The Basics

Scripture: James 2:1-17

Intro

I’m not sure if it’s James or the lectionary that schedules these readings and sets the limits, but lately it seems there’s something to the number four. 

Last week, we read and reflected on four proverbs that James groups in his presentation of how to make a difference in the world you live in. 

This week, he discusses four convictions—or perhaps commitments—that sum up a back-to-basics approach to how the Christian life is to be lived out.

Favoritism

This chapter begins with a blast that strikes deep, even 2000 years later:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1 NRSV)

“Why, James!” (we respond, like some southern belle in an old movie) “What-ever do you mean?”

Fear not: James clarifies things. And even though James says “if” to frame his evidence, I can’t help but wonder if he really means: “remember that time……”

Remember that time the community leader showed up in their neatly pressed suit, and how welcoming you were of them?

Now (James asks) remember that time that young lady showed up in that halter top and slashed jeans?

Remember that time that guy arrived late in those filthy clothes and smelled of booze?

Remember that time those kids came with that new family and they kept running around and making noise during the sermon?

Remember that time there was that older person who fell asleep and kept snoring?

Remember when that known drug user was here?

Remember that homeless woman?

Remember? James asks. Do you remember how they were treated? Because they were not treated like that wealthy, important guy. There were whispers—some not as quiet as others. There was gossip the following week. Some people avoided them; others just failed to welcome them. But it was (James tells them—and us) a cataclysmic failure to embody our faith.

 

Listen.

A part of our human nature stereotypes and responds to internal prejudices. Evolutionarily, it has helped us survive as a species. But we are not called to “survive as a species.” We are called to embody Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That calling supersedes all others, no matter what. Or it should……

When we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, our stereotypes and prejudices will be challenged. As we learn to love as Christ loves the world, we will learn to look on those society discounts with compassion instead of skepticism. Through our practice of being the body of Christ, we will discover ourselves treating those on the margins as though they were themselves Jesus.

James is clear: Favoritism is incompatible with Christ.

Honor the Poor

This conviction dovetails closely with the second: God honors and values the poor and so must we. In verses 5-6, James accuses the church of dishonoring the poor and reminds them of God’s special interest in the poor of the world.

“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…” (James 2:5–6 NRSV)

Though James doesn’t use as many direct quotations as Paul typically does in his writings, James is no less knowledgable about their shared faith tradition. It is pretty clear that James is referencing a teaching of Jesus that will eventually be recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, verse 20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NRSV).

Jesus himself is of course building on a wealth of tradition wherein God commands the faithful to care for the poor. Whether we look to the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 15), the Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 19:17), or the Prophets (cf. Ezekiel 16:49), we see God repeatedly telling the faithful to care for the poor, to treat them with dignity and respect, and to work generously for their benefit. God is even pretty insistent that if a person isn’t respecting the poor in these ways, their supposed faith is worthless in God’s eyes. 

As we think of James’s back-to-basics instruction for Christians, the heart of Proverbs 19:17 comes to mind. That proverb proclaims “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full” (NRSV). The way we treat the poor should be the way we treat God; or—to put it in more Christian terms—the way we would treat Jesus himself is the way we should treat the poor: to do to them is to do to him.

Fulfill the Royal Law

In case all this isn’t clear enough for us, James then directs us back to what the early church considered the most central teaching of Jesus—what he terms the “Royal Law” of Christ: 

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV).

This teaching—particularly considering the way Jesus defines “neighbor” to include even one’s enemies in the parable of the Good Samaritan—this teaching is the core of how one lives a truly Christ-like life. In a section of scripture focused the basics of living a Christian life, this teaching is certainly its heart.

James is careful to connect it to the previous instructions as well.

Showing partiality is a violation of this Royal Law. 

Dishonoring the poor is a violation of this Royal Law. 

While they are busy judging others for not measuring up to their own sense of religiosity, they have themselves fallen into sin against God. Instead of prejudicing certain sins against others to inflate their sense of self-righteousness, James instructs the church to embody Jesus’s Royal Law by showing abundant mercy.

