Consider it joy when you face trials, James says. It might be easy to view James as a drill instructor barking orders at a fresh group of recruits in basic training, but perhaps there’s more to James than what most of us want to see. Tim and I had a conversation this week that really opened my eyes a bit. If you take a moment to look deeply into what James is saying as a leader of the Jerusalem church, I think you find more of a pleading pastor, almost parent-like in the way he encourages his flock. Consider it joy when you face trials because the trials are what perfect you, make you whole and complete.
I think most of us have grown up thinking that perfection is our goal. We know that God can’t stand sin and that he won’t tolerate disobedience, so when we read passages like this we immediately assume God’s goal is to make us perfect right here, right now. We end up killing ourselves trying to be perfect, trying to do no wrong, when it seems that God is more concerned with our character, our completeness.
It seems to me, and maybe this is just me, but much of Christian life today is either applying biblical truths to our finances or learning how to manage our sin, trying to reduce it to where it is insignificant. When you go to the Christian living section of a bookstore it seems that what we’ve done isn’t so much to write books about scripture, trying to learn more about God’s word, but have written Christian self-help books. Don’t get me wrong, there is some great wisdom out there and there are certainly people who know what they’re saying, but it seems that the Bible has greater significance for life than as a means to help make us comfortable.
Also our goal here is not sin-management. We’re not trying to help you manage your sin. It seems like we often try to reduce the size of our sin just so it will fit in our pockets. “If I could get my sin to look smaller than her sin, I’ll feel better about myself and can draw attention away when people start to notice me.” As we’re going to see in a few moments, sin is sin. Instead, we’re interested in helping you become a well-equipped disciple. We’re interested in you fulfilling the Great Commission. We’re interested in you becoming complete, as much like Jesus as you can be.
If you’ll look briefly at this passage hopefully you’ll see what it is we’re trying to accomplish. Paul says that leaders in the church were given to the church so that the saints might be equipped for ministry. In other places he talks about the need for all the members of the body to perform their individual functions so the body is whole and doesn’t suffer any ill effects. It seems, then, that the ministry of those put in leadership of the church is to equip the rest of the body so that they can perform their functions as well. We want you to be healthy members of the body. We want you to be fully functioning followers of Christ. We want you to be disciples.
Hear the plea of James. It is a difficult book. It moves from orthodoxy (right thinking) to orthopraxy (right action). It is practical, daily theology for living well. James is pleading with us to leave behind knowledge for knowledge’s sake and to start living what we say we believe. Stop simply saying you believe something and let it become your lifestyle. James is writing a passionate plea for us to be whole.
We all live what we believe. If we believe a well-paying job will make us happy, we’ll work until we’ve reached that. If we believe that living the right kind of life is the answer, then we’ll work hard to obey all the rules and insist on fairness. The problem with this is that life just isn’t fair. Then we get caught in this place where we get frustrated when people get away with things. To live what we say we believe is much harder. For this we have to put words into action. For this we truly have to change the way we think.
This chapter picks up right where the 1st one left off. James concluded chapter 1 talking about pure and undefiled religion and he goes straight from that into a discussion of partiality. Partiality is thinking of anyone as higher than or lower than anyone else. It’s favoritism and it’s a sin. Partiality involves assigning value to people. In James he specifically addresses wealth and class. Apparently some, perhaps in Jerusalem, were placing a higher value on those who had money and a lower value on those who had none. Assigning worth is a dangerous thing. The moment we begin to do this we lose something of our humanity. We lose what it means to be human. As people we are God’s highest creation, above trees, animals, even angels because we were the only creation made “in the image of” God. We were the only creation made to be like him. So as humans we all have equal value in the eyes of God.
Favoritism has led to many of the most atrocious crimes against humanity that have ever been seen. It has been responsible for racism, class relations, and genocide. Favoritism and value assigning have been responsible for the rise of communism, fascism, socialism, and, yes, capitalism. No “-ism” is going to solve any of this. That’s why it’s such a big deal. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount as well as a few other places, it seems that God favors the poor. It seems that God favors the lowly and weak. It seems that the way we normally view life is perhaps not how God views it. There seems to be a special place in God’s heart for people who have been trampled by society. Maybe if we’re to be more like God these are the people we should be concerned with.
