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Fall Quarter: Love for One Another
Unit 3: Godly Love Among Believers
Sunday school lesson for the week of Nov. 29, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: James 2
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters; Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
- To help the listener to understand the destructive power of partiality.
- To help the listener realize that favoritism cannot coexist with godly love.
- To allow us to ask ourselves, “Do I practice favoritism?” Does my church practice favoritism?”
The disciple John is often referred to as “The Eagle.” Using that analogy, I would refer to James, the half-brother of Jesus, as a man gifted with eagle eyes. It is obvious that James is a man with two feet planted on the ground, gazing at life through the eyes of faith. He is able to see what many overlook. His writing reveals a man sharply focused on living for Christ in day-to-day life. It is obvious that he sincerely desires to make the ground upon which he stands holy ground, whether he is in a community of believers or walking the streets of a village.
James has a fascinating testimony. As a child and young man, he lived very much like Jesus. Jesus was his brother, as Nazareth would believe, and he was second oldest boy. He was a very devout Jew. He was called by some “James the camel kneed,” for he prayed so often and long on his knees. In the beginning he did not believe Jesus, his brother, was Messiah. He committed his life to Jesus as Messiah after the resurrection.
James’ life is one of great proofs of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. It would be a major step to move a few steps away from Judaism toward believing your brother was God in the flesh and Messiah. James was not a man easily swayed to lay aside that which he strongly believed. Only seeing his crucified and buried brother conquer death and appear later as the resurrected Lord could move James to believe. Also, as a devout Jew he would have held the Sabbath as very sacred. Many devout Jews would rather lay down their weapons and die in battle than violate the Sabbath. The only reason James could ever change his Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday would be some of kind of major divine action had occurred. The divine action was the resurrected Jesus. Only God could conquer death.
James became an early apostle and leader in the Jerusalem Counsel, the first leadership in the new faith. Therefore, when he spoke, early Christians listened. James never totally abandoned Judaism. He had lived a legalistic life in order to please God. He would have tried passionately to obey the Law of Moses. Though obeying the Law was no longer the means to become a child of God and entering the Kingdom of God, living a disciplined, obedient life was as important as ever. James believed, as did all the apostles, that one was saved by grace. However, grace did not mean that one was to abandon living an obedient, holy life. James addresses the reality that we can embrace both. Grace moves us toward Christ, and obedience moves us toward holiness of life.
James would later die for his faith. Tradition maintains he was taken to a high point in the temple and thrown to the ground. Miraculously he survived. The angry anti-Christian mob then attempted to stone him, but he still clung to life. They then collected clubs, the kind that were often used to beat dust out of carpets, and beat him to death. Once he gave his life to Jesus no disciple was any more faithful and obedient than James.
Christian Love Confronts Favoritism and Partiality
I am saddened by the fact that a large number of clergy have experienced partiality in a congregation. I invited an African American pastor to sing at our Christmas banquet. He sang spirituals and hymns from a deep place in his soul. He often moved me to tears at conference events. It was my responsibility to secure someone to be the program at the banquet. When I announced my friend was coming to sing, a group of members told me to cancel him. As a matter of fact, they blocked me allowing him in our buildings simply because he was black. The argument got too heated and I did want my brother to walk into such resentment. Therefore, several of us rented a banquet hall in a local hotel near the church and sponsored the banquet. To my great surprise almost everyone, even those who passionately opposed his coming, attended. When the powerful program was over, I passed a cup for a love offering. The cup became so filled I had to use a second. A majority of those who were so angry at his coming gave generously. I have learned to never doubt the Holy Spirit’s ability to move the heart with godly love. All of our hearts were changed that night. The congregation became an open, welcoming community to all over the following days and years. Had we resisted the call of the Spirit and the power of God’s love, something would have died within us as the body of Jesus. Instead, we had experienced the glory of internal resurrection as the heart began to open through a single program of hymns and spirituals. Too many of us have witnessed the destructive power of partiality from some determined not to change.
As a Christian, have you witnessed favoritism within your church? Was the partiality accepted and glossed over, or did someone call attention to it? As an exercise, look within your heart and ask yourself if you have practiced favoritism, treated the wealthy better than the poor, or treated people from a different ethnic background as “less than.” You do not need to share with the group unless you feel it productive. Meditate upon how we participated in favoritism and pray. Pray for God to empower us to recognize partiality within our own heart and contemplate on steps to overcome this sin.
Notice the ways favoritism is destructive. Before we practice favoritism, we have to first be judgmental in heart. When we judge, we lessen the value and dignity of another simply because of fleeting wealth. When the fullness of God’s Kingdom bursts into our life, our love of wealth will grant us nothing. We will confront the question why we devalued one of his children because they lacked wealth.
Possessing a judgmental spirit implies that we trust in our own judgment over God’s. A judgmental spirit fails to acknowledge the depth of love revealed in Christ; Jesus loved us all equally. We actually are ignoring the major commandment Jesus embraced and taught: to love your neighbors as yourself. One of the reasons Jesus was the recipient of the rage of the Pharisees and Sadducees and the upper ruling class in Jerusalem was that he embraced those the powerful shunned. He dared preach that God loved the entire world.
