The title for today’s message is a quote from John Lennon So I thought you’d like to hear it from him in the original setting… The 1963 Royal Gala Performance...
“for those of you in the cheap seats I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one… the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery.” It might be a cheeky joke a clever dig at the class structure of England that if you’re John Lennon you can get away with at a royal gala performance but says James it should never be like that in the church which is all about the royal law... love your neighbour as yourself.
Last week we saw that James had finished his introduction by talking about true religion. That true religion was caring for widows and orphans and keeping one’s self from being polluted by the world. Now he turns to deal with those two things in terms of a practical issue… showing favouritism to the rich and powerful and discriminating against the poor. As Dan McCartney puts it ‘the very class distinctions that Christian faith is supposed to transcend had insinuated their way into the worship services and into the social fabric of the church.”
He gives a hypothetical illustration. Two visitors come to church. One is dressed in fancy cloths, and he has a large gold ring on his figure. In James day these were indicators of wealth and importance and status. Maybe today it would like coming to church in a top of the line Amani suit, and designer Italian leather shoes, flashing your bling, a Rolex watch, gold chains and cuff links, the latest iPhone pressed to the ear, all this designed to impress. And people were impressed they show this visitor to the place of honour, the good seat up the front, or maybe closer to the back in our Presbyterian way of thinking.
The other visitor comes in and they smell him before they see him. His clothes reek of garbage strewn alleyways and sweat. They tell him he’ll have to stand at the back or sit out in the foyer, so he doesn’t stink up the place. James finishes this illustration by liken such behaviour to the judges legislated against in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus, who side with the rich against the poor.
It’s an extreme illustration. It’s almost absurd, would we really act like that? Would good Christian people discriminate like that?
These seats and counter in the picture behind me take pride of place in the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. They are not there because they are the epitome of 1950’s decor or designed by a famous designer. They are just ordinary seats, they don’t look that comfortable. They come right from the middle of what is known as the Bible belt in America, where every street corner has a church. They are seats from the Woolworths lunch bar in Greensboro, North Carolina.
On February 1 1960 four Black students had had enough of the injustice and inequality that only white people could be served at this lunch counter so they started a sit in to change things. To make James words about equality in the kingdom of God a reality in their world. We brothers and sisters, believers in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ Must Not show favouritism.
James goes about providing a good theological argument for not showing favouritism.
In the church we are all brothers and sisters.
James could easily claim to speak to his readers as their leader or their spiritual father or even as the brother of the Lord, but he chooses to show the egalitarian nature of the church by addressing us as Brothers and sisters… WE are all family because we have all been born into the family of God most high by faith in Jesus Christ. Not by any human endeavour or advantage.
God does not show favouritism.
In his opening remark James talks of believing in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ and contrasts that with showing favouritism, because the two are incompatible. In calling Jesus glorious James is identifying Jesus with the very real presence of God, with the Glory of God. We should not show favouritism because Jesus does not show favouritism. All through his ministry Jesus had open arms for all who would come. We should not show favouritism because God does not show favouritism. He make the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and the wicked, on all people equally, Jesus had used that as the basis of us showing that same perfect unbiased love even to our enemies. The Hebrew word for favouritism literally means ‘to lift up the face’ to take things on face value. But the Old Testament tells us that God does not look on the face but rather on the heart. We don’t discriminate on face value because God does not. Christian values for James are about reflecting the character of God.
To show such favouritism does not reflect God unconventional wisdom, in fact it does not really make much sense at all.
The illustration of the two visitors that James uses reminds me of the parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray that Jesus tells. The Pharisee, who had all his I dotted and t’s crossed when it came to keeping the law and looked every bit the righteous man, and the tax collector, who had never done anything right but was looking for God’s forgiveness. On the surface maybe we’d treat them like the rich and poor visitor, but Jesus said it was the tax collector that went away justified. We can make wrong calls based on face value.
