Willow Creek Friends Church
September 5, 2021
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James 2:1–17 (ESV)
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
I mentioned last week that James was one of the earliest general letters written to the church, and that it was one of the last to be accepted as part of our scripture. There are reasons for this some of which I mentioned last week, but I do want to mention one thing this week. James was written early and we know this because of the terms that James uses. For example in the second verse of today’s reading the assembly mentioned in English in the original language is the word synagogue which is the term used for the Jewish place of sabbath worship, where later when those that follow Jesus were removed from the synagogues they began to use a different term for the assembly or gathering of the ones that follow Christ. I mention this because when we read James we get a glimpse into the transition period. This letter was written to the general church, early in the the churches’ history. The earliest believers in Christ were Jewish, and were part of the the synagogue. The synagogue was the place of worship, they like their Lord Jesus made it their custom to worship with the community at the synagogue. Why do we need to know this?
We as followers of Christ should not be instruments of destruction, but of restoration. Restoration is the true gospel of Christ. Most of us have a narrow view of the gospel. The view that Jesus came to forgive sins, so that we can be relieved of our guilt and live in heaven. That is not wrong, but it is not the totality of the gospel. Jesus came to forgive, redeem, and restore. Restoration is the end goal.
Jesus came to forgive, yes, but there is something greater at work. The fall of humankind was a deception that was a coordinated effort by intelligent evil. Beings that purposefully rebelled against the most high God, with the hopes of taking that role for themselves. We get glimpses of this rebellion in the words of the prophets, but we feel the affects in our lives. This deception began in the garden of Eden. The garden of Eden was the place God lived on earth, and it was the place where God met with his creatures. Mankind was given a job in creation, they were to make the whole earth like this garden. We tend to think that the garden of God was the whole earth but that is not what scripture tells us. It had boarders, and there was land beyond those boarders. It was the lands beyond the boarders that Adam and Eve were to work, and the garden was where they came to rest from their labors. They lived with God in the Garden.
They had full access to everything God had in that garden. They were like the children of a king within a palace. But God had rules for his children, just like we have rules for our children. There are some cupboards that we keep locked when there are children in the house. It is not because the things behind those doors are evil, it is because without proper training and knowledge the items behind those cupboard doors could be dangerous. This is what the rules surrounding the tree are like. The fruit of the knowledge of good and evil was not necessarily something Adam and Eve should not have eaten at all, we are not told that, all we know is that at that time they should not.
Unfortunately there were other plans within the family of God. Rebels were not happy with the newest addition to the family of God, and they sought to destroy them. God told Adam and Eve that if they were to eat of the fruit on the tree, that they would die. They were not told how soon that death would come, or even what death would be, so the deceptive serpent used the vagueness of God’s command against them. Humanity was supposed to have knowledge. This was part of our work and responsibility. We were to make the whole Earth like the Garden of God, to do that we needed knowledge. But there was some knowledge we were not ready for, we were not mature enough for complete knowledge. Yet the rebels opposed to God, convinced our first parents that we were ready, and trapped humanity in a fight we did not ask for.
Christ came to reverse the effects of this rebellion. Forgiveness is to reverse the effects of our personal participation in the rebellion against God, but there is still a problem. In some faith tradition there is a theological concept called original sin. The teaching is that we through our first parents have been born with the sin of Adam already upon us. Other theological traditions deny that concept and argue that we are born with a bent toward sinning. I do not want us to get into a debate, but want us to recognize one thing. The sin of our first parents brought death. That is something we all will face in some form. The rebellion against God brought death and the deceptive serpent became the lord of dead. Because our first parents listened to the deceptive words humanity joined the rebellion so our eternal destiny was moved from life with God to death. Jesus conquered death through his resurrection. He broke the hold, the claim that Satan had over us. He redeemed us from the slavery of death that we were all born into. And this opens the door to restoration.
