Sermon by: Robert Austell
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8:30 Full Sermon (23 min)
11:00 Short Sermon (15 min)
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Service Music: "Friend of Sinners"
Service Music: "Pie Jesu"
Translation: Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest everlasting.
Today we continue in a series from the New Testament book of James, written by Jesus’ brother and one of the first New Testament books written.
We are going to look at the first half of chapter two, which takes up the topic of “favoritism” among Christians. That may seem like a peripheral issue, but I’m going to talk about the ideas here using some contemporary examples that I hope will show this to be a very relevant passage to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
In fact, by way of this mini-sermon on favoritism, James teaches us something about the character of God and hopefully something about what it means for us here and now to be faithful followers of God.
What’s Favoritism and What’s the Big Deal?
Basically, favoritism is what it sounds like. It’s playing favorites. It’s liking some people better than others. And I suppose to a degree that’s human and normal. But it’s more than that. Favoritism is treating some people better than others, and that’s where James starts to have a problem, particularly when the ones showing favoritism claim to be followers of Jesus.
There are two reasons this was a problem in the church around James and continues to be today. The first is that it’s just human nature to boost our own position by belittling someone else’s. We start doing that in grade school and only grow more sophisticated as adults. “At least I’m not the worst one on the team… well, you should hear what SHE did over the weekend!... Wow, those kids were out of control; mine looked awesome in comparison!”
And there’s a spiritual dimension that goes all the way back to the original temptation in the Garden of Eden. James opens these verses by talking about “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” If anyone was gifted, special, and worthy of favor, it was Jesus. He is God in the flesh, the glory of the one and only God. Do you remember, too, that the word “Christian” means “little Christs?” Maybe that’s at the root of the issue here. It’s so easy for us to think of ourselves as God’s special favorites. After all, Christians are the ones who have believed in God. It’s only natural to think that we could bask in God’s pleasure. If we do the right thing and show up at the right place and differentiate ourselves from others, maybe we can be a little like God… that’s what the serpent offered to Eve!
But James warns that we should not hold faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ together with any attitude of superiority or playing favorites. The two are incompatible. He goes on to give examples of rich and poor in the church and preference given to those who look more blessed, holy, and together. But then he continues and says that showing partiality based on wealth is sinful. It is not “loving your neighbor as yourself.” And those are problems that continue to plague Christians and the Church today.
One of the things we like to talk about around here is the image of being a searchlight with God. Recognizing that Jesus came into the world to seek and to save the lost, we have recognized that the church doesn’t exist just to welcome people who wander in off the street; it exists to participate in God’s mission to the world. The news about Jesus is like a searchlight in the nighttime darkness, used to seek and to find people for God. God calls us to get up and get out of this church setting and get into the world where He still seeks and saves people today.
One of the things we have realized is that searchlight ministry can be messy. It can change the look of the neighborhood, the church, and the congregation. It means that we may reach out to people God loves who don’t look or talk or think like most of us. And that can be very unsettling.
On some level, all churches and Christians must deal with those kind of issues. But it’s also possible for a church to coast and remain comfortable and “neat” and avoid the kinds of mess that following Jesus can produce. It can be years before the consequences of coasting can become obvious.
Last Sunday I was out of town with several people from Good Shepherd and a team from all over the southeast, leading a renewal weekend – kind of a Presbyterian revival – at a church in South Carolina. Now let me say up front that this was a wonderful church that most of you would feel at home in. And there was lots of ministry and history to be legitimately proud of. And let me also say that I think God’s Spirit is stirring them up in a godly and productive way. So, knowing all that, don’t let my next words come across as a poor judgment on them in any way.
The church we went to has aged significantly. With only a handful of exceptions, the youngest members are in their 60s. Not the average age, but the youngest members. The pastor told me he has done something like 38 funerals in the last 12 months. They had four kids in the youth group and about as many elementary kids. The church wants renewal and revival. They want young people and new life. And they are faithful followers of God and students of the scripture.
We had a weekend full of preaching, worship, and testimonies… and lots of conversation with church members. Out the front of their church is a small college. Out the side door is a soup kitchen they started which now is the primary ministry to the hungry and homeless in the downtown of their city. Out their back door is a large neighborhood of urban poor that is struggling with crime, gangs, and drugs.
And where this congregation was struggling, particularly after the stirring of the Holy Spirit over the weekend, was exactly the place James is describing. Will faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ lead us and lead me wherever God wants me to go, or will I confuse my comfort and my preferences – my favorites – with God’s will.
What if God wants them to somehow transition from feeding the homeless to worshiping with the homeless? What if college students or youth means changing the very high art and classical music program that church enjoys? (One older member asked if introducing new worship music could wait until after he dies.) What if God wants them to somehow make inroads into the crime-ridden community behind them. They are THE church bordering that neighborhood. Who will be God’s light if not them?