We live in Texas; we know how race relations can be in some small towns (or in large ones really). Isn’t this an indictment of how partiality was shown for hundreds of years? And Texas isn’t even the worst of it. Amanda and I have dear friends who live in Greenville, Mississippi. He’s the worship pastor of First Baptist Church in Greenville. We’ve gone to see them a couple of times and it’s extraordinary to see race relations there. You can cut the tension with a knife. You can literally feel the oppression. If you didn’t know for a fact that it was 2010 you would think it was still somewhere before the Civil Rights movement. In the time they’ve lived there I think we’ve been in Greenville for probably 6 or 7 days. I’m ready to leave after about 6 hours and I love my friends. It just makes me feel gross. It makes me feel unclean. Partiality and favoritism are wicked. We are all created in the image of God. We all belong to the same Father.
James goes on to talk about sin. This is a really interesting discussion, too. I alluded in the introduction to the fact that we try to place a value on our sin from time to time. If we’re in the business of sin management, it only makes sense. “If I can just limit myself to one or two small sins, I’ll be ok. If I know I’m going to commit a bigger sin later or if I’ve just committed a big sin, I’ll make up for it by not doing so many small sins.” That’s why our parents were always so suspicious when we started doing things they asked us to do. They knew we were covering up for some idiotic mistake we’d recently committed. Do you see how foolish this is? God doesn’t tolerate any sin. Any sin, however small it is, makes us unworthy and immoral. While we’re assigning a level to our sin based on how much it hurts other people, God is looking at us in disgust wondering if we’ll ever figure out that his Son had to die for my sin just as he had to die for Stalin’s. And then we try to justify that sin which really wasn’t so bad because that guy was a good guy. We do it with the founding fathers of the United States all the time. “Well, they owned slaves, but they really didn’t like it.” How do you know? You weren’t there. But because they wrote the Declaration of Independence and signed the Constitution we’ll overlook it.
James says in 2:10 that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” This was a scandalous thing to say, especially to the Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem church. These had been Jews who worked so hard to keep the Law of Moses. In fact, in the Jewish faith, there was no sacrifice that could be made for sins which were intentionally committed. We make a big deal out of the sacrificial system sometimes, but if you committed a sin intentionally, you were out of luck. There was nothing you could do. You were guilty of that sin. Now James is saying that no matter how “small” the sin was you committed, you were guilty of them all. A liar is just as bad as a murderer. A coveter is just as guilty as an adulterer. Someone who disobeyed his or her parents is just as much in danger of hell as an idolater.
Sin is sin. If we’ve committed one sin, we are as guilty as those who have broken every commandment ever given. This is why the sin of partiality is such a big deal. None is greater than another; none is less than another.
We must get ourselves out of this mindset of sin-management. God didn’t save you so you could manage your sin like you balance your checkbook. We’ve been set free by the Son so we don’t have to worry about sin anymore. Our problem is that we just go back to what we know, so we continue in sinfulness. Maybe it’s not because we don’t know how to manage our sin and need to be told some more. Maybe it’s because we’ve never been taught what it means to be a disciple. Clearly James thought the same thing because he’s trying to help us understand what we’re supposed to be doing. “Don’t judge people, they’re the same as you. Don’t put a value on sin, it’s all bad.”
Then he gets to where we’ve been going for the past two weeks, this passage on faith without works. We’ve been encouraging you these past two weeks to live what you say you believe. Faith must be accompanied by a body of work. Remember what we said at the end of last week’s sermon. James has a three-step process: hear, receive, and do. Hearing is great. We’re so glad when people allow us to witness to them, allow us to share the gospel, but hearing is only one step. You can hear the word and reject it. There must be some sort of receiving. This is the next step. To receive the gospel is wonderful. It makes us feel great when we’re able to share Jesus’ love with someone and have them receive it, but that’s still only a step, only a part of the process. We then have to live out our faith. Hear. Receive. Do.
Faith without works is dead. If we say we believe something, but then go about our lives as if nothing has changed, do we really believe it? James says that even the demons believe! Belief obviously isn’t the only thing there is. There must be more. Faith without works is dead. It’s really no faith at all. Acknowledging certain facts about God isn’t what pleases him. God doesn’t need me to tell him he’s God. He knows it. He loves my adoration of him with songs of praise, but that’s not all he desires from me. James said true religion is visiting widows and orphans. Maybe there’s more to this Christian thing than singing songs. Maybe there’s more to it than trying to live right. James seems to think there is.
