James Ch 2:1-26
If you are interested in politics, the last few weeks and months have been quite interesting. And it has culminated with the Crewe and Nantwich by-election last week, in which the substantial majority of Gwyneth Dunwoody was completely reversed by the success of the Conservative candidate.
And what we have heard from the Labour government ministers is that they understand that the by-election result was a message to them, and that they are listening to what people say. They say that they understand that people are concerned about the problems of the 10p tax rate and concerns about the economy.
And whilst some elements of this may be true, I think the fundamental concerns of many people when faced with politicians is a real concern about their integrity and consistency. Politicians seem to be coming very close to estate agents in the nations’ unpopularity ratings. And it seems to me that this is fundamentally about issues of trust, consistency, and integrity. Or the lack of them.
Now I’m not here to make a political statement or speech, but this issue of integrity and consistency is very important. And it is very important to us as Christians. Integrity is important to us as people who follow Christ. For the way that we live must be consistent with what we preach. The way our life is acted out must be consistent with the faith that we profess.
And this is not an issue that is specific to us today. Because it is the issue that is at the heart of our reading today from the letter of James. James 2:1-26 (page 1214)
On Monday evening, a number of men from the village meet at the Westcote Inn for an hour or so, for a drink and a chat. We all have our favourite beers, and I can tell you that Trevor very much likes a point of Black Sheep bitter. That is his favourite, and that is perfectly reasonable and understandable.
The problem arises when our favourites are not beer, but they are people. For then favourites can very quickly move on to become favouritism. And then a completely different set of motivations and emotions start to take effect. Some of the synonyms for favouritism helped us to understand just what it’s all about. Words such as bias, discrimination, nepotism, partiality, preferential treatment, bigotry, and prejudice help us get to understand the problems of favouritism. And it is not long before shady deals are done, and cash changes hands in exchange for a peerage.
consistent faith is impartial
And this is what James is warning about in this part of his letter. He is saying quite clearly that ’ consistent faith is impartial’. That is the starting point of this part of his letter. It is absolutely clear. V1 ‘show no favouritism’ (NIV) ’show no partiality’ (RSV). And to make the point absolutely clear, James gives the extreme example of how people behave to those who are wealthy and well dressed, compared with those who are shabby and smelly. James says ‘show no partiality’. And of course he is right. We shouldn’t do that. And we would hope that most normal people would not show partiality. But for James the point is that those who ’hold the faith’ should not show partiality. What he says in v1 is that ’as believers in our glorious lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism’. So it is not just that favouritism is a generally bad thing. It is that as believers it is the wrong thing to do. It is not that it is just a mildly unhelpful thing, but that as believers it is the wrong thing to do. More than that, in v9 James describes it as a sin. For in the faith we are all equal before God. In the faith we should love our neighbour as ourselves - James described that as a royal law v 8. It’s pretty important. As believers, we are all equal before God. As believers, we should love each other as much as we love ourselves. As believers in a faith like that, then it is completely inconsistent to show favouritism. As believers in a faith like that, it is completely lacking in integrity to show favouritism, to show partiality. So James is saying very clearly that the consistent faith shows no partiality, the consistent faith is impartial.
So why might that be important. Why might it be important for James to speak about this in his letter? Well, the Christian Church of that time was one of the few places where social distinctions did not exist. Uniquely, in the Christian Church people of all classes met together equal before God. The imagery of Acts 10, where Peter meets with Cornelius and has the dream of the sheet of clean and unclean animals encouraged the early church to understand that all people were called to Christ, and that masters and their slaves were equal before God and in the church. Indeed, it was quite possible that the slave was leading the service. In those situations, I can see that it may have been important for James to emphasise the point.
But how would that apply to us today? And given that the church today can be made up of all sorts and kinds of people, do we experience partiality?
