2 My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” 4 haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? 6 Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism?
8 Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. 9 But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. 11 For He who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not murder. So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.
The Book of James the Brother of Jesus is as book full of hard teachings. It is full of challenging teaching. Martin Luther the glorious reformer who did so much for the church had such a hard time with it that he ripped it out of the Bible and to this day many Lutheran Bibles only have James in an appendix if at all. The big problem for Luther was that he thought James contradicted Paul. Saint Paul said that you are justified and saved by your faith alone not by your good works and your brownie points with God. But here as we just heard James says that Faith without works or good deeds or action is simply dead, lifeless, and cannot save anyone.
So today we are going to look at three tough teachings, three important teachings, the first is about how we live now, the second is what we live our lives by, and the third is where how we live our lives makes us go when we die. In fact this sermon is going to follow the history of the world – we will begin with as it were Law, move to being free from the Law, and finish with truth of freedom of the Gospel.
So first of all the question of how we live now, this day and all our days. James paints us a picture of an assembly, it may be a church gathering as we have here or it may have been a Christian court setting to deal with disputes between believers. Either way it should change how we live our whole lives. James asks us to imagine what we would do if the church was full and a very rich person came in, a local dignitary of great importance in the eyes of the world. Would you give up your seat for them? Would you out of deference lead them to the front so they got the best views?
And what would you do if person turned up in clothes that had not been washed for years, who lives on the streets, who was so dirty from years of grime that touching him left a smudge on your hand and clothes. Would you give him the seat at the front? Would you give up your seat for him – would you squeeze up to let him in even though you know it will get your Sunday best dirty?
Or imagine this. You have been asked to judge a music competition. The first person comes out dressed exactly how you would dress, how they come from a similar background and have a similar story – and you really hit it off and they sing your favourite song pretty well. The second person is a guy who comes in and they are dressed in black, they have black nail varnish, they have black eyeliner, their hair is a bright red Mohawk and they wear metal studs all over and have more piercings and tattoos that you thought possible. This person sings some hardcore death metal ‘Punk’ music from Sweden – you have no idea what it means it is just seems like a lot of angry shouting. The thing is – they are actually really good at that kind of music. But would you not judge the first person more favourably? I mean you understand them, you understand their style and song and life – you like their kind of music.
But in this reading we are taught not to take people by their appearances. Not to value people because of their wealth, their clothes, their jobs, their heritage. And why? Because God shows no partiality. Before Jesus we are all equal. Jesus is the glorious Lord – Jesus is the Lord of Glory – so we should judge people on their conformity and relationship to Christ rather than their conformity and relationship to the world. We should, as Jesus taught – love our neighbours as ourselves.
But that is an easy thing to say. But it is an almost impossible thing to do. To love you neighbour as yourself. We hear it so often that it loses its power, it loses its absolutely radical and crazy power. This is not Karma, this is not ‘treat others as you would like them to treat you.’ This is LOVE your neighbour as yourself. We all love ourselves, we may say we hate ourselves because of this and that, but if we really hated ourselves we wouldn’t be here now. You buy yourself food because you love yourself and want to continue living, you pay your bills because you love yourself and want to continue being warm, you pay your TV licence or pay for holidays because you love yourself and enjoying yourself.
But do you love your neighbour as yourself? Do you love your neighbour enough to do all of these things for them when they can’t do it for themselves? Are you willing to love them sacrificially so they receive just as much as you? And then it gets more radical – who is your neighbour? Well Jesus tells us that it is pretty much anyone, from the person next door, to the African starving, or the Indian dying of water poisoning, to the person who bullied you back in school. Are you willing to love them as much as you love yourself? And then Jesus makes it even more crazy just to really turn the world upside down.
Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats. At the end of time He separates the sheep from the goats – the sheep go to Heaven and the goats go to Hell. And when asked why by the sheep what does Jesus say? “Whenever you loved the poor and oppressed as yourselves, whenever you fed them who couldn’t feed themselves, whenever you clothed those who couldn’t clothe themselves, whenever you set free those who couldn’t free themselves – you didn’t do it for them, you did it for and to me.” When you love your neighbour as yourself you see in your neighbour the Lord of All Life who died on a cross for you. What are you going to give back? When you look at the poor, when you think of those who have hurt you, when you see those who you really just don’t understand why they exist – do you see the face of your Lord and Saviour?
This is the Royal Law – to LOVE your neighbour as much as you love yourself. And as Saint John tells us in his first letter, we only know what love is and what love looks like, and we can only know how to love because Jesus Christ loved us first. Jesus out of love came to save us first, and out of love helps us to love back. The Royal Law is what Jesus fulfilled – greater love knows nothing more than that a man lay down his life for his friends. The Royal Law is what Jesus fulfilled when He died on a cross in agony killed by the people who He loved and came to rescue, and still said those words – “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” – Jesus is the one who even though we were enemies of God because of how we lived, gave His everything that we might be made His friends, and not only His friends but his sons, his children who have a birthright and an inheritance in an eternal kingdom.
So we have seen the radical nature of LOVE and how we should treat others. And so we shall now move on to the second point – are Christians bound by the Law or free from the Law?
If you were listening to all of the above you will have noticed that there is of course a problem here that I am sure you have all recognised. I don’t love my neighbour as myself. I just don’t. If we are honest I think everyone here would have to say that in light of the above we don’t love our neighbour as ourselves. But that is the Royal Law. James goes on in our reading to tell us that whoever is guilty of breaking one commandment is guilty of breaking all the commandments. Now there are 613 different commandments in the Old Testament. These are what James is referring to – these are the Jewish Law by which God commanded all Jews to live. And God told them that if they kept ALL these 613 Laws He would bless them. If they didn’t, well, things didn’t look so good.
