Sunday, July 1, 2012

James 2:1-13

"The Royal Law of Freedom'
MasterPiece Church

In one of the previous churches I served I had an administrative assistant who produced the bulletins, kept all the church’s scheduling straight, and tried to keep my calls screened for me.

One morning Karole answered the phone and heard a very countryfied voice on the other end said: “I want to talk to the head hog at the trough!”

A bit puzzled, she said, “Excuse me sir?”

He repeated himself, “I want to talk to the head hog at the trough!”

She then realized the man wanted to talk to the pastor. Karole is very loyal and she got somewhat indignant. She said to the country bumpkin on the other end of the line,
“Sir, if you want to talk to our pastor, you will have to address him properly. You should call him Pastor Brad, or Dr Boydston, but you certainly cannot refer to him as the Head Hog at the Trough and expect ot get to talk with him.”
The man on the other end said in his country drawl, “Oh, I just wanted to donate $100,000 to the church.”

Karole promptly replied, “Can you hold please, I think the big pig just walked through the door!”

Okay, so I embellished the story slightly. But this one is equally dubious.

Some of you are aware of the fact that churches can at time become highly sophisticated organizational machines and that sometimes they hire consultants to help sort through important issues.

The following is a consultant’s report from the annals of church history.
Dear Sir, 
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken the battery of tests and we have run them through our computers. 
It is the staff’s opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, educational, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. 
They do not have the team concept. We would suggest that you continue your search for persons with experience and proven capability. 
Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has no leadership skills at all. The two brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty. 
Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. 
We feel that it is our duty to inform you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James the son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus both have radical leanings and registered high manic-depressive scale. 
Only one of the candidates shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness who meets people well and has a keen business mind. He has contacts in high places and is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. 
We wish you every success in your new venture. 
Sincerely yours,
Jordan Management Consultants
Jerusalem, Judea
We may chuckle a bit at the silliness of the report.

But from the very beginning social tensions have been a part of church life. You see the ancient world was extremely stratified. Everyone knew their place. Jews didn’t mix with Greeks. Women didn’t mix with men. Slaves didn’t mix with slave owners. The wealthy didn’t mix with the poor. Except... and this is what made Christianity extremely radical and a threat to the stability of all the known social institutions – EXCEPT in the church.

In Galatians 3:26 Paul says
So you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have been made like him. 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians -- you are one in Christ Jesus. 
And when he says these things he is not just stating some kind of lofty utopian ideal. This was fact. It was the reality of what made up the church.

It’s been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time slot in America’s week. That was not the case in the first century church. Why do you think they had so many problems back then? They had embraced an approach that was completely counter cultural -- and at times people were confused about how to live it out.

It was radical -- extremist -- fanatical -- and it was troubling to most people. And it was enough to get the early Christians in a lot of hot water.

You can imagine the scuttlebutt on the street.
I hear that slaves preside over meetings where slave owners are in attendance. And women are prophesying -- supposedly speaking a word from God -- while men are present.
As far as society was concerned the church was totally filled with dangerous fruitcakes and nut cases.

Yet, in spite of their radicalness James is concerned about believers slipping back into a discriminatory mode. That is, he seems to be worried that in the church’s potential quest for social legitimacy, that some people might end up being treated with less dignity than other people.

Remember, here at the beginning of James we’re having a discussion of what constitutes real religion – real faith –- or real religion.

At the end of chapter 1 James says that religion which is real involves what?

Exactly right -- being quick to listen and slow to speak, caring for widows and orphans, and in doing so NOT letting the values of the world corrupt us.

Then without skipping a beat as he begins what we call chapter 2 (remember the chapter and verse markings in the Bible are a later additon to help us navigate through it all) he adds two more characteristics of the real Christian. And they are both related to the heavy heavy tug of social stratification.

Now, of course, WE don’t have any problems in this area because we’re pretty enlightened and sophisticated modern people.

In the 21st century church there is no discrimination between rich and poor or black and white – Hispanic and Asian professionals and day laborers the 1% and the 99%.

Yeah, right.

Now, of course, we would SAY that there is no partiality and that everyone is welcome.

