As much as I love myself

James 2:8-13

James terms, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ v8 the Royal law. The Royal law because it is the second part of Jesus’ summary of the Old Testament law. Here James is linking failing to obey that law with being partial and that he says is a sin. He then goes on to say as it is said elsewhere in scripture, that breaking one part of the law is effectively breaking the whole law. v10 It is when we view partiality in those terms we see it in the same way as Jesus does. Earlier James gave the example of a wealthy person and a poor person being treated differently in a church meeting or in someone’s home. What are the other ways partiality can take place in a church context?

Paul in Galatians outlines three issues that continue to be so world wide in the modern church. Partiality based on race, gender and status. He did so because all three issues were causing divisions within the Galatian church. This happens when we do not see each other as God sees us. We are equal sinners saved by grace. But once that happens we then share an equal status as children of God. Paul writes, ‘So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ Galatians 3:26-29
The Church of England Task Force report on racism within the church (22.04.21) reveals there is a great deal still to be done to eradicate what they openly confess is sin. It would be arrogant to assume that other churches are immune from such sin. When one listens to or reads the evidence submitted to inquiries into racism or the abuse of women and children what strikes one repeatedly is the lack of understanding of what it was like to be that person. There is frequently a gross failure to love people as one wants to be loved oneself.

We should therefore take very seriously the caution James gives, both as individual Christians and as a church, ‘to speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. vv12-13

How do I ensure that I value and respect all members of my church?

Are their people in our church who feel on the margins and not fully included in the church?

Are there any structures in my church that discriminate against some people?

Do I limit my love to the same few people I particularly like?

Visiting widows and orphans

James 1:27

‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ James 1:27

Test 2 – Care for the poor.
The day I am writing this a group of conservative MPs are asking the Speaker of the House of Commons to allow a vote on reversing the government policy of reducing the aid budget from 0.7% GDP to 0.5% GDP. At the same time the G7 world leaders are meeting in Cornwall to discuss changing international tax law to prevent tax avoidance by the world’s largest companies as well as global policies to reduce global carbon emissions to combat climate change. Both of these sets of policies have the capacity to most benefit the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Should Christians involve themselves in such things or should their concern be limited to their personal inner life leaving the rest of the world to their own devices? If Christians become involved in the murky world of politics do they not risk becoming stained by the world and compromising their faith? There is a body of Christians who strongly support such a stand and do not see it as the state’s role to be intervening. They advocate, if a Christian wishes to do something personally, it is solely a matter of their conscience. The most organised and influential group who take this stance are the Christian right wing in the USA but there are many in this country and around the world who hold a similar view. I am convinced that the biblical view is that they are fundamentally wrong and the letter of James is a good place to start any investigation into how individuals and the church as a whole should respond to poverty and justice.

In ancient culture it was the widows and orphans who were particularly helpless, frequently lacking anyone to support them. In that way they were emblematic of the poor generally. James sets care for this group as a test one can apply to oneself as an indicator of the state of one’s heart relationship with God. He termed care for widows and orphans as a pure and undefiled expression of love for God and for one’s neighbour.

God does care how a nation cares for the poor and vulnerable. Jeremiah stands at the gate of the temple to address the people of Judah and demands they amend their ways and includes the stranger, orphans and widows in his general appeal for national justice. Jeremiah sees their ways as fruits of idolatry, that is loving things God hates. Jeremiah 7:5-7 God established love and care for the fatherless, widow and sojourner into the law of the land because they had been sojourners and oppressed in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:19-20. God sees care for the vulnerable and acts of justice as sacrificial worship. ‘Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’ Isaiah 1:16-17

It is not sufficient to simply feel sympathy and pray for the poor and needy if one is able to do more. The NIV translates verse 27 as ‘look after’ and the ESV as ‘visit’ the widow etc. The intention is the Christian should actively care, so in our modern world what does that mean?

It does include advocacy. It may well involve joining a political party or action group to stand up for God’s view of justice. It is not sufficient to care in the wider sense if we ignore the needs in our family and church family. We should be active in paying attention to the needs of those who live close to us or who we work with. Those we are concerned about may be people beyond our community or country, Paul collected gifts from Gentile churches to take to Jerusalem. It may be the unborn child or those suffering mental illness. God may give you a particular concern for those in prison or refugees. Christians are intended to bring God’s glory into the community. Jesus lived a sacrificial life and we are called to imitate him.

