James 2:1-7 – Favoritism is Foolish

My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?
 
Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens! Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you, who use the courts to rob you blind? Aren’t they the ones who scorn the new name—“Christian”—used in your baptisms? (The Message)
 
Have you ever felt like an outsider?  It is an awkward feeling, isn’t it? 
           
Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service. Picture that you are a just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy. You have never been to this church before. You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. 
 
What is going through your mind?… What are you observing?… “Wow, that is a big building! I don’t know anybody here.” You work-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. Your inner dialogue may be, “Where do I go? Will anybody notice me? How am I supposed to act? Are my kids going to be okay?  Where do I sit?” All the things the regular attenders never think about and take for granted are at the forefront your mind. 
 
Not everyone thinks the same and has the same experiences – and that is the point the Apostle James was communicating to the insiders about the marginalized outsiders. 
 
If we are only attentive and aware and care about people who look just like us, think just like us, and act just like us, then we are playing favorites and have become judgmental persons who cannot be trusted with the things of God.
 
That’s a big reason why so many persons in the West today have no desire to be a regular church attender.
           
Showing favoritism is not a good thing. It’s foolish. The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom, “lifting up the face,” that is, taking something merely at face value. To make a biased judgment based only on surface impressions is contra God’s will.
 
Jesus freely associated with people of dubious morality. He went out of his way to hob-nob with hated tax collectors and came into close contact with ostracized lepers.
           
Discrimination of people based on our limited understanding of them is soundly condemned throughout Holy Scripture. 
 
You must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly. (Leviticus 19:15, NET)
 
Prejudice is wrong. (Proverbs 28:21, GNT)
 
I caused everyone to hate and despise you, because you disobeyed me and failed to treat all people alike. (Malachi 2:9, CEV)
 
Times change; God’s heart for the poor never changes. God cares for all kinds of people, not just “insiders.” 
 
The Apostle Peter had to get prejudice of Gentiles out of his heart. He had always assumed they were inferior and needed to be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to become woke.
 
“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35, CEB)
 
All people, without exception, are to be treated well and respected. 
 
Be fair with everyone, and don’t have any favorites. (1 Timothy 5:21, CEV)
 
God soundly condemns favoritism. Whenever we discriminate between people, we render opinions based on outward appearance. Then, there are only insidious motives toward outsiders to be used for one’s own advantage – which is at the heart of all discrimination and segregation.
           
The church James addressed had the mistaken notion that certain persons were better than others because of their ability to contribute to world missions and wield a big influence. 
 
The temptation was to suck-up to the rich. The church needed some stable donors, and not some poor people who were going to drain their already short resources. Showing preferential treatment to the wealthy only made sense to them.
           
But James would have none of it. For him, showing favoritism was sin and reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. 
 
When things got rocky they turned to the rich, instead of coming to the Lord who has unlimited resources. 
 
Wherever you find favoritism, there you will find a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.
 
Inattention to the poor and needy might make good fiscal and business sense, but it will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead. 
 
Blaming poor people for being poor merely takes the attention off one’s own heart and need for repentance.
           
Showing favoritism ought to bring to the surface that we need to re-establish a true, genuine, authentic, and real relationship with Jesus who does not look at us for what we can do for him but loves us just because he wants to. 
 
People who show favoritism and give preferential treatment to certain persons only demonstrate that they are not gracious, merciful, and kind, like God is.
           
In the third century, Brother Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome. According to tradition, Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury and its mercy (benevolence) fund. One day the Prefect of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.”
 
Lawrence sent back a message: “I do not deny that our Church is rich … and that no one in the world is richer, not even the emperor …. I will bring forth all the precious things that belong to Christ, if only you will give me a little time to gather everything together.” The Prefect agreed, as he dreamed of what he could do with the money, gold, and silver.
 
For three days, Lawrence ran about the city of Rome, collecting the Church’s treasures. But they were not the sort of treasures the greedy Prefect was dreaming of. Instead, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of the city and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers.
 
The people Brother Lawrence gathered into the church included a man with two eyeless sockets, a disabled man with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with one leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities. He wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church. Only then did he seek out the Prefect to bring him to the church.
 
“These are the treasures of the Church of Christ!” Lawrence declared as he presented the ragged crowd to the astonished Prefect. “Their bodies may not be beautiful, but within these vessels of clay they bear all the treasures of divine grace.”
 
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society just as he did with the rich and influential. 
 
Getting rid of favoritism only happens whenever we adopt a ministry of mercy toward the poor.
 
Learn. Get to know a family in poverty. Listen to their story. Find out the roots of their situation. See how incredibly resourceful and resilient they are at getting by and how they are helping others.
 
