Hard Work

Scriptures: Psalm 125; James 2:1-13

There has been going around through the internet for years an illustration, very similar to and modeled after the passage that you heard today, the illustration that James uses.

It tells a story about a church. The one that I remember seeing was about Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago. Very high church – stone church, gray stone, tall, pointy things all over the top of the roof, a pipe organ that’s bigger than this room is.

Everybody is always dressed to the nines when they come to this church. You wear your suit and your tie, and the women wear their dresses and their hats. And the church is packed. It’s a traditional church, but the people are very faithful in their coming.

This is back in the early 70’s. One morning, they had already begun their worship service. They were singing their first hymn, and someone came in late. He had a beard that was down to here [points to chest] – not quite Duck Dynasty, but you know.

And then the hair [gestures to indicate shoulder-length hair], and he was wearing a T-shirt with a buckskin jacket with fringe on it, and jeans. Unlike today’s jeans, where they rip them on purpose, this obviously had holes that were just from wear and tear. And sandals on his feet.

So he came into the worship service and he starts looking around, and he can’t find any seats. And I always wondered to myself, is that because people kind of went [demonstrates making himself seem wider], you know, to take up a little more space.

So after looking around momentarily, he shrugs, and he comes down to the front of the aisles, and then he sits on the floor. And everybody’s just – you can see it in their faces, from the pulpit. Then from near the back, an older gentleman gets up.

He’s one of the elders of the church. He gets up, and he’s dressed in a suit, and he carries a cane, and he walks forward. Everybody who sees him is thinking, “Now things are going to get taken care of, and this man will be escorted to where he won’t be in the way.”

So the elder comes forward, and puts his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and the young man looks up. The elder just looks at him and smiles, then sits down in the aisle right next to him.

It’s an illustration of how we are to look at one another and treat one another here in the church. I’m going to get back to that. I want to tie it into the other part of the passage, that talks about faith without works is dead.

Now this is one of the best-known sayings of the Bible, but people interpret this saying in so many different ways. Some liberal theologians use it and its saying about the poor to justify welfare state, socialism, and even outright revolution in some South American countries.

If you don’t support these types of programs, then you can’t possibly be Christian. Because, after all, you show your Christianity by giving to the poor, putting clothing on their backs, etc.

Others twist themselves into knots, trying to reconcile Paul’s justification by faith with this passage, in order to avoid the works-righteousness error. (As the liturgist mentioned, the two actually complement one another, but it has taken a long time for people to reconcile them.)

They want to avoid works-righteousness, which is an error of both the Pharisees and many in the church, who seem to feel that if they just be good, then they will get to heaven. If you don’t think that is prevalent in today’s church, then you are in ignorance.

If you look at any kind of study, starting with Barna’s studies, you will find that almost fifty percent of people who claim to be Christian, in these studies, feel that if you just be good, you can go to heaven. You do good works.

Apparently they give only lip-service to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and our need for salvation and our inability to get it for ourselves. It’s not really believed in their hearts.

It was this passage that led Martin Luther to even lobby to exclude James from the Bible. Our Bible is not the same as the Catholic Bible. The Reformers met, and took out some of the Old Testament books that were in the Catholic Bible, saying that those were added later, they weren’t inspired.

There was a desire on some people’s part for a New Testament Apocrypha as well. Martin Luther wanted to lobby to have James excluded. He called it a “straw gospel,” because he was so intent on faith – justification by faith – and he saw very little of it in here. He was afraid of the way it could lead to a works-righteousness.

Setting aside all this complexity and all these people trying to tie themselves into knots, I would ask you: what if we were just to read this passage in the simplest, most straightforward way? Not trying to separate this passage into sections, but just to read it as a whole, as it was written.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll continue to say it, as a teaching tool. The Bible, as we see it, wasn’t written like this. They didn’t have punctuation. They didn’t have verse markings. They didn’t have chapter markings and topic headings.

They had a scroll or papyri that they were writing on, and they would just write and write and write and write and write. The only book in the Bible that had deliberate chapter markings was the Psalms, because they had different psalms.

So anytime you see this, it’s editorializing. Now, it’s faithful editorializing, and it doesn’t demean the authority of the Scriptures, but the fact is, sometimes they make separations where perhaps there wasn’t one intended.

So what if you just read straight through, and we look at the favoritism and works, and what if he is actually referring to the idea that the works that he is speaking of, that shows faith, deals with the concept of radical invitation and welcome within the church?

Now, in the early church, let’s face it, during that time, there were social strata. You had groups that you belonged in socially, and hereditary positioning in all walks of life. We have some social strata today, even. Admittedly, it’s not quite as obvious, perhaps.

