Sermons : 2015 : September 06, Cutting Off and Basking in Glory - James 2:1-10, 14-18

It’s not often that you’ll hear a sermon in a Lutheran Church from the book of James. Some of you may know that it wasn’t exactly high on Martin Luther’s favorite books of the Bible list. In fact, in 1522, he called the Book of James an Epistle of Straw compared to other books like those written by John and Paul. This all came at a time when Luther’s opponents were using the Book of James to try and justify their position that good works counted towards our salvation whereas Luther quoted the scriptures which assured we were saved by faith apart from works of the Law. Now later on his life, Luther did soften in his opinion about James and even preached several sermons on it.

One of the important topics James does touch on is found in our reading today. In verse 1, he says, brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Now this word partiality in the original Greek is interesting. If we translate it literally, it means “to the face.” So don’t differentiate between faces in church or don’t make distinctions between people.

Now distinctions aren’t always bad. You’ll say someone has street smarts if they’re good at making distinctions between safe and unsafe situations. Making distinctions is natural and we often do it to help us make decisions. But James today is talking about the kind of distinctions that assign people a positive or negative value based on externals. If someone is well off, there is a tendency to see that person as better than someone who is less so.

Back in college, I remember taking this psychology class called Individual Differences. The professor taught us two acronyms that still stick in my head to this day. The first one was BIRG, which stands for Bask In Reflected Glory. It means that we like to surround or attach ourselves to those people or things which improve our reputation. We like to associate ourselves with popular people; we like to be a part of large movements; we like to wear the jerseys of sports teams who win. We do this because we want to associate ourselves with their success believing that this success will also radiate on to us.

The other acronym my professor used was CORF, which stood for Cut Off Reflected Failure. We disassociate ourselves from those things or people whom we feel will not make us look good. We cut them off because we don’t want perceived failure associated with us. Now, let’s be honest, I’m sure you and I have done this to others and I’m sure we’ve also had others do this to us as well. It’s how we as human beings make those distinctions. It’s how we show partiality. And I would say that James’ words today aren’t just about money or wealth. James is really talking about not viewing someone as less than you for any reason.

As Christians, we are blessed with a special kind of love, the love of God in Christ. It’s a love that is ours by no merit of our own. In fact, it’s a love that comes to us despite the people that we’ve been and the shameful things in our lives we’ve done. In church and in life, we often like to dress ourselves up or portray ourselves with an image that camouflages our complete identity. It’s not enough to cut off the reflected failure of other people. We also have a strong desire to cut off our own reflected failure. We feel this need to hide who we are or who we’ve been because we fear that other people’s love for us may change if they knew our identity more completely.

The Bible is full of such stories. In the Gospels, Jesus draws near to outcasts and untouchables. He approaches those who have been left behind by society and those who have been put away from others – lepers, Samaritans, those suffering from deformities or those judged guilty of public sin. In fact, some people say that the Disciple Matthew, a tax collector when Jesus called him, was once a rabbi or religious teacher. But now he’s collecting taxes for the Romans because at some point he brought great shame upon himself or his profession. But if you read his Gospel in the original language, His command of the Old Testament scriptures is remarkable and is just too impressive for that of a tax collector. So maybe Jesus reclaims Him as He is often prone to do with sinners.

The love of God in Christ is a love that penetrates human distinctions. It’s a love that reaches the unlovable. This is what grace is really all about; that God loves those who do not deserve it and who have not earned it, but on the contrary, have instead earned His wrath.

Part of the reason God calls for there to be no distinction between rich and poor is because it negates the very understanding of the Gospel. Granting someone a higher seat of honor or a better reputation gives the impression that God also might love that person more than someone else who has less. It also feeds into a wrong perception that some people have more because they’re more favored by God. This is what we see in churches who preach what’s known as the prosperity Gospel, that the stronger your faith, the more God blesses you with abundance. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the rich get richer, except its material too. Now from James, you can see that there was some of the thinking even back then. It also wasn’t uncommon in ancient times to believe that poverty of wealth also meant poverty of spirit. This wrong way of thinking went the reverse way too.

But the coming of Christ establishes an equality that is unparalleled to anything the world had seen before or since. For if God is the Creator of all, He fittingly loves everyone the same. We are all of equal value in His eyes. We are all in need of saving; we are all in need of redemption and we are all saved equally by the shedding of His blood. If Christ’s sacrifice then is equally applied to everyone then everyone must have the same access to Him.

Now James does go on in his reading to talk about this relationship of faith and good works. The good works are epitomized in what He names as the Royal Law, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Our ability to do this can only proceed from faith. Only when you have been shown the love of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit can you then see your neighbor’s needs and interest as being equal to your own.

Through His grace, God fills your heart with love; He strengthens your conscience to do and seek what is right; He gives you the ability to deny yourself. At the heart of the definition of love is putting someone else above yourself. Parents do this for their children. Husband and wife are called to do this to one another and Christians are enjoined to show this love towards our neighbor.

In the Scriptures, we see that it is Christ who does this for us. Getting back to those terms I learned in college, it is Christ alone who cuts off your reflected failure. He cuts it off from Himself by placing it upon His shoulders and carrying it to the cross to bring it to death. In doing so, you are forgiven your sins. You are forgiven! And now, you can and someday more concretely will, Bask in His Reflected Glory. You won’t feel this need to hide anymore or live with your camouflage or be afraid of how others might withdraw their love from you. The forgiveness of your sins grants you the privilege of someday basking in the glory of Christ.

You know, the word straw that Luther once used to describe James is often associated with something of little value. We think of something dry and disposable and of little use. But although straw is not coveted in terms of its value, it does offer much in the way of its practical use. Ask a farmer or someone who works with animals or those in much of the world who use it for bedding or insulation or roofing for their homes. Straw has a lot more value than we initially think it does.

The Book of James, with its emphasis on not showing distinctions, supports the notion that God loves us all equally and alludes to the promise that Christ’s blood delivers all equally. Luther’s initial comments came at a time when the Gospel was being preached again for the first time in centuries and His passionate defense of being saved through faith alone reinserted this belief as the church’s one true foundation.

And although we as Christians are called to show no partiality among one another, we do understand the distinctions between faith and good works, knowing that one brings the promise of salvation and the other affirms its presence as it serves both neighbor and God here in the church and in the world. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

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