Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: James 2: 1-13 Faith in Action - The Impartial Disciple

When I was growing up, there were a variety of jobs I wanted to do. My earliest wish was to be a bus driver. But over time, that changed to wanting to be a journalist. So when the work experience opportunities came up in school, I was all organised. I had a week with the Banbridge Chronicle. There was another week with the Lisburn Star. I even had a day with the Belfast Telegraph. After university, I interviewed for a job with the County Down Outlook. Local newspaper names tell you something about what they’re trying to achieve. A chronicle of events; an outlook on what’s happening; a herald of the news. But it was only when I came to Fermanagh that I heard of the Impartial Reporter.

Now that’s a bold claim, isn’t it? On a Thursday morning, when you buy the paper, they’re claiming to only present unbiased news. They’re impartial. Perhaps you remember Her Majesty the Queen’s comments when she met the then editor, Denzil McDaniel on her visit to Enniskillen in 2012. ‘The Impartial Reporter. I didn’t know there was such a thing.’ Now, whether the paper lives up to its name or not, James tells us that we should be Impartial Disciples.

But he doesn’t ease us into the subject gently. There’s no long introduction to his main point. Rather, in verse 1, he hits us between the eyes. ‘My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.’ There’s no wiggle room there, no vague advice, just a hard-hitting statement, which he expands on through the rest of the passage.

As we trust in the Lord Jesus, show no partiality. Don’t have favourites. Don’t make distinctions between people. To help us see what he’s saying, he gives us an example from verse 2 onwards. We need to watch our welcome. Imagine that two men arrive at church at the same time. One wears his designer clothes, gold Rolex watch, maybe even shades. The other’s clothes have seen better days. How would we welcome them?

If the obviously rich man is specially welcomed, taken to a good seat, while the poor man is ignored, or grunted at, or told to stand over there out of the road, or to sit on the floor - then what’s going on? ‘Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’ (4)

Now this isn’t just a word for the churchwardens, who welcome people at the door. It’s a word for all of us, as we welcome visitors to church. Maybe we would put up with someone else in ‘our’ seat if they’re going to be a good payer-in, but someone else, no way. The challenge is there - are we judges with evil thoughts? Do we instinctively make judgements about each other, and look down on some who are beneath us (as we imagine), while we fawn around those who the world (or we) think are important?

If this is what we’ve been doing, then we’ve been getting things upside down. We’ve been dishonouring those whom God honours, and honouring those who dishonour the Lord.

Listen to James in verse 5: ‘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?’ To look down on the poor is to fail to see them from God’s perspective. To him, they are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom - as they love him (this isn’t a blanket, if you’re poor you’re saved type theology). Whereas the rich are the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court, the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called.

Now what is this honourable name by which we were called? It’s the name of Jesus. And do you remember how he was described in verse 1? ‘The Lord of glory.’ The Lord Jesus, the crucified, risen and ascended Lord, is seated at the Father’s right hand in glory. Rather than being dazzled by the impressiveness of the rich, we are to focus on the Lord of glory. The rich might seem powerful and wonderful, but they pale into insignificance compared to the Lord of glory, our Lord Jesus Christ. The glory that we will share because we are heirs of the kingdom.

Now James isn’t saying that we’re to work by an inverse snobbery - that we ignore and grunt at the rich. Far from it! Each person is valuable; every person needs to hear the gospel and come to Christ; but a person’s wealth does not determine their value in the kingdom. We’re to be impartial.

The Impartial Disciple is to watch our welcome and honour those whom God honours. Or, to summarise it, the impartial disciple is to live out the royal law according to the Scripture (8). This is the law mentioned by Jesus the King, the Lord of glory, on which all the law and the prophets hangs (alongside love for God). And what does King Jesus command us? ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Now James says ‘if you really fulfil {this] royal law... you are doing well.’ So take a moment, and ask yourself - how well am I doing? On a scale of 1 - 10 in the loving your neighbour stakes, where do you sit? I’ll not ask you to raise your hands, but keep that score in your mind for a moment. Is there room for improvement? Are there some people you need to do a better job of loving as much as you love yourself?

If that’s the case, and you’re not on a ten, then James has some surprising news for you. ‘But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.’ (9) By making distinctions, by having favourites, by showing partiality, you are failing to keep the law, and therefore sinning.

And you might want to protest, and say, but I do love some people / these people! Here’s a group of neighbours, and I love them, so isn’t that good enough? Well, what would a police officer think if he stopped you for talking on your mobile phone, and you said, but look, I was wearing my seatbelt and driving within the speed limit! Obeying some bits of the law don’t matter if you’ve broken another bit of it.

Or, as sometimes happened at home, my brother and I played football - outside, inside, anywhere, any time. And there was one day we had a tennis ball in the hall, and somehow... the lampshade was hit, and a bit of it fell to the ground. Mum and dad didn’t seem to care that most of the lampshade was unbroken - they did care about the broken bit! Because with a broken bit, it was all broken. And it’s the same here with God’s law: ‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.’ (10).

James gives us the example of the ten commandments. The one God spoke both commands - no adultery and no murder. To break one is to break all. You can’t pick and choose which to obey. In the same way, the royal law says love your neighbour as yourself. All your neighbours, not just some. Everyone, not just the ones you like.

As we come to a close, James tells us what to do, as impartial disciples who watch our welcome, honour those whom God honours, and love everyone: ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.’ In Christ, we are to be judged under his law of liberty. So live out his way of freedom, showing the mercy we have received to everyone else. We didn’t deserve his mercy - so speak it out and act it out, especially to those we think don’t deserve it.

Isn’t this what we pray every day in the Lord’s prayer? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we refuse to show mercy, then we cannot receive God’s mercy. But, in his final words in this passage, James rejoices: ‘Mercy triumphs over judgement.’

Are there people we find difficult to love? Are there people we would struggle to welcome? Let’s take a moment to ask God to show us his great grace and mercy and love towards us. And then ask his grace to extend that grace, mercy and love to others - the people we’ve thought about. To ask that we would be known as impartial disciples, welcoming disciples, loving disciples, merciful disciples.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th January 2017.

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