It’s certainly not as formalized a caste system as the Hindus, for instance. But we still have our own social strata today. We have sayings like “they live on the other side of the tracks” – they live in that other part of town. We have social strata as well.

They had it then, and it was very formalized in many ways, though not in writing. If your father was a carpenter, then you would be a carpenter, especially if you were the firstborn. If your father was a politician – a governor, for instance, chances are you’d be in politics when you grew up.

If you were a Levite, why, the whole clan was priests. So you were bound and determined and destined to be a priest. We see in Scripture with Caiaphas and Annas, one was the father-in-law of the other. They actually had a hereditary high priest position. So you have these different social strata, and everybody recognizes them.

You also have ethnic differentiation, and the downright hatred of various groups. This is not racism like we understand it in America, between blacks and whites, or Caucasians. This is dealing with folks that are of the same race, if you will. They’re all Mediterranean, they’re all Middle Eastern.

But the Jews and the Arabs, they hate each other. The Greeks and the Romans, they hate each other. The Greeks and the Jews, they didn’t like each other very much either.

One of the radical things about Paul, and the church, as he noted in his letter to the Galatians, was the tearing down of all these barriers. So there’s no slave, no free, no male nor female, no Jew nor Gentile. We’re all one in Jesus Christ.

Now, the church also, setting the situation in the early church, the church in Jerusalem in particular – (James, by the way, was the pastor, or the elder, the leader of the Jerusalem church. He was the brother of Jesus, according to legend and tradition. His nickname was “camel-knees,” because he was always on his knees praying, and deformed them.)

But the church was very poor. We know it was poor because Paul took up a collection for them, in other churches. Part of the reason why it was poor was the church’s mission to care for its own needy, and the members in it. Not for free handouts, but because of the egalitarian nature of faith.

It appealed to the poor. They were not going to be mocked there. They were not going to be looked down upon – or they were hoping not to, that was part of the appeal of the faith.

We certainly have a mission from God and direction from God to care for the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan. So they had a desperate need for money. So it’s real easy to understand that when someone wearing rings and signs of wealth comes in, that eyes pop open a little bit, and people go “Ooh.”

Not that that would happen in today’s modern church…Somebody comes in dressed in a three-piece suit, gold chain, rings on their fingers. Folks look at them. I’m sure that they don’t think about the possibility of his giving, or hers.

There was, in the early church, the presence of false believers, false teachers, and charlatans. By that I mean there were folks that joined it because of the meals, the Communion. There were folks that were false teachers – anything from Judaizers, who wanted you to become fully Jewish and live kosher lives and follow the Mosaic Law, to those that were Gnostics, and said none of the law matters, what mattered was “the secret knowledge that I have, if you come and join my church, then I’ll get you into heaven.”

You had charlatans like Simon Magus, who is described in Acts as coming to Peter and asking if he can buy, can pay some money: “How much will it take for me to learn that trick?” after Peter raised somebody, and Peter says, “You can’t. It’s from the Holy Spirit.” So you had false believers, teachers, and charlatans.

So within the early church, there was a challenge of the need for discernment, which Jesus himself spoke of, versus prejudice and judgmentalism. Let me suggest to you that this is one of the hardest works of all, is the need for discernment, without having prejudice or judgmentalism.

It’s hard because it must be done constantly, in every aspect of our lives. It’s hard because it must be done with the right heart. It’s hard because it involves not just ourselves but others, and can inevitably lead, at times, to hard feelings from unbelievers, and from less mature believers.

It’s hard, because we must walk the line between encouraging and rewarding right behavior and service, and playing favorites. So the challenge then for us is, how do we accomplish this hard work?

Let me give you a couple of ideas that I had. Most of them deal with perspective. First of all, you have to have the perspective of church as family. They say you can pick your friends but not your family. You need to love and try to treat all people within the church and your family equally.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t have folks that you relate to, as I’ll go into a little more in a moment. Let’s face it, in every family, if you had kids, you love them all equally, but there’s always one that you relate to, as a parent, a little better than the others. Because they think the most like you, they have the same interests as you, that kind of thing. There are ties there.

So then the challenge as a parent is making sure that the other children understand that they are loved equally, even while you might relate better to this particular child. Sometimes it doesn’t come out until you actually have adult children and are able to reconcile then. But it is a fact of life.

Even here within the church, you will still have your own inner circles. Jesus had his own inner circle, of James and John and Peter. There are people you relate to best because of interests. But don’t ever let those relationships stop you from reaching out to others, recognizing others’ contributions and worth, and treating them as the brothers and sisters that they are.