And here’s the real bottom line, the real question James would have us ask. He says it in verse 8 – it’s about who our neighbor is and what it means to love them. And like bedrock even beneath that reality is the reality that God loves the college students. God loves the hungry homeless. God loves the kids in the gangs and the people frequenting the crackhouses.
And despite the tendency of some of the visiting renewal team to diagnose the aging church’s problems and suggest new programs and ministries to try, I pressed back on all of them with a question that should sound familiar to you by now.
What is God doing and how can you be a part?
That is a radically different question than the one favoritism demands: “What do I want to do and how can I get God to bless it?”
No, the question James would have us ask… the one that fixes our eyes on Jesus rather than playing favorites is this one:
What is God doing and how can you and I be a part?
The fact that you have heard me ask that question here before should point you to another conclusion: our church is not really any different than that church or any other. It is true that the South Carolina church is further along in its life cycle. Its issues and the pressing question of “What is God doing?” is cast in clearer shades of black and white. But it’s the same question we have to face as a church and each of us who follow Jesus must face individually.
Is our faith about doing what we want and being with those we like, and asking God to bless our favorite things? Or is our faith about following Jesus wherever he leads us.
I think the right answer is clear, particularly after reading these verses from James. But doing it is a different challenge altogether!
I think we could make applications with our own neighborhoods and literal applications about differences in race, wealth, and education, as the examples in James 2. And those are correct and needed applications for us. But I’d like to end with a more extended application borne out of recent events in my own life and the life of the church.
Love Won Out
About three weeks ago, Heather and I attended a weekend conference in Charlotte by Focus on the Family. It was called “Love Won Out” and it was on the subject of ministering as Christians to people struggling with sexuality and related issues. Many of you will also recall that about four weeks ago the Presbyterian Church in Charlotte made headlines related to similar topics. Now I realize there are a number of younger children present today, so I will not talk explicitly about these issues. Rather, I want to talk generally about issues James raises about mercy and judgment.
You’ll see in verse 11 that James moves from the literal application of rich and poor to the spiritual application of… what shall we say? – sinners and saints? Interestingly, James also lifts out a similar type sin and says that showing favoritism or partiality is a form of murder – perhaps something akin to “character assassination” – and it is just as serious a sin.
Clearly, these topics could fill several sermons themselves. What I want to focus on is how the topic of people-as-sinful relates to the topic of following Jesus and (not) showing favoritism. And I think this is at least as big and scary a subject to chew on as whether to start following God in caring for gang members or drug addicts.
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
Starting in verse 12, James instructs us to speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. He continues in v. 13, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy…” This calls to mind the parable of Jesus in Matthew 18:21-35 in which a king settles accounts with a slave who owes him a HUGE sum by forgiving the debt. The slave then goes out and beats another who owes him a small sum. The point of the parable and vv. 12-13 in James is similar – show mercy as God has shown you mercy. Judgment belongs to God and God will judge humanity perfectly and sufficiently. As for us, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, including when our neighbor is a sinner. The further point is that Christians should know more than anyone just how much mercy God has shown us – we should be foremost in showing mercy to others who also need God’s forgiveness.
The hard path for us lies between two extremes. The first extreme is to deny sin. Mercy doesn’t cover its eyes and say, “No sin here!” Rather, it looks it full in the face, in the knowledge of what true grace and forgiveness means and feels like. Mercy means loving someone with full knowledge and recognition of the other person’s fallenness.
The second error is to exclude sinners from the church as if the church is only for perfect people. That is judgment, favoritism, and just plain wrong. Jesus himself said that he did not come to call the righteous, but (to call) sinners. (Matthew 9:13)
To chart the godly path between these extremes, I could use the same language I used in talking about the church in South Carolina. We need to not ask what makes us comfortable and who our favorites are and how God can bless that. Rather, we need to ask what God is doing, whom God seeks, and how we can be a part of that.
One of the resounding truths that came out of that “Love Won Out” conference is the reminder that God loves sinners. That’s the core of the Good News. The Bible says that ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. And God so loved the world that He sent His Son, that whoever believes in him will not die, but live forever.
God loves sinful people – what other kind are there? James challenges us individually and as a church: will we be a part of what God is doing or will we stay in our comfort zones with our favorite things and favorite people?
God IS seeking sinful people, to show them mercy and grace through Jesus Christ. This is not mercy that pretends sin isn’t real or turns a blind eye, but mercy that looks us full in the face and says, “I know exactly who you are and what you’ve done, and I would give my life for you.” That’s what God has done and that’s what God calls us to do.
And God rescues sinful people. That’s my story and the story of a lot of people who are very different than I am. Will we be a part of what God is doing? Will you? Amen.