Posted by: mikebackup | September 7, 2012

Letting James punch you in the face

Reading – James 2.1-17 (NIV)

2 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Faith and Deeds

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

I love the book of James, it’s so hard hitting, but it doesn’t hit you in a way that makes you feel defeated. It hits you with a very difficult but ultimately achievable challenge. The result of succeeding in the challenge is nothing less than becoming a perfect person. Yep, I’m about to give you a recipe for walking out of here today and being perfect for the rest of your life!

James presents perfection from an Old Testament understanding of the word, where it’s not about being free from defects but obeying the divine commands[1]. So how do we become perfect in faith? Firstly it’s not just about believing in God as we see a little bit further on in verse 19:

19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Next, it’s not just about sentiment as we read in v15-16.

15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

Being perfect is about living the belief and sentiment. It’s about being kind as we read in James 1.25:

But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

It’s about keeping what’s called the royal law and the perfect law that of loving one’s neighbour as oneself as we see in 2.8.

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right.

This is particularly shown in our attitude to the poor, which is illustrated with verses 3-4 and 15-17.

3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

Then it’s about keeping your tongue under control as we see in 1.26 and 3.2

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

Finally, you achieve perfection by keeping on during the bad times as we see in 1.3

3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

That’s it people, the recipe for perfection! No excuses really.

If I leave it there I’m taking the very sharp teeth out of these verses and the book of James. The book itself which may or may not have been written by the Brother of Jesus and written to multiple communities is what’s known as protreptic literature. It was a mode of classical rhetoric and the term derives from a Greek word which means “to urge forward; to exhort; to persuade.” Boy does it do that, and verses 8-13 bite very hard.

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. 12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

See whether you react the same way as I did when I truly came to grips with what James is saying here. I was left open mouthed and very persuaded to look at how I live my life. It’s saying that when we do not act with kindness, love and mercy towards others, particularly the poor then we have failed completely. To act against the poor is like murder and is to be judged as such[2]. James uses the law in light of Jesus, that mercy is the criterion of Judgment, remember Matthew 5.7. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Wow this is getting serious, we should love each other not just because we should, but because if we don’t we are the same as murderers. You may think that’s ridiculous and in the eyes of any human created legal system it is. But the legal system has no place here, this is how God is judging us and it’s a different ball game. Every time we don’t buy Fair-trade, speak to the homeless person or The Big Issue seller, every time we buy something expensive that we don’t really need and that money could have gone to helping the poor, every time we could have given our time to help the poor but didn’t, we are taking life from others and so it is no wonder that we are put in the same category as a murderer. That’s a punch in the face that takes some getting up from. It’s here that terrifying thoughts of the Sheep and Goats that Jesus spoke of come to mind. We don’t know what will happen when we die, but what if James is right and the story of the Sheep and Goats is literal. If we all die right now each of us here will stand before God and he will look clearly and honestly into our eyes and say ‘away from me, for I do not know you’. ‘But, But’ we’ll say, but God would say, ‘where in your life did you truly live and love sacrificially for those you did not know and others despised? Where did you give out of love to the poor that stretched you to breaking point and beyond?’ That’s a knockout punch and as rich Westerners we understand that our chances of getting to heaven are the same as a camel going through the eye of a needle.

If that happens, would that be harsh, representative of an unloving God? Not really, we’ve just come to think we’re in part of the in-crowd and forgotten that the Gospel has sharp teeth. My favourite verse in the whole Bible starts to bring this all together and is James 2.17 – faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. Our faith is dead not only now but in the time to come unless we change. It’s all very sobering and difficult and is completed by asking the question, what will people say of my charity at my own funeral. If the answer is ‘not much’ then we need to do something right now.

I’m urging myself and everyone here, to step up to the challenge here and do everything you can to help the poor, forgotten, dispossessed and despised of the world both at home and abroad. Do this to be truly like God, love is sacrificial and Jesus leads the way. The Gospel is hard, but not impossible, we can be perfect if we choose to be.

——-

As a postscript – Would you believe the moment I finished writing this sermon I had an email from ActionAid calling me to increase my giving to help a community desperate to make a sustainable water supply for themselves ahead of the autumn. Of course I had to do it, but if I hadn’t reflected on these verses I wouldn’t have.


[1] Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p671.

[2] The Oxford Bible Commentary, p1259.


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