Act. Volunteer at the local food pantry. Deliver meals at Christmas. Do some research on poverty in your area.  Find out what poverty level is and calculate if you could live on that amount. Take a helping vacation or mission trip. Send a needy student to college. Find out what organizations need to help those in poverty. Show respect to everyone who is need.
 
Connect. Do you have any ways of helping people out of poverty? Feel free to share what you have done.
 
Come, Holy Spirit, and open our hearts, minds, and souls to your presence. Grace us with the strength to follow the example of Jesus. May you provide us with a voice to cry out for justice for the poor. Remind us that what we do to the least of those among us, we do to you. Amen.

2 Corinthians 13:5-10 – Examine Yourselves

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 

We are glad whenever we are weak, but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (New International Version)

God is in the restoration business. Sometimes, we might lose sight of that reality.

In the Gospels, whenever Jesus miraculously healed a person, it was for far more than taking away a disease or correcting a disability. The Lord sought to restore a person’s life by including them in the community. For example:

  • Leprosy put a person on the outside, both literally and relationally. Ceasing to be a leper meant that a person now had no obstacles to full participation in communal life.
  • Blindness reduced a person to being a beggar in order to survive. Having sight restored meant that the person can now work with others, make a living, and contribute to the needs of others.
  • Incarceration was (and still is) a complete removal of a person from society. Being in prison severs much human connection. Release from jail opens the way to reconnection and an opportunity to have a different way of being with others.
  • Poverty encumbers a person and weighs them down so heavily that it limits their ability function socially and relationally. Without poverty, a person is able to establish healthy patterns of giving and receiving within the community.

Those who are physically whole, mentally sharp, emotionally satisfied, and spiritually redeemed are free of obstacles and impediments to communal life.

So, it is a travesty whenever the people who enjoy full inclusion in the community, turn around and separate themselves, keeping relational distance from certain persons, and do not participate in the common good of all.

The type of examination of faith the Apostle Paul was talking about was not to obsess over whether one is a true believer, or not. He was referring to the person who claims faith yet maintains separation from others. In other words, to exclude others is the kind of behavior that unbelievers do, not Christians.

Yet, there are many sections of Christianity and entire Protestant denominations who pride themselves on such separation. They believe they’re being holy and keeping themselves from impurity. However, far too many of them are really putting a sanctified spin on their own sinful predilections to avoid people they don’t like.

Paul has no tolerance for calling exclusion of others “holiness” and naming the maintenance of an insider/outsider status as “sanctification.” The Apostle knew this was all poppycock and wanted nothing to do with it.

Christ didn’t die on a cruel cross, take away the obstacles to faith, open the way to know God, and create peace through his blood for a pack of so-called Christians to then erect imaginary concrete border walls to keep others out of Christian community and fellowship.

In God’s upside-down kingdom, the privileged insiders are really the outsiders; and the underprivileged outsiders are actually the insiders.

The so-called privileged believers are in just as much need for restoration as the leper, the blind, the poor, and the prisoner. The path to their inclusion is solidarity with the entire community of the redeemed – rather than picking and choosing who is in and who is out.

All this, of course, is another way of stating that Christianity is as beset with cliques as anywhere else – with individual believers, local churches, and particular traditions following their pet theologians and pastors and not associating with others who follow a different sort of folks.

The ancient Corinthian church was a train wreck of opposing groups and clique-ish behavior. The Apostle Paul had had enough of it and called the people to do some serious self-examination. And he was careful not to degrade or discourage them but to try and encourage the church to tap into the Christ which dwells within them.

Restoration, for Paul, meant specific behaviors which intentionally include people. To be inclusive means we actively work toward grafting people into community, as well as discourage behaviors that create division. Here are three ways of doing that:

  • Practice hospitality. The word hospitality literally means, “love of stranger.” A hospitable believer goes out of their way to invite another into their life, to give them the gift of relationship and fellowship.

Take care of God’s needy people and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEV)

Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. Open your homes to each other without complaining. And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. (1 Peter 4:8-10, CEB)

  • Nip bitterness in the bud. In an ideal world, everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya together. We live, however, in a fallen world. Harmony, unity, and peace take copious amounts of energy. Like an attentive gardener, we must do the work of identifying weeds and uprooting them, so they don’t take over the garden.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

  • Seek to encourage and learn how to do it. Encouragement is both a gift and a skill to be developed. To encourage another is to come alongside and help someone with both affirming words and willing hands. It’s what Jesus did (and does) for us.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So, encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:10-11, NLT)

Hospitality, harmony, and help are all forms of love. And love is to be the guiding principle and practice of church and community.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. – A prayer of St. Francis of

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Galatians 3:23-29 – A Ministry of Equals

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So, the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (New International Version)

So far, this year…

we have journeyed through Advent to see the Christ child…

followed the light of Epiphany with Jesus as the light of the world…

traveled in Lent to see ourselves in the light of Christ…

experienced Holy Week with the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ…

exulted in the spiritual victory of Easter(tide)…

observed the Lord’s ascension to heaven…

and celebrated the incredible giving of the Holy Spirit to us as believers in and followers of Jesus.

