As the associate pastor in Abilene I was privilege to preach at several of the smaller congregations around there. After a while I learned not to be surprised at the various habits and rituals of the churches. One of the most unique surrounded the offering at Central Presbyterian in Stamford Texas. In the bulletin was printed offertory followed by doxology. But when the time came, no ushers came forward with plates to take the offering. Instead the plates were brought forward during the doxology and they were prayed over and returned to the rear of the church.
Apparently during the years of the dustbowl and depression Stamford's church was kept alive by the giving of one family. The man of the family was so concerned that he didn't embarrass anyone by their inability to give that he asked the Session to just leave the plates in the foyer and he'd just put his offering in there before or after worship.
I mention this because we're going to get to the issue of wealth and the wealthy and I don't want us to be led astray on this matter. Wealth is a relative term. John D Rockefeller was asked, "How much money is enough?" to which he replied, "Just a little more." Money doesn't doom one to hell anymore than it signifies God's blessings. Nor does poverty immediately grant a special "get into heaven free" card.
James concern isn't with the so-called rich and poor, wealthy and middle class but with those who were powerful and those with no recourse or resource in life. It is a theme we saw in James 1:19-10 which says, "Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. NLT"
I believe James draws from his personal experience at synagogue in the first part of James 2. It is the picture of an obviously well-to-do person coming in and being ushered to a place of honor and fawned over by the head of the synagogue. The verb used has the sense that they are begging the powerful person to take the best seats. And the contrast is sharpened by the harshness of the command to stand there or sit at my feet given to the poor person. To do such a thing is evidence that several things are wrong.
First is the fact that such distinctions are evil. I didn't say that, God's word does. They are evil because those who make such distinctions are letting the world's view of reality lead them instead of God's view of reality. When we buy into the wisdom of the world we open ourselves up to an ungodly sense of reality. When we give ear to this temptation we find ourselves in danger of damnation [cf. 1:5 & 13-15].
Second was that it was stupid because it made an idol out of the same people who were often the ones causing the pain and suffering for the rest of the church. For all the problems that James mentions here you need to remember that these early followers of Christ did the unthinkable, they mixed people who would never mix otherwise. In Corinth we have rich and poor, free and slave, worshipping together. We have Jew and Gentile and women and men all learning about Jesus. This was/is radical in our world. Yet there were still issues because of the sinful nature of us humans.
Third James gives us an answer for those times when we're tempted to show the distinctions based on some sort of external, human idea. That answer is doing what God's word tells us to do. A great many people consider the idea of faith sort of nice. Parents return to church with children because they want the kids to have some religious teaching. Nine years ago 20% of adults in the US describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" And there are those with an upbringing in a church who aren't against it, they're just don't care.
This is where the second half of this chapter comes into play because it is the practical outworking of NOT making distinctions about who is and isn't valuable. We are to ACT in practical, loving ways toward all people. One of the discussions that took place this past Wednesday in Corvallis among several pastors was about "doing" ministry together. A statement was made about how doing needed to flow out of a relationship with Christ and a maturing discipleship. I didn't enter the discussion but I could see how that is true and not true.
It is true simply because if there is NO ministry, service, and action of love then a person is NOT a mature or growing follower of Jesus. They are like a 3 year old who stays cute but never grows up and by the time his 12th they'd better be doing more than a 3-year-old does. The statement is false because sometimes, the actions and ministries have the power of bringing someone into a place where the Love of God touches their life. I know of people who weren't particularly "into church" who worked with "Christmas in April" and discovered something in the lives of those other volunteers they could never understand.
James point is really quite simple. When we judge the value of people based on the world's standards we're doomed. It doesn't matter how "right" we are in our theology if there are no acts of love to back them up. James makes a pretty hard statement in verse 24 when he says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." Take that with what our Lord says in Matthew 25 about the criteria God will use to separate goats from sheep and it's pretty sobering for someone who grew up thinking that "it's the thought that matter."
Sisters and brothers in Christ Kenton does a lot in order to show our faith. We provide toys, food and lunches to some of the most "in need" people we have in Portland. We use the gifts God has given us to meet other needs around our world for God's Word and for people to share Christ with them. As we come to the Lord's Table this morning I want to challenge you to take on a new task this coming week. I want you to pray that God will point out to you a person from whom you would normally shy away. Then I want us to lovingly DO something, overtly, openly, and outwardly for them. Don't know what their need is? God does and he'll show you what it is. Silently pray for them as you walk by them and pretend they don't exist. If you think you can lie to God like that be my guest.
Here's what I think will happen. I believe if we are honest about doing this most of will find ourselves face-to-face with someone we have little in common with but who God loves. I believe we will also discover in them a place where we can meet them and demonstrate God's compassion for them. And this will, in turn, change our hearts and make us more like our Lord who died for us. Amen.