Lived Out Faith

Thus we come to the fourth commitment. Instead of your life being distinctive because of who you associate with, or what you look like, or how much “righteousness” you appear to possess, James insists that what should be distinctive about the Christian life is that our faith is known through our actions.

After insisting that “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (a paraphrase of Matthew 7:1-2), James verbalizes the too-often disjointed relationship between faith and life. Having faith, he says in v.14, is of no value at all if it is not lived out in your life. He even suggests that faith alone isn’t enough to enact salvation, a statement that has proven challenging for interpreters ever since.

Our challenge as more modern readers—at least in part—is reconciling this teaching of James with those of Paul. In one of my study bibles, I found a note that I think may be helpful for us. It says:

“Paul describes the root of salvation: a person is saved by God’s grace through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation: saving faith is a faith that works.” (The Voice, p.1499)

I think they’re right here. Perhaps James has in mind here the parable of the soils, recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. In that teaching of Jesus, the seed of the Gospel is received by a variety of soils—these people “have faith,” at least in a rudimentary sense. But for a variety of reasons, those seeds never produce a harvest at all. The soil that Jesus calls “good” is the soil that produces a harvest. So for James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV).

 

This command by James to let your faith be known through your actions is both the final instruction of this section, as well as an illustration of the previous three principles that were discussed. 

If you are fulfilling the Royal Law of Christ, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are honoring the poor, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are not showing bias and prejudice, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

Politics

Now just to stir the pot one final time today (because I do seem to like pushing my luck), I’m going to make a confession: I do believe most Christians think they are living out their faith through their actions and convictions. But I’m not sure this faith is always rooted in Jesus the Christ.

Especially in our nation, and especially over the last thirty years or so, there has emerged a class of leaders that claim to speak for Christians and seek to wield that power for political gain. They have dictated to millions of Christians which issues are most “Christian” and most worthy of fighting for. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to the issues that are the most politically volatile, and therefore malleable for other purposes.

I do not see in them much overlap with what we are reading here in James—in a text that is specifically aimed to reveal to Christians how their faith should be made known in the world.

I do not see in them much overlap with the life of Jesus, whose “excellent name…[is] invoked over [them]” (James 2:7).

I do not see in them much overlap with the God of the Old Testament, who destroyed Sodom because she “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV).

You see: standing out from the world is not that difficult–there are a thousand ways we could stand out. But standing out as a Christian must be rooted in living out God’s mercy–not by voting a certain way, or dressing a certain way, or even holding certain doctrines. 

If we want to follow Jesus, the bible is pretty clear about how we are to live. But we’re going to have to start listening to the bible—and the Holy Spirit—more than we’re listening to the people who are telling us how to vote.

Our Public Image Problem

Ten or fifteen years ago, we Baptists had a major public-image problem. When an average person thought of a Baptist church they thought of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. Our public image problem was so bad, I knew of a couple churches who dropped “baptist” from their name specifically to differentiate themselves from this toxic cult. Today, most still don’t have a great image of baptists, but at least they tend to know that the Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of baptists specifically or Christians in general.

But today, I do believe american Christianity is facing a similar public-image problem. Political segments have successfully seized control of various facets of Christendom, and are controlling churches and Christians with toxic theology, and wielding them as weapons in political warfare. And many of us keep going along with it, even though these so-called Christian leaders keep changing the rules and talking out of both sides of their mouth in order to keep us supporting their people. 

The way we baptists proved we weren’t like the Westboro Baptist Church was to speak and act out in ways that proved it to the world. I think american Christianity is at a similar crossroads. If we do not begin setting our own agenda—or rather, get back to the basics of what Jesus’s agenda was about—then our reputation, our witness, and our effectiveness will wither as we “blaspheme [Jesus’s] excellent name,” as James puts it in 2:7.

Remember: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV). 

When it comes to the basics of living a Christ-like life, that’s as basic as it comes.

Advertisements

The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.