Do you know anybody who would appreciate a loving visit especially as we can now meet face to face?

When did you last contact your MP or councillor about a justice issue?

How recently did you review your giving to ensure the money you steward goes to where it fulfils God’s mission?

Reckless Love – Cory Asbury

Oh Yeah – Prove it.

James 1:26-27

A common retort to someone who is known to be a Christian when they are perceived by another to have breached their understanding of the Christian code is, “That’s not very Christian.” Behind such a comment is often a flawed understanding of Jesus’ teaching and Christian priorities such as a Christian asserting Jesus own words, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ John 14.6 James does here though validate the view that our inner life and outward lifestyle should harmonise with the freedom from sin Jesus has achieved for the believer. If that is not the case the outsider’s scepticism has validity and we are self-deceiving. James 1:26

In this longer passage about living out one’s faith in loving obedience to Christ and loving heart attitudes to our neighbours James picks out three particular tests of the impact our faith has had in our lives. They both have a long biblical history. They are our speech, our practical attitude towards the poor and our resistance to temptation to sin. James 1:27

Test 1 – Speech.
James is asking Christians to examine themselves and check out the sincerity and depth of their discipleship. Does anyone of us want to stand before the Father and hear him say, “Your faith was worthless?” James 1:26 From the very beginning people have used speech to make excuses to God for their own sin. Adam tried to pass the blame onto Eve for his own disobedience in the garden of Eden account. Genesis 3:12 Cain lied to God about his own sin of killing his brother Abel, denying knowledge of his whereabouts as he lay dead in the field, ‘I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper.’ Genesis 4:9 The beginning of a relationship with God is honesty with him and not making excuses. It is vital to allow the Holy Spirit to bring about an understanding of the truth and integrity of our heart and speak to God candidly.

When we speak with God honestly with grateful love we will be able to speak with others as God would wish us to because he has purified our heart. Jesus said, ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’ Mathew 12:36

Our speech should display love towards other people that reflects love for them to the same extent that we love ourselves. Therefore, a good measure of what we say is, how would it benefit me if said to me, in terms of the words said and the way it is said. We need to be careful to not say things that may lead others into sin either by copying us or generating a desire to sin. ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’ Ephesians 4:29 When we apply this to work, family and friendship situations we are living out the gospel.

It is easy to be drawn into unhealthy speech through humour and to seek to gain peer approval by joining in with salacious or mocking conversation. Paul urges the Ephesians to, ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.’ Ephesians 5:4
When faced with unfair accusations and harsh words Peter says, ‘Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.’ 1 Peter 3:9

Our speech should be intended to bring glory to God. Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.’ 1Peter 4:11

Are there any habits you have in your speech that you could change to build up the people you know?

Have you considered how your speech could glorify God?

Mighty to save

Doing what?

James 1:21-25

One can presume that obedience to God’s law is about not doing things. A list of do nots and having that mental outlook can leave one feeling empty or feeling helpless, unable to act in case one breaks a law, perhaps one that you do not even know about. This feeling of moral paralysis is a bit like kicking a bad habit such as smoking. I remember when God enabled me very easily to stop smoking, he simply removed the desire, I was still left with wondering what to do at the point when I had previously had a smoke. Something needed to happen in that moment. A good thing needed to fill the place of the bad thing.

The bible and in particular James has a very different perspective from the view that obedience to God is all about not doing things. Obedience to God’s law is positive and about what one does. In this short passage James uses, “the word” v22, “the perfect law” v25 and “the law of liberty” v25 to refer to the same thing, the word of God or the bible as far as it was written at the time. Later in the letter James uses the term “royal law”.

It is God’s desire that we should live Christ like or holy lives. ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’ Leviticus 19:2 Naturally we lived lives of disobedience towards God and James conceives of this lifestyle as filthy rags to be disposed of. The disposing of such a lifestyle is a positive act. We need to exercise our will to do so. Instead of arrogant disobedience the positive act is to humbly absorb the teaching of the word of God. The word of God is the tool the Spirit uses to transform our lives. James’ teaching here conforms to the teaching of Paul. Passivity over holiness is not good enough. The Spirit through the word of God equips and empowers us to live out God’s freedom, doing right not wrong.

