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January 19, 2020

A Plea for Impartial Love and Listening

Dave Zuleger (South Campus) | James 1:26-2:13

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So 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.—James: 1:26–2:13 

Foundation: The Image of God and the Worship of Christ

This week is Ethnic Harmony week at Bethlehem Baptist Church. We can admit that this is an issue that has people concerned. Both in the world and in our church. Why devote a Sunday to preaching on a topic like this? Is it because of the cultural or political winds of the day? Is it because we want to make sure we are relevant with all the various movements out there? Let me read you a short section from the DNA document for our church that describes why we think it’s important to work toward ethnic harmony:

Bethlehem aims to display gospel unity in a context of ethnic diversity. God ordained the existence of ethnic diversity through creation. He also ordained the redemption of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation through the cross of Christ

In other words, we exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. We see this storyline play itself out throughout the Bible in creation, the Fall, redemption, and consummation. 

Creation: In Genesis 1 we see that God made male and female in his image and gave them a mission to spread his glory to the ends of the earth. All people made in the image of God means that all people have equal worth and therefore are worthy of equal dignity.

Fall: In Romans 3 we see that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All peoples have fallen short of honoring God as holy and living in humble obedience to him completely. (See the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11.)

Redemption: In Ephesians 2 we see that God has pursued us and made a way for us to be reconciled to God and each other because we are adopted into his blood-bought family and have access together to God by the one Holy Spirit. 

Consummation: In Revelation 5 we see that one day, people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation will gather around God’s throne to declare not the worthiness of their ethnicity, but the worthiness of Jesus—the Lamb who was slain to create a kingdom that includes an ethnically diverse people, united by the blood of Jesus alone. 

So, right now, we find ourselves situated in those middle two sections, living in the effects of the Fall and the division of Babel, while also seeking to bring to bear the gospel of redemption and reconciliation to our church and our world for the joy of all peoples. 

And so, we put on the armor that Christ wore for us first and seek to fight against the schemes of the devil—like partiality and racism—and are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace within the household of God and also fight the darkness in the world to see others brought into this blood-bought unity and peace.

The Partiality That Pushes Down

So, as I was thinking about how to equip us to wage the war for gospel harmony, with all the tension that surrounds this topic, I wanted to give us some biblical categories to practically hang our hats on and ground us in a Kingdom mindset to live out the gospel in this area. 

This text in James gives us those categories. Now, as we dive in, we’re going to see that this particular issue of partiality James is dealing with has to do with economics, not ethnicity. But, Paul uses the same word for partiality in Romans 2:9-11: 

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

There, the word is used while dealing with ethnicity and holds up God as our example. Why can Paul use it for ethnicity the same way James uses it for economics? Because partiality is when we speak and act toward people in accord with their external appearance or circumstances—not based on their intrinsic worth of being made in the image of God. And James commands us to take no part in that kind of thing (2:1).

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 

Notice, Christians can be guilty of this. This is not an “outside the church” kind of thing. He’s addressing brothers and sisters here tempted to deal with people according to external circumstances. And notice, he shows them right away that Gods glory is at stake. The Lord of glory who made these people in his image and means to redeem a people transformed more and more into his image. We dishonor his glory when we show partiality. 

How does this partiality show up? 

For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?—James 2:2–4

So, partiality shows up in two different ways. Positively, partiality shows up as favoritism. It says, “I want to be with the powerful people. I want to align myself with people like me. I want to situate myself with those who have influence and those who fit the mold and make me comfortable.”

Negatively, partiality shows up as discrimination or exclusion. It says, “I don’t want to associated with the weak. I don’t want to be around people not like me, they make me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be with those who don’t fit the ethnic or economic mold. I’m ok if they’re here, but just don’t get too close to me, because I’m not sure what to do with you.”

James says that when we make distinctions we’re becoming judges with evil thoughts. We’re making distinctions that God doesn’t make. We’re looking on the outside and deciding who’s “in” and whose “out”. But God shows no partiality like that.

