has chosen? James is thinking about the poor Christians of the first century who were rich in faith, even though they had little of the world’s goods. When God chooses members of his team, he usually starts with the poor, so he can show what he can do with the people the world considers hopeless. God delights to take drug addicts, prostitutes, and broken people of all kinds and redeem them by the blood of Jesus.
We discover the whole gospel in the final phrase: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
There is a verse in the hymn “Rock of Ages” which says
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Until we see the depth of our sin, we will never rightly appreciate God’s mercy. As long as we see ourselves as “moderate” sinners, we’ll seek a “moderate” Christ to give us a “moderate” salvation. And we will certainly stand in judgment over those whose sins we judge as worse than our own.
But when God gives us a glimpse of our own depravity so we see how bad we really are, then we will say, “Wash me, Saviour, or I die.” Then and only then will we be free to love our brothers and sisters in Christ without judging them by their outward appearance.
In Christ, mercy triumphs over judgment.
This brings me back to the original point. Are all people created equal? Yes and no. In God’s eyes, we are all highly valued, deeply fallen, and greatly loved. Jesus will save anyone who turns to him. But those outward differences I mentioned will be with us as long as we live on planet earth. There will always be rich and poor, young and old, male and female, different languages, different cultures, different educational levels, and different ethnic groups.
Somehow we must find a way to say---- everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to us. Our Lord was no front-runner. He felt at home with the rich and poor alike. He ministered to the religious professionals, and he was friends with the prostitutes and the drunkards.
Mercy always triumphs over judgment when Christians love each other.
It’s apparent from today’s reading that the great question is not: What can I get? but instead: Who is it I welcome? James insists that we welcome the poor. What motivates this welcome is no high-handed benevolence, but instead the simple fact that it is the poor who bless us.
Whatever forms their poverty and suffering take, the poor have the power to bless us. We need them as much as they need us. Mother Teresa knew this, and she spent a lifetime in the Calcutta slums. Francis of Assisi knew this, and so he went and kissed a leper. Who is it we welcome? Whatever else we do, welcome the poor, the poor of any sort. It is they who have the power to bless us. Yet often we fail to do this. We fail to do this as a society. We forget that the country, the world, belongs to them as well.
Often we do not show compassion toward ourselves. We do not accept and welcome our own poor selves. Yet we cannot love one another unless we truly love our-selves, love ourselves as God loves us. We cannot show someone else compassion unless we allow it for ourselves. If we would see others in the light of divine mercy, then we must recognize ourselves in that light, and accept the great need we have for God.
Coming to the altar for communion is a way of acting on our need. By extending our hands for the bread and receiving the cup, what we do is seek mercy for ourselves and all the world.
There at the altar we find a welcome and are led in turn to ask life’s important question: Who is it I welcome?