Summary: Believers know that God's love for all motivates and empowers them to show love to all.
A man and 24 of his friends and family and were refused service at a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. The reason: Michael Brown and his group are African-American. Apparently another customer - a white woman - complained that she felt threatened by their presence and Brown and his entourage got the boot. No, this snub didn’t take place 50 years ago when Martin Luther King and others were fighting for racial equality in the States; it happened last week. That kind of discrimination would never happen in Canada, would it? It certainly would never occur in our congregation, right? Before you answer those questions with an emphatic “No!” consider how the Apostle James had to remind Christians 2,000 years ago that God’s favorites have no favorites. The Holy Spirit wants us to learn that those who claim to be believers in the true God will show genuine love to all people regardless of their economic status or race. Nonchalance about our failure to do this invites God’s eternal anger.
Listen again to how James begins our sermon text. “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)
According to James, members of the early church struggled with the sin of discrimination. We’re not talking Ku Klux Klan-type of discrimination where they were barring certain kind of people from their congregations. It was a more subtle prejudice. If an obviously wealthy person attended the service, the members would fawn over the individual and direct him to a seat of honor. Someone would perhaps run and get him a coffee while another introduced him to the pastor. There would be smiles all around. But if a homeless person walked through their doors, there would be a moment of inaction as members would glance at each other to see who was going to dispatch the “interloper.”
James says that such discrimination is motivated by “evil thoughts” - evil not just because the poor person was treated like dirt, but evil because the rich individual was seen as a gold mine, an object to exploit rather than a sinner to serve. Do James’ words hit close to home? When we think of the kind of people we want to join St. Peter’s, don’t we pray for a few millionaires? That would make paying our mortgage a breeze and easily allow us to keep two called workers on staff! A few well-connected members would also boost our congregation’s standing in the community. I’d love to be known as the mayor’s pastor.
Like us, the Christians of James’ day were more eager to welcome the rich and powerful than the poor. The irony was that it was the rich who were exploiting these Christians. So why were the members so eager to please them? The fact is God delights in showering the poor and the down and out of this world with the riches of faith. It is often the shut-in and the pensioner, not the high-powered CEO, from whom we can learn the most about what it means to express and exercise humble faith in Jesus.
But we shouldn’t think James is saying that anyone who is rich is exploitative. To assume that is to become judgmental in another way, just as I discriminate if I look at the car you drive and the vacations you take, and assume that you can do this because you’re not a generous giver to the Lord. Such an attitude can only be prompted by thoughts of jealousy and covetousness. Instead of being happy for you, I find it easier to condemn you and pat myself on the back for my supposed super-righteousness. This is the sin that James is warning us against.
Ah, but so what if we harbor thoughts of discrimination? It’s not like we’re hurting anyone the way a gangster might. James anticipated that kind of response and so he wrote: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking 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 commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (James 2:8-11).