Tuesday, August 9, 2016
Third of four part series on Gospel Unity!
This is the third in a four part series of messages preached by Pastor Jeremy Fair, Sr. pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, Tulsa.
Jesus Outside the Lines – Part 3
We are in the midst of a short series where we are looking at issues that divide us and the Gospel that unites us. Thus far, we’ve considered the divisive nature of political posturing and how the Gospel of grace must supersede our political ideology. We’ve also considered the racial divisions that are plaguing our nation, our world, and, if we’re honest, plague each of our hearts and how the Gospel of grace gives us an identity in Christ that destroys racial disunity and creates unity.
We are now going to consider a third area where we experience division and, for lack of a better phrase, I’ve called it class division. Sociologists have studied class division and given specific definitions, while politicians and pundits often speak of the impoverished, the middle class, and the wealthy 1%. Regardless of how you define it, we can all acknowledge that social class divisions are a real thing and there are real problems.
This isn’t a new problem and it isn’t a uniquely American problem. As much as the Bible speaks about the Gospel creating unity between people of different races and cultures, it speaks as much, if not more, about the Gospel creating unity between people of different classes; I’m talking about the rich and the poor, the cultural elite and those who are marginalized in culture. God is deeply concerned about class unity amongst His people.
Class division, or division that is basically socio-economic, is tricky to understand and even trickier to talk about. Some people say that this kind of division, a kind that cuts between the rich and the poor, is even more pernicious than racial division.
Social scientists across the political spectrum recognize that class division creates all sorts of problems in our culture. For example, one fairly liberal progressive author writes, “It’s not that all battles for racial equality have been won – they haven’t – or that we live in a post-racial society. But, in some remarkable and troubling ways, class has become an increasingly significant barrier to equality in modern America.” Interestingly, one quite conservative author writes something similar, “We don’t talk about class nearly as often, even though the bifurcation of American life along class lines continues apace, with distressing consequences.” He goes on to say, “For all our obsession with race, class is asserting its predominance in family trends.”
Like political ideologies and like race and culture, class division is not simply a problem in the broader culture, it is a problem for the church and as we see in James 2:1-17, it has long been a problem for the church. But the Gospel is greater than class division and the unifying power of the Gospel takes people that would naturally be at odds with one another and creates a unifying bond in Jesus.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Let’s consider the background. Just a few verses before this passage, James writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” God never intends for us to merely hear the word or merely know the word; we are called to be doers of the word. The word that we are called to do are God’s commands, perfectly summarized in the Great Commandment; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It is God’s law but it’s “the law of liberty” because the Gospel liberates us to do the hard work of love.
The Gospel frees us from slavery to sin with all of its entanglements. The Gospel takes self-centered sinners with our tendency to drive wedges based upon politics, race, and class, and frees us to be Christ-centered.
The Gospel is a message of freedom from sin and liberty to love, but again, God never intends for us to merely hear it or even intellectually know it, He intends for this powerful word to transform us and He intends for us to live in light of it. The blessing of the Gospel is that it finds us as we are but never leaves us as we are.
The Gospel of grace is free! There is nothing for us to earn; however, the free Gospel begets effort in those who receive it. As Tim Keller has said, “The Gospel isn’t opposed to effort it’s opposed to earning.” And the effort that James calls us to is to be “doers of the word”, to live in light of the liberating Gospel, which liberates us to love God first and foremost and love others as ourselves.
I. True faith is exhibited in the work of loving unity
So, the first thing to consider is that true faith is exhibited in the work of loving unity. You see, there is apparently a type of faith that is impotent, a type of faith that rests on a caricature of Jesus but it’s not true and living faith; in fact, James calls it “dead” in verse 17. He asks, “Can that faith…(that false impotent faith that is never exhibited in the work of loving unity)…can that faith save him?” and the obvious answer is “no.” True faith is living faith because it is faith in the living Jesus and the living Jesus gives us a faith that works.
Now, what do I mean when I say that true faith is exhibited in the work of loving unity? I mean that our faith is not exhibited in how much we know; our faith is exhibited in how much we love. Recalling the text from Galatians 3, you can know the doctrine of justification by faith alone backwards and forwards but if what you know doesn’t transform how you live then it’s pointless. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is meant to unite people of all races and cultures because it unites them to a common Christ by faith. James 2 states that you can know the law of God backwards and forwards but if you don’t intimately know the law-giver and His law of liberty and do not respond with free love towards others then your knowledge is pointless. When you personally and intimately know God and have true faith it will be exhibited not in how much you know but in how much you love.
Our love motivates the hard work of unity and it is hard work. Here’s what I find interesting: For James, unity is not a second tier issue. Unity is not something that we can work on when everything else has been sorted out. Notice the priority that is given to unity. If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder then you are a complete law-breaker. If you not commit murder but do commit adultery then you are a complete law-breaker. And, if you do not commit adultery or murder but fail to exhibit loving unity then you are a complete law-breaker.