And they are – at a certain level – but there are these background programs running in our minds profiling people and slotting them – and determining just how we’re going to relate to them -- if at all. These are default programs that run native to who we are unless we switch them off.

A few years ago -- and unlike the head hog at the trough story this really happened exactly this way -- when I was the pastor of Selah Covenant Church in Selah, Washington, I decided to take a breather outside on the sidewalk between our first and second worship services.

This was a wonderful downtown church in a small town.

So I step out onto the First St sidewalk and am just kind of hanging out relaxing -- enjoying the fresh clean air.

And along coomes a bum walking down the sidewalk – a dirty clothes, kind of smelly bum. He’s obviously been drinking a bit – probably had been out all night long.

I greeted him and we got to talking a bit... and then I invited him into worship with us at the second service.

“Well, maybe,” he says. He has stuff to do first. So he walks on down the street.

A few minutes later I walk back in the building and the service begins. As we were all singing the first hymn – I’m standing on the platform next to the choir director. And the dirty, smelly bum I met on the street walks in and takes a place in the back row.

Suddenly there are two or three ushers standing behind him –- just in case they’re needed. A few of the people who had come early to get a back seat decide that they should move up toward the front so they can hear better.

There’s some commotion as people are moving around.

George, the choir director, nudges me a bit and whispers, “Did you see that guy walk in?”

I whispered back, “Yeah, I invited him.” “Figures,” said George, as he starts laughing. He laughed all the way through the first hymn.

And in spite of the initial flurry of concern – by the end of the service people are going over to talk with him. They’re shaking his hand. somebody probably offered to take him to lunch. And I think that he’s blown away by the kindness of the people.

I wasn’t surprised because I knew that once they got used to him they would overcome their anxiety. It’s a good church.

But it doesn’t always work that way. A pastor acquaintance told me about being up on the platform leading the worship service in a different congregation -- and a similar man walked in and the ushers got into a tussle with him as they told him he couldn’t come in. Apparently they thought his odor might be offensive to all of the nice people who had responsibly cleaned up and dressed up for the morning.

So it can go either way –- and as I said, sometimes it goes the wrong way – even in subtle ways – like just ignoring people who don’t fit in very well.

So James is trying to nip that kind of thinking and behavior in the bud. And he gives us two directives on being real Christians in the types of situations where there is the potential for partiality.

First of all James makes the point that REAL CHRISTIANS ARE IMPARTIAL.

Look at verse 1 here in chapter 2 –
My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim that you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor (lit: “lift up his face” – or in contemporary vernacular “suck up to”) some people over others?
Verse 2 basically says suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in a $50 pullover fleece Abercrombie shirt, and another woman comes in who is of lesser means, dressed in a nice shirt she bought for 75 cents off the clearance rack at the Goodwill Store?

Verse 3 --
“If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’—well, 4 doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?
What are the evil motives of which James is talking?

That you are wanting to surround yourselves with beautiful, trendy, and exciting people like yourselves – well-to-do people who can afford your lifestyle or the lifestyle you want?

Or that you only want to be around hip people like yourself because uncool and unhip people annoy you to no end -- and you’ve got better things to do with your life than hang out with people who are annoying?

Our natural inclination is to choose to be only around people who add value to our lives -- even though we might each define value differently. So, verse 5 --
“Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him?”
In Matthew 19:24-24 Jesus says "I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. I say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" So, James adds, starting in vs. 6 –
“But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear?”
When we show partiality toward the people who are popular in the world system we’re being inconsistent – and at the same time we’re not acting like the God whom we say we’re following.

So James is saying, I want to make sure that you guys are acting like real Christians – that you’re not affected by the shallowness of wealth and trendiness – that you are impartial. You see, wealth and status are not really bad but they are too shallow -- too insubstantial for godly freedom.

So, real Christians are impartial – and then he adds (this #2 on message guide) BECAUSE THEY LIVE BY THE ROYAL LAW OF LOVE (AND FREEDOM)

Vs. 8 –
“Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 9 But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.”
The whole concept of law suddenly surfaces – in particular something called the “royal law” – which could be taken in several ways.

Probably the simplest is to think of it is in terms of Jesus and his royal kingdom.

