No Matter Who We Are....
Text: James 2:1-17
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
September 6, 2009
No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we are always welcome here. We always, of course, announce that in terms of ‘you,’ but it implies that all of us sitting here today are welcome here.
The Letter of James is a very brief letter in the New Testament placed between the Letter to the Hebrews, usually credited as being written by a follower of St. Paul, and 1 Peter that is often credited either to Peter or one of Peter’s close associates. We really do not know who wrote James other than what he called himself, that he was a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But he did write a letter and his letter is provocative.
It has been said, on more than one occasion, that the Letter of James contradicts the writings of St. Paul, and most especially when Paul speaks in Romans that we are not justified by our works and actions, but by our faith in God. James writes, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
It has also been said that Romans is a ‘Protestant’ letter because it speaks about faith and grace where as the Letter of James is a Roman Catholic letter because it speaks about works as Roman Catholic doctrine seems to lean in the direction of words and deeds we do to achieve salvation whereas Martin Luther indicated if is only an issue of faith. This denominational competition, however, is not particularly valid, however, as Romans is read and believed in Roman Catholic congregations and the Letter of James is read and believed in Protestant congregations.
The reality is that they do not contradict each other in the least.
Paul makes an argument that good works without faith are simply good works. It does not require an act of faith in God to be charitable to each other. There are many people who believe in the power of humanity alone who do good works. Their good deeds to not require faith. Paul’s argument is that just because a person does good things does not mean they are a person of faith. Without the faith, he argues, the person has nothing.
The words of James are not contrary to these, they merely take Paul’s words to the next level. The argument of James would be that if a person sincerely is a person of faith then they would do good deeds. A person of real faith would not sit idly by while there was suffering in the world. Simply put, Paul would say to us to make sure we talk the talk and James would remind us that while we are talking the talk, we also need to walk the walk. They go hand in hand.
But does not end there. James, in fact, is disconcertingly aggressive in making some points in this letter.
The first point is that God’s people the Christian Church, need to be radically inclusive. Words we say, No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here need not just be said, but be said and radically lived out. And he uses an uncomfortably stunning example.
Imagine, if you will, someone named Oprah moves her show to Louisville and builds a house in the Knobs and, because she has United Church of Christ background, visits St. Marks and is seriously interested in our church and is very up-front with discussing how she believes that tithing to one’s church is very important.
And that day a family who just moved into town, also with a United Church of Christ background, also very interested in our church, and who live in the projects and are happy to be a part of a church where they can go to the Soup Kitchen to eat and get clothing for their family from our Clothes Closet.
Who do we get excited about? Which one of these visitors is going to get a lot of energy from us to assure that everything in their experience at St. Marks is wonderful?
You know the answer. I know the answer. James knew the answer too. He would seem to indicate that we ought to be at least equal in our welcome to both, and if we were going to expend our best energy, give it to the impoverished family because they would need the church more. That is radical inclusion. And, if we say the words, No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here, we really need to mean them.
The second thing about this letter is that it is a lesson in imparting the Good News and the good feelings and hope to others, and not just think it’s about ourselves. Faith James is reminding us, is not for us to feel good, but it’s to make others feel good. The challenge, he seems to indicate, is getting the focus off of ourselves and our wants and needs, and focusing it upon other people.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church just outside of Grand Rapids. Several of our Sunday School classes, youth and adult, have used his Nooma video series on class. He’s an incredibly interesting man, to say the least.
He has this notion, a brilliant notion in my opinion, that says that God loves everyone so much that he welcomes them into church no matter how they are. But Bell goes on to say, “But God loves them too much to allow them to stay that way.” In short, God calls us into church to live lives of ongoing conversion and growth.
James, however, continues to not make this easy because he is speaking about mercy over judgment. He is reminding us that people break commandments all the time but are usually pretty good about proclaiming how good they are because while they did this sin they didn’t do the other.
God loves them too much to allow them to stay that way.
The first inclination we have, if we are remotely honest about what our first inclination is, is that we think about the people in our midst who we might not approve of for some reason and say, “That means they have to change.” But here is the brilliance of James’ letter. Whereas we live and serve for others, when it comes to conversion we focus not on others, but on ourselves. It is not up to any of us to indicate that anyone ought to change other than ourselves. As how we relate to others, James says it very clearly, mercy triumphs over judgment.
The Letter of James is short, but packs a potent punch of lesson to us. James reminds us that our welcome to others ought to be radically inclusive, and growth in faith begins in serving others while growing ourselves in the love of Christ and others.