It seems that James is picking two biggies, murder and adultery, two big sins that we’d all agree are egregious violations of God’s law and two sins that we’d all agree are not in keeping with someone who says that they have faith and are following Jesus. And he says, “When you show partiality towards people who look like you and dress like you and talk like you, and when you make distinctions based upon class, and when you hinder unity through your lack of charity, you are just as guilty as an adulterer or murderer. Loving unity is not a second tier issue.”
II. Loving unity is exhibited in impartiality, honor, and mercy
Here’s a second thing to consider, loving unity is exhibited in impartiality, honor, and mercy. In other words, true faith works and that work is seen most clearly in how we exhibit love towards people of different classes, particularly the poor.
James’ illustrations are straightforward and clear; they don’t require a lot of explanation. So, let me put them into our context: Suppose a person visits our church on a Sunday morning, they drive up in nice car, they are wearing nice clothes, and they immediately feel welcomed by us. Perhaps we show them around, grab them a cup of coffee, and offer them to sit by us in worship. OK, so far so good; nothing wrong with those things. But suppose another person visits our church on a Sunday morning, they walk to church, or ride a bike, or drive up in a car that has seen its better days, they are wearing work clothes, perhaps dirty jeans. When they come into the fellowship hall someone greets them but doesn’t go out of their way to show them around or make them feel welcome. When worship begins no one offers them a place to sit and we’re somewhat delighted when they sit near the back by themselves. That kind of behavior will never foster unity because it is rooted in divisive partiality. In verse 9, James calls that kind of behavior sin; it has no place among God’s people.
As opposed to class-driven partiality, we must work to do the very opposite and show honor to people of different classes, particularly the poor. We honor them because by their lack of earthly possessions they are actually given something that many of us lack, they are given longing faith. Verse 5, “God has chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith.” A rich person doesn’t feel any immediate need, they aren’t desperate, and thus, they are more hesitant to cry out to God for help. That is why Jesus said in Matthew 19:24 that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” On the other hand, a poor person recognizes their material need, they understand desperation, thus they are more easily humbled and more easily cry out to God. And we should work to honor the poor and learn from them and sit at their feet rather than implying that they must sit at our feet.
Unity may seem intangible; honor may seem subjective; but do you know what is quite tangible and objective, showing love through deeds of mercy. Thus, near the end of this passage James gets very practical. Here’s how you exhibit loving unity, you clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Our words about Gospel unity are meaningless unless they are met with deeds of mercy. Without the ministry of mercy, faith is dead!
III. Mercy flows from those who have received mercy
The third thing to consider is that mercy flows from those who have received mercy. Do you know what we all have in common, whether you are materially rich or materially poor, whether you are highly educated or dropped out of school? We are all impoverished beggars in desperate need of God’s mercy. You see, the sin condition makes no distinctions. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And it’s a Gospel principle that those who have received mercy show mercy. We must recognize that a culturally elite status means nothing to God.
As Christians, although we still battle against the sin of pride and independence, we hopefully recognize that everything we have is a gift of God’s grace. It all belongs to Him and we are simply stewards. As objects of God’s grace and recipients of God’s mercy, we are meant to overflow with mercy towards others, not because they’ve earned it or deserve it but because we freely give as we’ve been freely given.
Now, let me end with a couple of applications. First, we must work to build friendships with people of different classes, with people in different socio-economic categories than our own. I think that this is perhaps harder than developing friendships with people of different races and cultures. I have several black friends but almost all of my black friends are middle class like me. I have several Asian friends but almost all of my Asian friends are highly educated like me. Where I tend to struggle and where I see a deficiency in my friendships is with people who are poor or who are on the margins of society, regardless of their race, and I must confess that there is a root of sin behind that. I don’t believe that they are less than me but, by my failure to engage with them and befriend them, my love betrays my beliefs. Gospel friendships are a hallmark of true Gospel faith.
Second application, we must build a church culture that doesn’t passively or silently divide people based upon class but welcomes people of all classes. How does our church’s culture welcome people across the socio-economic spectrum; not how do we personally welcome people but how does our church culture welcome people? When it comes to Christian education in Sunday School or Bible studies, how does our church culture welcome the poorly educated? Do we only offer topics or teach in such a way that presupposes a high level of education or Bible knowledge?
If a person struggles to read or doesn’t have our Christian vocabulary, would they feel welcome and cared for in our Sunday School or would they feel embarrassed, ashamed, and marginalized?
I don’t have a specific answer to those questions but those are the kinds of things we need to wrestle with to build a healthy church culture that is welcoming.
Again, I’m reminded of Russ Whitfield’s provocative question: “What will it take for those unlike us to darken our doors? What will it take to regularly reach and engage millennials and minorities?” It will take the hard work of building a culture that intentionally doesn’t divide but rather unifies under the Gospel of Jesus.