Now…

we have entered the longest Christian season of the year: Ordinary Time or Proper Time.

Armed with the redemptive events of Jesus and with the Spirit as our Teacher, Guide, and Advocate, it is the ordinary ministry and proper life of every Christian to utilize our identity and belonging to spiritually grow and mature in Christ – and spread the seeds of the Gospel everywhere we go. This is simply the normative behavior of every Christian.

We are to bring…

faith, hope, and love to a world in need of God’s grace and peace – a world so often characterized by the chaos of hate, conflict, war, and unrest…

connection where there is disconnection, restoration where there is fragmentation, and inclusion wherever there is exclusion.

Ever since…

the fall of humanity, people have had the predilection to organize themselves in groups that keep them distinct from other groups. Whether it is high school peer groups or office politics; whether class warfare or church cliques; there has always existed a tendency to think better about the groups we identify with, and to look down and believe the worst about those we don’t understand or just don’t like.

But Jesus…

is the person who changes it all. Faith in Christ makes each of us equal with each other, whether Jew or a Greek, in bondage or in freedom, a man or a woman. The cross of Christ not only brought deliverance from sin, death, and hell; the work of Jesus Christ ushered-in a new egalitarian society.

I’m not sure the English translations of the Apostle Paul’s phrasing to the Galatian Church truly capture his passion about this issue. For Paul, Christ’s cross has done so much more than bring personal salvation; it has completely eradicated prejudice, discrimination, and division. 

Therefore…

the Church is to be the one place on earth where divisions no longer exist. It is to be a foretaste of heaven. The Church is to be a new society, a community of the redeemed, based in equity, diversity, and inclusion, from every people group, race, ethnicity, and gender.

Together as one, just as God is One, the Church lives the kingdom values of Christ’s words and ways in a fragmented and chaotic world.

Since then…

the ground is level at the cross, we are to live into our Christian unity with humble attitudes and loving actions. To do otherwise is to be immature. We (hopefully) expect kids to be kids and not be like adults. They need teaching, training, and tutoring to learn. When kids grow up and get into adulthood, we then expect them act like an adult. If they continue in childish behavior, they are immature.

Many adult Christians are still stuck in spiritual childhood. The evidence of this is seen in trying to stratify church society into insiders and outsiders, those who have always been in the church and newcomers who haven’t, or the committed servants and the lax pew sitters, or the givers and the takers, or the theological conservatives and theological liberals.

Rather than…

all of that dividing of people, our spiritual energy, powerfully given to us by the Spirit, is to be placed with living into the egalitarian society inaugurated by Jesus (and Paul). Not taking women’s leadership seriously, or avoiding relationships with the poor, or being xenophobic, or excluding gays, all come from a place of immaturity. It is childish behavior. And Jesus expects better.

Embracing an egalitarian society neither means we are all the same nor should act alike. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of people help make a rich mosaic of support for one another in the Body of Christ.

Being egalitarian means…

all people are created in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions. All persons, therefore, deserve morally equal treatment, respect, and justice. A just and good Christian ethic ensures all believers are handled with love, given sound instruction, and are free to explore their gifts and abilities within the church.

Pursuing equality means more than acknowledging our differences and saying we include others. We need the further step of becoming curious about other cultures, ethnicities, races, and peoples of all kinds.

We need curiosity…

about class differences, health disparities, and political views. It is good for us to actively seek to learn about things like gerrymandering and why its so important; or about what white privilege is and why that’s a big deal; or about mental illness or poverty or crime or any issue that impacts the human condition around us.

In other words, we become curious simply because, as Christians, we care about people.

The Church is…

at its heart, is a community of equals. Thus, the Church, as an egalitarian community, must actively reject racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination while purposefully seeking ways to create and maintain a unified community without divisions.

Jesus reached out…

to the misfits and marginalized in society who were suffering from political, cultural, gender, and religious oppression and discrimination. The community of persons Christ formed included people of all ages and backgrounds. Children were welcome. Women sat down with men to learn and became active participants alongside one another.

Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, all illustrate that ministry is to reach beyond our own familiar group. In short, Jesus practiced a radical hospitality. He loved and welcomed the stranger.

We Christians…

would do well to emulate our Lord, as well as take our cues on ministry from Paul, who grounded both his theory and practice of Christian mission and service in a Trinitarian theology of equals.

Gracious God, you have abolished barriers through the redemption of Christ. Prevent me from erecting walls that would divide and use me to be a bridge so that others may experience equality in Jesus. Amen.