Faith must be accompanied by a body of work. Faith without works really isn’t faith. Real, mature faith involves activity. It involves feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and loving the unlovable. Jordan and Levi sang a song a couple of weeks ago called “God of Justice.” The chorus goes like this:
We must go, live to feed the hungry, stand beside the broken, we must go. Stepping forward, keep us from just singing, move us into action, we must go.
Real faith requires action. Hear the pleading in James’ voice. He wants us to really understand what it means to follow Jesus. He wants us to get it, to be complete. We must go. The summer after my senior year in high school our student ministry went to Memphis, Tennessee to repair houses as part of a North American Mission Board trip called World Changers. During the course of that week one of our crews was working on the house of a poorer lady who was overwhelmed by the generosity of these kids. Keep in mind that we were mostly 9th-12th grade students and we were doing real construction. We were roofing, framing in windows and doors, building handicap ramps, and much more. One crew even had to actually rip off the plywood under the shingles because it had rotted and replace some of the support beams. Anyway this lady came to one of the worship services we had at night just to say “thanks.” She said something that has stuck with me these last 13 years. She said “you can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.” That’s what James is talking about. Your faith must be put into action. You can fake it. That’s why it’s not the works that save you. But if you really have faith, the works will follow. If you really love Jesus, you won’t be able to help yourself. If you really believe, you’ll follow that with action.
Faith without works is dead. You will live what you believe. If you’re not living it, maybe you don’t really believe it.
We’re also going to cover chapter 3 before we conclude this morning. James has just spent half a chapter warning us that we must live what we say we believe, which might lead us to think that living is more important than how we speak, but he wants to caution us about how we speak.
He starts chapter 3 with a discussion on the tongue. The tongue is a small, but powerful organ. If you don’t believe me, just say something sharp or unkind to someone you love. You’ll figure out that your powers of speech can do a lot to destroy in a very short amount of time. We talked about this in staff meeting just last week. I was saying something and the words just didn’t come out the right way and it was one of those moments where you could almost visibly see the words coming out of your mouth and try as you might, you just can’t get them to come back. I don’t even remember what I said and it wasn’t negative about anyone, it was just one of those moments where I didn’t say what I thought I was trying to say.
As funny as that was in that particular meeting, most of what we say like that is said out of spite and really isn’t very nice at all. On Wednesday evening with our students Luke was facilitating a discussion on how we can truly reach our schools with the love of Jesus. One of the youth mentioned this thing with speech. We can really be hateful and cruel with our speech. We’ll say something to get a laugh and then, when everyone has already had their laugh we’ll pass it off with “I’m only kidding.” It’s obvious that we weren’t kidding, but we don’t want to seem mean. The tongue is a powerful thing. James says it’s like a rudder steering a great ship or a bit in the mouth of a horse. Both are small, but can steer mighty things. The tongue is dangerous and we should guard how we use it.
James says that out of the same mouth blessing and cursing come. Then he asks how a fresh spring can also produce salt water or a grapevine produce figs? The tongue of a Jesus follower should only bless people. The mouth of someone who claims Christ as their savior shouldn’t allow themselves to respond to any situation out of spite.
How you speak reveals your heart. The things you love are the things you talk about. Speech can build up or it can destroy. We think it’s such a big deal that in our membership covenant there’s a section that you must agree with to become a member that says “I will not gossip.” As the family of God we look out for each other. We protect one another. We love and pray for and build one another up. We don’t tear down. We aren’t spiteful or vindictive. We love.
James concludes this chapter with a short passage on wisdom. How you live reveals your heart. This is like the passage at the end of chapter 2. How you live reveals what you believe. By your good conduct you show your wisdom. If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, you reveal the falsehood in your life. True wisdom leads to peace, not chaos. And, he says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Live what you say you believe. We all live what we believe. We all reveal what’s really in our hearts by the way we live our lives. You don’t really hide anything from anyone. What you care about will come out and those closest to you will know exactly what you’re about. But to live what you say you believe takes a bit more effort. In fact, it means you must change your mind. You must change what you believe.
We want you to become disciples of Jesus. We aren’t in the convert-making business. We aren’t in the church-growing business. We want you to be disciples. We want you to follow Jesus. We want this so bad that even if you decide that Jesus is leading you to be a disciple somewhere else because that’s what will grow his Kingdom, that’s wonderful. We want the Kingdom of God to grow. If we can help equip you for the work of ministry God has called you to do, we’ll be successful.
As we continue our study through the book of James, hear the passion in his voice. It’s tough, yes, but it’s truth. It’s real. Hear the passion he has for you to be a disciple.