Restoration is the end goal of the gospel. God created humanity for a purpose, to make all of creation like the garden of God. We where created to be in communion with God, as part of his community. When we as humanity joined the rebellion that purpose got skewed. The deception was that by eating of the tree we would become like God, with the knowledge of good and evil. We already had knowledge of good, so the only thing we gained was a knowledge of evil. That was the deception. We wanted to be like God, but the lie within the words, was to be like God we needed to know evil. The only knowledge we gained from was what happens without God. We then went out into the world with that knowledge. As a result jealousy, envy, and greed enter our thoughts. Then we act on those thoughts and murder, lust, and prejudice enter our lives. All because we were deceived. Jesus came not only to forgive and redeem, but to restore.
My sister loves old furniture, which is good since she owns an antique store. Many of these old pieces of furniture are unsafe in their current condition and the need to be restored. To restore something we have to first remove the damage of the past. This removal of the damage begins by taking everything back to the base. This can be a delicate process because you do not want to cause more damage, so you carefully remove dirt and grime. You sand off the old varnishes and identify areas of brokenness. Then once the piece is cleaned the restoration can begin. Broken pieces are removed, repaired, and replaced. A new finish is added to protect the wood, and worn upholstery is replaced. The end product is a refurbished piece that is safe for use. This is a process God does in our lives too. We were created for a reason and we must be restored so that we can participate properly in that position.
James tells us, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Partiality is one of those areas that we need to be restored. What is partiality? Partiality is lifting someone up or to give greater honor to someone over another. James continues by presenting us with a hypothetical situation. “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into our assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in.” This situation goes to the heart of our human condition. We tend to have preferences and prejudices. In some cases we need to have these things. When it comes to my health I am wanting someone that has a medical degree and experience before I give them permission to do surgery. But that is not what is being spoken about here. This is the judgment based not on knowledge or experience but on appearance. This is prejudice.
When we treat others based on prejudices we are not living according to God’s plan. Throughout the Old Testament this is taught, from the books of the law through the oracles of the prophets we are told not to make judgment based on partiality. This is taught because when we allow our prejudice to dictate how we proceed, we will cause injustice.
James, in this hypothetical situation, suggests that we give the one richly clothed a seat of honor where the poorly clothed individual is made to sit in a dishonorable position, basically made a footstool. This is problematic because by a judgment made by appearances only we have given honor to one over the other. We have not allowed them to demonstrate their gifts, or even speak. But we have made a judgment and have set a future course based on this. James tells us that by doing so we have made distinctions among ourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.
I want this to saturate our thinking for a moment. Prejudice makes us a judge with evil thoughts. This action is contrary to God’s plan, it contributes to continued rebellion and damns the work of Christ’s restoration of humanity to its rightful place. It is a serious problem. Are we able to see just how serious a problem it really is?
James says, “you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” I want us to stop at this point and take a step back from what we are reading. It says rich and poor. We have preconceived ideas regarding these words, based on concepts that have nothing to do with faith. The rich are those that hold power within a society and the poor are those that have no power. This is what we need to see. The rich are those individuals that can make decisions and force others to comply with those decisions. Being rich is not simply having possession of worldly wealth, but having the power. In the same way being poor does not simply mean lacking worldly wealth, but lacking power within a society. One can exist within a society having wealth yet still be poor because they lack power and one can have very little wealth and still have power within a society. This is not a simple rich and poor issue. It is a discussion of the ability to enact influence over others.
That being said, power and wealth are most often the same. Those that hold power will often use their influence to gain more power for themselves in some way. “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” James asks. This is a deep concept. It speaks about true justice and how we develop our society. Those that have power will use their power to ensure continued influence. This is why the ideas of privilege in our society are often so divisive in discussion. It has nothing to do with our financial means, but where we fit within a society. People with power in history systematically made rules that caused oppression among some that did not have a voice. They were able to do this because they had the means to do so, that could be financial or might, either way it is evil.
James is looking at these things occurring within the church and predicting how it could become problematic. The Jewish people of the first century were living under oppression. They were under Roman authority and because of this there were certain things that they were forced to do. They did not have the power to change their situation, they could only live within the system. Some that lived under these circumstances were able to use this to their advantage, and gained wealth and influence.