In verse 5 James tells us that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Jesus had started his beatitudes by saying blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. It is only as we are aware of our own poverty and need for God that we turn to him. In the Old Testament Israel is reminded again and again that God did not chose them to be his people, because they were the biggest or the best, the brightest or the most beautiful, the best dress or because of the bulge of money in their pockets but because they were the least amongst the nations. In Jewish thought here is the idea of the righteous poor, that the poor trust God totally because they have no other resources. They are not double-minded conflicted between God and mammon.
In fact by discriminating against the poor we might miss the very glory and presence of God. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says that one of the ways he is present with us is in the poor, the hungry, those in need of clothing, and shelter, strangers and refugees the sick and those in prison. In the least, and it is in serving them that we serve Jesus. In discriminating against them we find ourselves discriminating against Christ.
But also because in siding with the rich and powerful we actually side with the ones who oppress and exploit people or as John Calvin put it “ It is to honour ones executioner and meantime to injure your friends.” In James day it was the rich and powerful who dragged Christians into court and spoke against Christ. When you look through the book of Acts you see many examples of this. It was the Sadducees the religious elite who dragged Peter and John into prison, it was the wealthy slave owner who had Paul and Silas arrested for delivering their slave girl from an evil spirit, it was the prominent merchants in Ephesus who caused a riot because they feared their idol industry would suffer because of the Christian message. WE need to be careful we don’t end up siding with those who have so much invested in this system and realm that they oppose the kingdom of God.
WE are not to discriminate because it is against the law of the kingdom.
James had already alluded to favouritism being like the old testament law against judges showing bias for the rich. Now James says that to keep the royal law of loving your neighbour as yourself calls us to not show favouritism. In Jesus day this law was seen to be simply about loving fellow Righteous Jews, I guess into days society it would be seen as to love “people like us”. But in the parable of the Good Samaritan about a man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead, Jesus showed us that our neighbour was anyone in need. James says that if we do not keep any single aspect of the law then we are guilty of all the law. He uses two extreme examples, we may keep the law of not committing adultery, but we kill someone, then what good is it. Both these sins actually show extreme disrespect for their victims and so help make James point about disrespecting the poor. If James stopped here I think I would find myself devastated but he doesn’t
Finally and thankfully James says we are not to discriminate because mercy triumphs over judgement.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that leads to freedom may sound like we are to speak and act out of fear of judgment and out of a desire to be earn our salvation. To be shown mercy because we have shown mercy. But rather here James reminds us that we should act and speak because we know the mercy and the love of God shown to us in Christ The gospel is the law that leads to freedom. Judgement will be shown without mercy to anyone who has not been merciful is not a plea bargain before the judge, rather as James will go on to talk about when he talks of faith without works, that we’ll look at next week… Showing mercy is an expected outcome of those who have received mercy. It’s not to earn God’s favour but because we have known God’s undeserved favour. In the end mercy is to triumph over judgement, the compassion of Christ calls us not to judge. Not to discriminate but to treat all as equal.
WE are all equal in God’s sight, all called to be brothers and sisters in Christ. It speaks to us in a world that is obsessed with appearances, where we are obsessed with brands and consumer items as badges of status, and many will put themselves into debt to obtain the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle. It speaks to us today in a church wrestling with cultural differences, who has power and who has sway and who gets their way. It speaks to us today as a church in a society that is wrestling more and more with inequality. Where a growing number of people do not get the chance to sit at the table but rather told to simply stand over there and wait. In the church the table is always open and there is room for all equally. It speaks to us today in our society as we wrestle with what it means to do mission in an area where the borders are both the very rich and the very poor, where are we called to invest our energy and our resources. The challenge of this passage is that we speak and act in ways that reflect God’s Kingdom and Christ’s priorities, and over the next two weeks we are going to look at what James has to say about how we should then act towards the poor and how we should speak to one another.
Kris and I took the train into the city on Tuesday for dinner and on the way home I looked up and saw a sign that perhaps sums up the idea of equality and love in the church. It was a sign about priority seating.... I took a photo and was going to use it for this sermon but then I went online and found a better sign calling for courtesy seating using James illustration of the visitors at church may public transport points us to the right way to act and speak... to serve each other as equals.