Keeping all these Laws always was, to be quite honest, impossible. Only one man ever did it – and it just so happens that He was from a town called Nazareth, His Dad was a carpenter, His name was Jesus and He was God. Jesus was tempted just as we are, but He never slipped or stumbled. You see the Law was from the beginning really about Jesus not us and our achievements. That is where the Pharisees got it all so wrong. The Law was an S.O.S – the Law Shows Our Sin. Now the wages of sin, the curse of sin, is death – whoever breaks the Law of God deserves death, they are cursed. And as Saint Paul says “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed.”
So if you live under the Law you must live by every single one of the 613 commandments. And if you break even one of them you are cursed. But that is why the Law is not only Show us our Sin but Show us Our Saviour – because Jesus took our place, He stepped into history and said, here is the deal, if I keep all the Law, and you guys believe in me, believe that I am God, then you are set free from the Law. And that is what happened. When Jesus died on the Cross and said ‘It is finished’ it was then that the Old Testament Law was finished. It no longer applied. The Law written on stone and in Law books was dead.
Unfortunately, most Christians still try to cling to the Law, they say that only some of the Old Testament Laws were removed – those about the ceremonies of the Temple and the government of the Jews, but all the moral Law still applies. The problem is that this distinction is nowhere in the Bible, and if you broke one law you broke all the laws. Then some Christians say, well all the Law was finished except the 10 commandments – really? Where is that said in the Bible? In fact I would almost guarantee that no one in this room keeps the Ten Commandments. Take for example ‘Keep the Sabbath Holy.’ Well the Sabbath is from sun set on Friday night to nightfall on Saturday night – so if you do any work during that time, even if you clean your room, or if you wash dishes, or if you cook, then you are breaking the Ten Commandments. Or take ‘Do not murder’ – Jesus tells us that if you even get angry at someone, you are guilty of murder. Or ‘Do not commit adultery’ – Jesus tells us that if you even fantasise about sex with someone who is not your wife you are guilty of adultery.
And so we quickly realise one thing. We desperately need a Saviour. We cannot possibly meet God’s Holy Standard. We cannot possibly even begin to keep the Law. And that is why God gave us a Saviour, that is why God gave us a Saviour who could meet God’s Holy Standard, who could keep the whole Law, who could nail the Law and the punishment for breaking it to a cross and make sure that no-one who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord God and Saviour need ever worry about the punishment for not keeping all 613 commandments.
But hang on a minute – does this mean we can do whatever we like if Jesus has got rid of the Law? As Saint Paul was famous for saying ‘BY NO MEANS’ or ‘God forbid’!! Just because we are not under the heavy burden of the stone laws of Mount Sinai, does not mean we can just go murder – are instead under the Law of Freedom from Calvary. God said through the prophet Jeremiah that when He sends the Holy Spirit (which He did at Pentecost) God would place in the hearts of those who believe A NEW HEART made not of stone but of flesh and God would write the Law of Freedom on the peoples’ hearts. We are no longer bound by a huge long list of 613 rules which were only there in the first place to show the world we needed Jesus, instead for those who truly believe and have faith in Jesus, the will of God, what God wants them to do is in their heart. When you truly believe in Jesus you are given a NEW HEART and a NEW MIND and NEW DESIRES. You start to want to do strange new things that before seemed absurd – like reading the Bible to learn more about God instead of getting drunk, like loving your neighbour as Jesus loved you instead of spending your time at home hoarding everything you own, like wanting to actually tell people about how amazing Jesus is even though it makes you look stupid in the eyes of other people.
You see if you truly have faith, then you bear fruit. A bad tree does not bear good fruit or a good tree bear bad fruit. Jesus said you shall know those who are His by their fruit. And this is exactly what James is saying – if you are truly living with Jesus, if you truly believe in Jesus you will do what pleases Him. Just as when you love your wife or your children or your husband you long to do what pleases them. And you don’t know what pleases them because they dumped a heavy book of rules on your head – you know because you love them and have spent time getting to know them and know their heart and how they think. And that is what we must do – we must seek after God, in Scripture, in prayer, in study, to know His heart and His mind and His desires for our lives for how we should act and how we should please Him. Not because He told us to or because we are scared if we don’t He will punish us – but because He loves us and we loves Him.
You see the Royal Law, the two greatest commandments as it were are ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, and love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ And this is the thing – you cannot command love, you cannot make someone love someone or love something – though we often wish we could. This is not a Law as such but a proposal to be the Bride of Christ.
And when you believe in Jesus as Lord God and Saviour – He loves you, you please Him. And most importantly, He sets you free from Law and forgives you. We all know from our relationships and friendships that the toughest thing to do, and the thing which shows the most love, is when someone forgives us when we do something that really hurts them. That is Jesus, forgiving us, every time, if we truly love Him back.
This has been a tough passage, but praise Jesus, He is the Hero of the story, Jesus sets us free from a life of guilt and not feeling good enough or deserving enough. Jesus invites us in and loves and forgives us when we put our faith in Him alone as Lord God and Saviour. Jesus gives us the strength and the new heart and the new mind and the new desires to love Him and love our neighbours as ourselves. And Jesus always picks us up when we stumble and fall and call out to Him for help. Because God is just that good that He makes sure we don’t have do to it alone.