Wealth and power are based on systems of mankind. These systems can and often are built on oppressive concepts. When we base our judgments of worth on systems built on human concepts we participate and affirm those systems and by doing that within the assembly of Christ we are saying that those systems are the very same systems that God uses to judge the value of humanity.
God’s ways are not our ways. Our ways have been corrupted by the deceptive work of the rebellion against the most high God. This deception leads us to believe a lie about justice. We follow along without question and in many ways we participate in the oppression of others. Oppression always leads to suffering and that suffering will lead to cycles of changing oppression and suffering, until someone ends the cycle.
Looking through history we see the rise and fall of various empires. This should tell us something profound. The great Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, and British empires rise and fall. Each of those empires perpetuated systems within that gave power and wealth to some and oppressed others. Those that based their lives on the systems of men may have had wealth for a generation but eventually that wealth crumbles. But something remains, people. The rich are always replaced with other rich, and the poor are always with us. Those that were once poor can at times rise up and cease the power once denied them but they themselves will be toppled by the oppressed. That is the cycle of the deception. That is the systems of men. But God is calling us to something more.
God is calling us to a life and lifestyle based on a different set of values. We have worth, we have value not because of our race or nationality. We have value because we bear the image of God. We were created to represent God to all of creation. That is something profound. We are the image of God, each one of us, but do we see our value? Do we value the humanity of the person next to us just as much as the value of the humanity of the person we voted for? The reality of the situation is that in the eyes of God both are equal because both bear His image. The CEO of a corporation and the drug addict on the street corner both bear the image of God, but in our minds there is a difference. What does this say about us?
I have struggled with this for many years, and I have come to realize that I am wrong. I have lifted up my own values and worshiped a deception instead of seeing truth. We look at the world through our own eyes, our own society, and our cultural values. And we can be wrong. We need to be able to admit that we can be wrong. I have made judgments of value, even as a pastor, based on worldly systems. I have been wrong because I have let the deception of evil cloud my own judgment and I have believed lies and rejected truth. I have gotten caught up in the ideas and the concepts of temporal affairs and how they will affect the systems of mankind and I have not listened to the voice of the poor. I have been part of the problem. But the solution is not kill the rich as many philosophical positions espouse. That solution only continues the cycle that causes the problem.
We need mercy. We need forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. We need the Glory of Christ. Jesus came to bring us the true word or wisdom of God. He came to show us a life and lifestyle with God. And he provided the means to that life through his life, death, and resurrection. He rejected the systems of mankind, both religious and secular and that rejection led to his own oppression and even death. And we participate in that killing of Christ when we look to systems created by men to assess value. We kill Christ, not the Jews, not the Romans, but us. We killed Christ. But while we were still his enemy he willingly died for us because of his great love. He honors our humanity because he created us in his image. He accepted our judgment so that we could be freed from our own deception. He became death for us, so that through his death he could redeem or liberate us from the deceptive cycles of oppression.
Mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy begins the restoration of humanity to our rightful place. Mercy breaks the bonds of oppression and deception, and allows each individual to participate within the community in the way that they were created to be. Where does this leave us? How should we proceed? We should honor and affirm the reality of the value of everyone. We all bear God’s image and we should respect that, and we should not bear or take that image or name in vain. That commandment we often associate with speech only. But it also refers to how we live as image bearers of God. We should live our lives as a reflection of God’s names whose image we bear. We should live for Christ.
Do we do that or do we perpetuate the deception of the evil ones? Do we look at how our words and deeds may contribute to oppression and repent or are we joining the voices that seek to maintain injustice? Are we people of mercy and hope? I am not wishing to condemn or honor anything in these words because we live in systems devised by human hands. Every system will oppress because we can so easily be deceived. What I encourage us all to do is to draw closer to Christ, and allow his Spirit to be our guide as we travel through our life’s journey. Let us be willing to see our own faults, so that we can become a blessing to others instead of an instrument of destruction. Let us be participants of God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
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