‘The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.’ Romans 13:11-14

The law of liberty is summed up in this word, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Loves does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’ Romans 13:9-10

Therefore, it is essential to let the word of God sink deep into our inner self and transform us. Not to let the word pass us by, read and heard, but not absorbed as a person looking in the mirror and then forgetting the image s/he saw. v25

As we start to interact with people in a greater way coming out of lockdown how will we be changed by the word of God to enable us to love our neighbour as ourselves?

What will be different in our lives as the Spirit aligns us with the ‘law of liberty’?

What do we need freedom to do?

Jesus strong and kind

Quick – Slow – Slow

James 19-20

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow is the tempo for the Foxtrot. A tempo or rhythm is meant to produce harmony of movement and performance on the dance floor. What then is the tempo for spiritual harmony? James here presents us with a new rhythm designed to produce God’s righteousness and peace in the life of believers in Jesus Christ. The spiritual rhythm of quick, slow, slow, is a Holy Spirit rhythm between believer and believer and for the believer when living out the gospel to a disbelieving world. James is building on Old Testament wisdom and applying it to the contemporary church i.e. ‘Whoever derides their neighbour has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue;’ Proverbs 11:12 and, ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.’ Proverbs 15:1

James’ words are not just good advice that can be taken or left without significant consequence. They are fundamental to living according to God’s righteousness. ‘Righteousness’ here means conducting one’s own life by the will of God, according to his standards. It is a matter of obedience. God’s standards apply to all believers, note James’ use of the word everyone, but they especially apply to those with Christian leadership responsibilities.

Failure to both listen and speak appropriately can quickly cause substantial, even life long harm. There are multiple examples of people who have given up on their faith or church attendance where they have felt they have not been understood or they have been put down or been subject to another believer’s temper. Life long friendship can be fractured in one quick short tempered exchange. Enquirers after Christ have given up their search for Jesus because they have only been spoken at and not heard. Witnesses to falling out between believers have rejected Christ because Christians are, ‘no different to anybody else.’ Churches have split and died because church leaders have failed to communicate with the grace God has provided. James describes the inability to listen and speak wisely and with the love of Jesus as, ‘moral filth’. v21 It really is something that all Christians should take seriously and not just pass off as, “how that person is”. We should make the practice of listening carefully, carefulness in speech and self control over anger priorities for church leadership.
Quick to listen – Firstly one should be quick to listen to the word of God through the scriptures. It is there he speaks the most frequently, completely and clearly. His words give birth to and shape the believer. Listening is not necessarily what comes naturally as our first instinct, especially when tensions are high and we are in conflict. Listening is far more than hearing the opening statement by someone, it is a careful process that usually requires clarification. For quality listening to take place we have to control our own speech. We may need to repeat the process of listening to more fully understand. We may have to put aside our initial assumptions. Listening carefully is a fundamental aspect of a church’s safeguarding culture. Countless vulnerable people, in our churches as well as in wider society, of all forms, have remained silent because they have not believed they will be heard appropriately.
Slow to speak – The evangelical church (I use the term in its widest sense) is based on a culture of preaching. The risk in being quick to preach is that it can prevent wise reflection taking place first. Being quick to listen has the effect of delaying our speech. Humility helps us consider who in any particular situation is the best person to speak. Once more this a fundamental principle of safeguarding, to not go beyond our expertise in a case of serious need. Being slow to speak and even taking the time to consult wise Christians, may well aid us in bringing God’s righteousness and mercy to bear on a situation which otherwise would have produced bad rather than good.
Human anger – as meant by James v20 is, “quick tempered, selfish, showing a lack in trust in God and a lack of love for others. Even when directed against wrongdoing anger cannot change another person’s heart. Thus, it does not produce the righteousness of God.” (ESV Global Study Bible)

Have you observed yourself when speaking and listening and asked, ‘Has that produced the righteousness of God?’

Do you pray for your church leaders that they will listen and speak wisely, formed by the word of God?

I’m Listening – Chris McClarney