Or perhaps we’re simply apathetic about making sure that those who are not like us, those most prone to feel on the outside, are pursued to make sure they know they’re part of the family with us. And when we are apathetic about that, we operate in a way completely out of step with God, dishonor him and dishonor other humans

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man.—James 2:5–6

The very people we dishonor or apathetically ignore, God has chosen! The external factors of ethnicity and economics are not the way God builds his kingdom. He chooses people from every economic class and every ethnic culture to show that he is worthy of global praise.

I want us to be in step with the purposes of God and navigate this cultural landscape with his word—rather than be in step with the purposes of one political party or the other and navigate this cultural landscape with the world. The social media we look at, the news we watch, and the craziness of an election in 2020 will be meant to make you make these external judgments in your hearts to win your vote. They will seek to use your fear of losing certain comforts or cultural norms to win you.

These cues will seek to convince you, subtly, that certain groups of people are to blame and the enemy. They will seek to weaponize and generalize groups of people. They will seek to get your eyes off of your primary citizenship as members of the kingdom of God who see all people first and foremost as made in his image and in need of redemption.

Instead, they will seek to make you obsess with this coming election as if it is your hope instead of the kingdom of Jesus as your hope. And they will seek to say these people are not mainly significant because of how God has created them and has you here to love them with the gospel, but that instead their significance is primarily as enemies of the political party we need to win to ensure our agenda. That will happen on both sides.

This year many different people will seek to convince us of generalities about all black people, or all immigrants, or all women, or all men, or all white people. And when our hearts subtly begin to align with those narratives, we are doing what James says. And the next verses in James have a warning for us:

Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?—James 2:6–7

James’ point here is that we show favoritism and make alliances in our hearts with people who don’t care about the name of Christ or his people. You think most of our culture advances their agenda for the kingdom of Christ? Some of them do and we need more of them. But, we shouldn’t confuse the kingdom of God with the news and political cycle of our nation.

And it’s a big deal to show partiality in this way, because James says in verses 9–11 that that it is sin. To begin to think of people based on external circumstances or labels meant to push down in order to lift something else up—is partiality; it’s out of step with the Lord of glory who saves by grace alone. It’s sin. 

I’m not saying don’t care about politics—you should. And I’m not saying anything about policies. If you’re hearing that, it’s because it’s the only way you can hear it. I’m saying, see the world through the lens of the kingdom of God as the hope for the nations before you see it through the lens of the 2020 election as the hope for our nation. There are systems in place that are set up for politics to divide people in order to win—these days, often along the lines of ethnicity. We can care about politics, care about our country, and not give into these things—but instead seek the priorities of the kingdom of God first.

The Love that Lifts Up  

So, we don’t want to be partial. James makes that clear. What’s the remedy to our partiality?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.—James 2:8 

James quotes Jesus here. He calls this “the royal law”—the command that rules the kingdom of God. What command marks the kingdom of God? Love your neighbor as yourself. What will kill all partiality? Love your neighbor as yourself. Because loving our neighbors as ourselves can only come from a heart that has been loved with the merciful, gospel love of Jesus. Notice it doesn’t say to do this only with people who agree with you. 

We are tempted, even in our love, to make distinctions. We are prone to do what the lawyer does in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who justifies himself and says, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, can I make distinctions in who I love? It promotes an “us vs. them” mentality in our hearts. We’re against this movement, we’re against this kind of people, and we’re against that group. Therefore, I can talk about them as if they’re not humans made in the image of God worthy of compassion and love, but they’re part of the problem that needs to be done away with. That’s not gospel love. Those aren’t Kingdom instincts.

Jesus refuses to answer his question and instead tells a story about what it means to be love your neighbor. And what it looks like is loving those who are hurting, despite cultural differences, at great cost. John Piper said, “Christian love moves toward need and not comfort.”