So you need to have the perspective of church as family. We all belong to each other. As John Maxwell once said, “Everybody that belongs to Jesus Christ belongs to everybody that belongs to Jesus Christ,” to the church of Jesus Christ.

You need to have the perspective of the cross. The cross is the great equalizer. Everybody needs it, so we’re all equal before it. That’s where Paul gets his saying in Galatians. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, and we all have equal need of Christ.

The other perspective of the cross is that everyone can gain forgiveness with repentant hearts through Christ, regardless of their past, and you can’t let that be a barrier to including them. That’s probably one of the hardest things that we have to do as believers today.

Now let’s face it, here in this church, and I’ve never seen it but I’m just saying it could happen, and it has happened in other churches, if somebody came through the door, and they had a muscle shirt with tattoos that went all the way down both arms, and they had riding leather chaps on – and you heard him coming in because he was riding a Harley. (Yes, I know we have some motorcycle riders here.) Maybe he’s a little unshaven. You can’t tell me that your first thought would be one of welcome. There’s always that hesitation.

One of the hardest things that ex-convicts have, for instance, when they get out of prison and go back into society, part of the reason why the recidivism is what it is, is because people refuse to accept them.

Now, there are those that did their time and they don’t want to change, but there is a number that do. And when they try to change – go to Prison Fellowship and Chuck Colson and that group, they’ll tell you one of the greatest problems they have is no support group. They go somewhere and everybody shuns them. And that includes their family, so then the children suffer. It’s very hard for them to find a welcome, even within the church.

What would you do if somebody came in here that was a convicted criminal that had a past, and said that they knew Jesus Christ, had met Jesus Christ in prison, and that they wanted to be a follower of Christ and they wanted to be a contributing member of the church? How open would your arms be?

The fact is, in the cross, everyone can gain forgiveness if they have repentant hearts, and we can’t let that be a barrier for including them. This is part of what James is speaking of.

The third perspective is that of God, which is eternity and love. We need to begin to see people as God sees them and as God sees us. There’s a well-known saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

You know, there’s a difference between mercy and grace. Mercy is when you’re not given the punishment that you deserve for something that you’ve done. Grace is when you’re given a good thing that you don’t deserve because you haven’t earned it. “And there but for the grace of God go I.”

People struggle. You have your struggles, they have theirs. But sometimes, folks have a harder life that has been led, and we need to love them irrespective of that. The kind of love that God showed us through the cross and the resurrection. He didn’t make qualifications, when he died for us.

He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then when he was raised again, his only requirement was that you believe in him, and that leads to a life that hopefully, as James notes, has changed, and reflects the radical love of Christ.

Now, we have some aids to that, in our faith. One of those is Communion, and it helps us in our perspective, because it reminds us both of the sacrifice that Christ made, our need for it, and the victory that Christ won, so that we can overcome.

You see, what’s being asked of you, this hard work, can’t be done on your own efforts alone. It’s true that it’s not in the Bible that God will never give you more than you can bear. That’s a misquote of 1 Corinthians where it talks about how God will never tempt you more than you can bear.

But I do like saying, anyway, regardless, that God will never give you more than you can bear with Him. God will give you lots of things that you can’t bear on your own, because it brings you to your knees and allows you to begin to reach out to God and ask for His help. But with the power of the Holy Spirit, those things become possible.

This hard work of showing discernment and showing loving kindness and showing open hearts while still being able to hold people accountable, still being able to show, being able to discern who is right and wrong, comes through the Holy Spirit. It’s a challenge for us each and every day.

My prayer for you is that when you have been strengthened by the Communion and the Sacrament, and when you leave this place, that in the coming week, that you would begin to understand that hard work, that you would take an opportunity, and I’m sure there’s somebody that you will meet, that you have been uncomfortable with, for whatever reason in the past.

It may be that they have a past that you just don’t like. Maybe that you have a long-standing feud, I don’t know. It may be that you don’t even know them (although in a town this size, I find that a little hard to believe).

You reach out to them. Reach out to them with the good news of Jesus Christ and in invitation to experience the family and life that Christ gives. It’s going to be something that will take you outside your comfort zone. But that’s where God takes us all the time, if we’re truly following Him.

So focus on the Holy Spirit. Focus on the perspective of family and the cross and God’s eternal love for us, each one of us, as individuals. And reach out and share the good news of Jesus Christ, that others, too, might know the love and grace and mercy of God, that He might get the praise and the glory.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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