Do we find ourselves being partial? I think that we do. It maybe much more subtle than the extreme example that James gives, but it is there nevertheless. It may not happen so obviously in this church, but it may happen within our benefice. It may not happen so obviously in the way that we seat people when they come to church, but it may happen much more subtly in the way we send out invitations to events, for fundraising, or in the way we organise our activities. Such partiality is there. And even if we are not aware of it, other people are. And so our integrity as those who ’hold the faith’, is called into question. So James is saying very clearly to us today that the consistent faith should not show partiality. The consistent faith is impartial.
consistent faith is active
Secondly, James says that consistent faith is active; it is shown in what you do. Now to a degree, the need for the consistent faith to be impartial is in your mind, it is an attitude. But James is also saying that the consistent faith is practical, it is about action. That is to say, the faith that you profess must be consistent with your practical actions, and one cannot exist without the other. There must be an integrity between your faith and your practical actions. In the political world, what you stand for must be shown in the legislation that you pass. And the electorate are looking for that integrity. A budget in which changes in taxation penalise the poor at the expense of the rich is not what we expect from a Socialist government. The Socialist faith and the actions of a new Labour government do not appear to be consistent. Integrity is an issue.
What good is it to talk the talk if you do not walk the walk? What good is it is say that you have faith and do nothing? And of course we all agree with this. It’s quite clear that if we profess to be Christians, our faith has to be matched by our living. None of us really disagree with that.
But, how does it work in practice?
Mother Theresa gave her life in service to the needs of the poor in Calcutta, India. I read the following words of hers recently:
"It is not enough for us to say: "I love God," but I also have to love my neighbour. St. John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbour. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbour whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? And so it is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is not true love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.
So this is not some just mild agreement with what James says. This is not love in your neighbour by not doing anything to harm them. That is passive. But what James is talking about is active. This is a faith which is proactive. This is a faith which follows Jesus example, and which understands what it means to make sacrifices. It hurt Jesus to love us. And if we are to show his love in the world, it can’t be done on the cheap. It means giving of our resources in a sacrificial way it means giving of ourselves in a sacrificial way. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son (v21). Rahab took a serious risk (v25). You will remember the judgement scene in Matthew ch 25. "For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me"(Matt 25:42-43). Jesus was talking to people who thought they were religious, people who were good at talking the talk, but not at walking the walk. Are we prepared to live out our faith until it hurts? I wonder what he will say to us when we meet him in glory?
Living the consistent faith, living the faith which has integrity, is active, not passive. Living the consistent faith is serious, not half-hearted. Living the consistent faith is sacrificial, not cost free. Living the consistent faith is active.
consistent faith is REAL
But you see this is really important. For unless our faith is consistent, has integrity, is active, is impartial, then it is not real. It is not living. It is dead. And that’s what James says here. In v27, he says that faith without works is dead. The Bible translation known as ’the Message’ put it like this. ’Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse’. I don’t want a faith that is like. I don’t want a faith that is a corpse. What use is it? And I’m sure that you don’t either. And if those in the world around us are going to look at us to see the faith of Christ, they don’t either. I want a faith that is real, alive. What people need to know is whether or not Christianity is real. And Christianity is only real, it is only alive, it is only living when it is consistent, when it has integrity. So it is important to remember that consistent faith is REAL faith. Anything else is not real. If your faith is not consistent, if your faith does not have that kind of integrity, then it is not real. And that is a real challenge. Because it challenges us to look again at the totality of our lives in the faith. It challenges is to look again at the whole of our lives as Christians. And it challenges us to look again to ask of ourselves whether or not our lives, and our action and our faith are consistent.
Integrity matters. Yes we all make mistakes, yes we all go off the rails from time to time, but integrity matters.
One of the most common criticisms of Christians is that they are hypocrites. Because their words and their actions don’t match up. And because their words and their actions don’t match up, Christianity, the faith of Christ, is often consigned to the dustbin.
You see, what people want to know about Christians is that they have a faith that is real. What people want to know about Christians is that they can see their faith in action. What people want to know about Christianity is that it is real and living and effective. And people can only know that about Christianity when they see it in those who profess to be Christians. People can only know that reality of the Christian faith when the Christians who profess it have a consistent faith, a faith with integrity.
And when that happens, they’ll vote! When people see integrity they will vote for it. I think that is one of the reasons people voted for Boris Johnson. He is a spin-doctors nightmare because he is real. What you see is what you get. Yes he makes mistakes, yes he puts his foot in it, but you get a sense underneath it all this is a real person, and that there is an integrity about him.
And when people see that the integrity, when they see that consistency in Christians then they will vote for it. The electorate of this country may not see integrity in many of its politicians, but let us pray that they see real consistency and integrity in us and all Christian believers.
Let us pray that they see that consistent faith is impartial, that consistent faith is active, and that consistent faith is real faith.