Why does he say that? Because that’s the gospel. We have a Savior who left the comforts of heaven and entered into our mess, lived a perfect life we couldn’t live, and died a death we deserved to die while we were yet sinners. He found us broken and beat up, and he came and carried us to safety and paid the price for our salvation and healing, until he returns.

So, how do we keep the law of liberty and avoid partiality? How do we fight the war in our hearts that is prone cause us to make distinctions, to hang out with people like us, and to spend our time with people whose cultures and appearance and lives make us comfortable? We look to Jesus. 

He put on the armor first. We look to him and remember how we’ve been loved while we were on the outside. We look to him and bring his peace and truth and self-giving love to those around us. We remember the mercy we’ve received, and it overflows in mercy to those around us. We don’t spend tons of time deciding whose worthy of our mercy or help or love, instead we look to see where there’s need, brokenness, pain, people feeling on the outside around us, and we move toward them. In fact, that’s exactly what James says in verses 12–13 of our text:

So 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. 

Our speech and our actions need be in accord with the law of liberty, which is the law of love. It’s the law written on our hearts. We’ve been loved with self-giving love and now we love with self-giving love—not just when it’s convenient, but with people hurting, messy and not like us. 

Are your Facebook posts, emails, speech/private conversations marked by the love of Christ that loves neighbor as himself at great cost? Are your actions marked by a love that seeks to go to people in need and who would feel on the outside and bring them in at great cost?

If you find yourself mainly judging other people or making distinctions, then you need to remember God is the judge. And his judgment comes without mercy for those who show no mercy. In other words, if your heart isn’t bent toward mercifully loving your neighbor, bent toward hearing the pain of their story and showing them mercy, but instead is always making distinctions, then perhaps you’ve forgotten the mercy you were shown in Christ—or perhaps you’ve never really received the mercy of Christ. 

But, there is good news for us here. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Even in our lack of mercy we can turn to Jesus and plead for his mercy for our lack of love and partiality. And he will give new mercy. And he will conform us to his image by that mercy. Walk out of the darkness of seeing the world through the lens of distinctions, power, ethnicity, economics, and whatever else, and walk into the light of seeing the world through the purpose of God with the hope of the kingdom of God for the nations!

And as we walk in that light, God will pour love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that will overflow to those not like us—to those in different tax brackets and those in different cultures.

We’re never going to be perfect, but oh for grace to love God and others more. 

Application: The Image of God and Love That Listens

So, if we want to be a people who hate the ways our hearts are prone to make distinctions about people made in the image of God, then what’s a first step?

James 1 gives us a primary way we can exercise love for neighbor, especially on hot-button issues and in a controversial time in our nation. How can we seek to be unified, love each other, and advance the kingdom of God in a year that is sure to grow in its division and rhetoric—with anger building and words flowing?

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. … If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.—James 1:19, 26–27

James would say that to be doers of the Word and to fulfill the law of love that is an overflow of the gospel; there should be less talking and more listening. There should be less unbridled speech and more unbridled care for those in need. I read Pastor Steven’s sermon and Pastor Kenny’s sermon and we all had this point on listening in common—Kenny’s whole sermon is on it! We live in an age where we can’t even stop talking and listen. We don’t hear each other. 

But, hear me, there are people in this church hurting because racism is still alive. We need to listen to them. Not lump them in with some political movement. We need to sit across the table from each other and hear each other’s stories, enter into one another’s pain, love each other, reason from the Word together, and then leave united in the purposes of kingdom of God.

We are citizens of the household of God. We are the blood-bought family of God. We long for the day when partiality is gone and love has come in full around the throne of God. But until that day, we must admit the devil is still real, we are still prone to making these distinctions, the world is still broken with systems that lend themselves this way, and people are really hurting. The church has a glorious opportunity by the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit to show a watching world that the forgiveness, reconciliation, and love purchased by Jesus are real.

So, let’s start by examining our own hearts and then take the first step to love our neighbors as ourselves by doing less talking and more listening. Less anger and more love. Less unbridled speech and more unbridled love. All empowered by the Spirit of Jesus—who loved us first.