Jesus is constantly talking about his kingdom – and his kingdom has a different set of laws than everyone else’s kingdom. It is revolutionary. And his royal law is a part of that scrambling of the rules.

Jesus says that it’s even core to what following him is about, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

And in particular here he is thinking about loving the poor person – the bum – the wasted guy – with the same passion and energy as you would love yourself.

He goes off on a little bunny trail in verses 9-11 to remind his readers that you want to be functioning under this royal law rather than God’s absolute standard of righteousness or justice.

For no one can really keep God’s laws – it doesn’t matter if you’re better than someone else or if you break only one commandment – you’re still a law violator. In our way of thinking – It doesn’t matter how many laws you break – if you break even one you are a criminal.

That’s the gist of verses 9-11.

So, wouldn’t it be better to function under the royal law – the law of freedom – where you’re not obeying God because you have to but because you want to – that is the law of mercy – where mercy triumphs over judgment?

Look at verse 12:
“So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free.”
This is the good news – that we’re judged according to God’s mercy – not what we’ve done or not done – and that’s freedom - the kind of freedom that God get’s excited about.

Remember this shorthand set of definitions -- Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get something you don’t deserve. Freedom is the result of God’s mercy and grace.

And since we are judged by the royal law of freedom and mercy – it behooves us to judge others by the same kind of standard... to extend ourselves with grace. You see, the bottom line is that we’re judged by whatever law we live by.

Vs. 13 –
“There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.”
If the standard of mercy isn’t driving you then you don’t get God. You have no stake in his operation. The point is that when we are being partial to the rich and cool people whom everyone loves we are not applying the standard of love and mercy to the poor and unattractive people.

And if such is the case – then it seems that we aren’t really functioning out of God’s mercy and love as it has been extended to us.

We don’t get it. Grace is all about God’s gift of love and mercy to undeserving people – us!

And if we don’t function in a like manner to the undeserving people around us – the fact is that we don’t really get God’s love and mercy. We’re out of it, in more ways than one.

Oecumenius, the 6th century Christian philosopher put it this way –
“The law of liberty is the one which does not recognize classes of persons. This is the law of Christ. Whoever shows favoritism is not free but a slave, for ‘A man is a slave to the one by whom he has been overcome.’”
So here’s the question: Have you been overcome by the external standards where you choose who you are going to relate to based on appearances or personal advantage?

Have you become a slave to God’s love and mercy? Have you been overcome by God’s love and mercy – to the point where love and mercy characterizes how you relate to others?

I remember hearing this story in the 60's, when no one wore shorts and sandals to church. And all properly dressed men wore white shirts and skinny black ties... and suit coats

A hippy decided he was going to visit a church to find out about God. Long unkept hair, bare foot, jeans with patches and holes, the hippy arrived a little late as visitors are naturally inclined to do. The congregation had already sung the opening hymn and they were seated for prayer. But there were no seats left – so the hippie walked down the center aisle to the front and found a place on the floor to sit.

You can imagine the stir. People were astonished that someone would come to church dressed like he did and then that he would plop down on the floor right in center aisle.

There was a murmur in the congregation.

About that time, one of the old timers – a deacon in the church – got up and started walking forward toward the hippie.

Many thought, “O good, he’ll take care of this rude young man” And there is no denying that he was a bit rude.

Suit, tie, and walking with a cane the old deacon ambled down to the young man and slowly lowered himself to the carpet beside the young visitor. He quietly extended his hand to shake that of the hippie – and whispered “welcome” –

They sat together on the floor throughout the service. Some have pointed to that moment as the beginning of the Jesus People movement that swept the world in the late 60’s and 70’s.

Sometimes we do get it right -- and we’d like it to be more so than not.

Real Christians are impartial because they live by the royal law of love. There is a case study this morning -- a little bit different. Alex read Mark 5:21-43, the gospel text of the morning, a few minutes ago. Here are a few questions for our consideration.

  • Were Jairus and his family high status or low status? Why? 
  • Was the woman from the crowd that Jesus healed along the way high status or low status? Why? 
  • How would Jesus’ encounter with the bleeding woman been understood by a status conscious society?

Unless otherwise noted all scripture is quoted from the New Living Translation, ©1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.

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