We must be careful not to judge the wealthy as sinful. Some accumulate more wealth during their lives than others. Solomon would say, “That’s life.” However, wealth should never become an instrument that separates us from one another or causes us to look down on others. Many use their wealth to care for the poor and struggling. James is especially addressing the wealthy who gain their wealth by taking advantage of the most vulnerable, and often do so in the name of God. I have witnessed some who struggled financially who judged the wealthy as ungodly and arrogant. Yet, they did not know those they condemned. They were as guilty of judgment as those who judged the poor to be a bother.
Most of us are familiar with the story in Acts of Peter’s vision while resting on the roof in Joppa. Even after his experience at Pentecost, Peter retained an obvious resentment of Gentiles. He did not want “those people” in the church. While resting, God gave Peter a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven. Upon the sheet were all things that were considered “unclean” according to Judaism. God then informs Peter that what he calls clean is clean. The lesson from this vision was to teach Peter that God had always equally loved the Gentiles, they were not unclean as Peter believed. Furthermore, Peter needed to learn the Gentiles were as dear as the most devout Jewish Christians. Peter left Joppa and journeyed to Cornelius, a respected Gentile. There Peter offered him Christ. I encourage you to read the background Scripture, and especially verse four.
Is your church a welcoming community? Is your church determined to let it be known that all will be genuinely loved and be a part of the family? If not, what can be done to accomplish these acts of godly compassion?
Wealth of the Poor
In this section of the text James appears to “favor” the poor just as he condemns favoritism. However, James isn’t defining wealth here as monetary wealth; he defines wealth as “spiritual depth.” Why would he claim the poor are richer in faith than the rich? We must not assume he is claiming that the rich do not have good standing with God. God loves all equally, rich and poor. The poor recognize struggle and the frailty of life, for it is a part of their experience. They recognize their dependence on Christ for joy, meaning and for belonging to a loving and supportive faith community.
I worked on mission projects for four consecutive years in a very poor area of Merida. We were helping them build a sanctuary. For years missions were understood as helping people in other countries to live like we do in America. Actually, they taught me more about life, faith and love than any community. They were truly rich in faith while struggling monetarily. They took care of each other and squeezed more joy out of a day than I have ever witnessed. Wealth and riches are of no consideration when it comes to faith. It is better to be rich in heart. There are wealthy and poor who are very rich in heart.
Does wealth play a role in the way we look at one another? What can we learn about authentic faith from those who struggle financially? What can we learn from the wealthy about faith and compassion?
Blasphemy has proved to be a confusing biblical term for many, and some have been severely hurt due to misinterpretation. I worked for the Salvation Army during college. One afternoon, a man knocked on our lodge door. He was dressed in the most ragged clothes and had nothing in his possession. He refused to enter. I asked what I might do for him and he answered, “I don’t get any help because I blasphemed and I am lost forever.” I attempted to engage him in talking but he quietly walked away and I never saw him again. Some believe blaspheme is taking God’s name in vain or cursing God. They also believe once they have blasphemed God they can never be saved. This belief emerges from a misreading of the book of Hebrews. First, blaspheme occurs when the light and truth are obvious and we willingly ignore them and pursue an egocentric path. Hebrews 10:26 reads, “If we keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left.” In the original language, Hebrews is saying that “as long as we remain in willful sin we cannot be forgiven. Blaspheme is not a single act, it is a spiritual state.
As long as we remain in willful sin,
we cannot be forgiven for we refuse to accept God’s truth and grace. We blaspheme when we choose to willfully reject what should be obvious. However, once we give our heart to Jesus, abandoning our rejection, all can be forgiven. The continuation of rejecting obvious light and grace leads to what Paul referred to as a hard heart. Therefore, our inability to receive God’s forgiveness is not due to God’s will but our own. We turn to God and everything becomes new. In reality, all of have been guilty of blaspheme. I remember clearly wanting little or no part of Christianity. When I did attend church, which until age 17 was rare, I would hear truth and see light. I understood what the preacher was saying. Yet, I had a different life in mind, therefore, I chose to resist God. However, a year later I turned, opened my heart to Christ, and found a new life and purpose. Again, all of us initially probably rejected obvious truth. However, we turned! The arms of God were open as they had been all the time. We just needed to abandon and accept.
It is obvious that people are suffering. People are hungry and alone. We are obviously aware of hurting people! We cannot help the whole world. We are not called to such an impossible task due to our weak humanity. But we are called to help those in our path and give to missions around the world of which we are aware. In some sense we all reject obvious truth. However, we must remember blaspheme is a STATE and not an act. An act may be blasphemous and we not be guilty of blaspheme. This does not mean we can shrug our shoulders over our willful sins, believing God will overlook it. Remember the lesson concerning Ananias and Saphira. He especially was guilty of believing God would not call him to account for his choice to be more concerned about his own wealth than those who were in need. God doesn’t shut us out over a willful sin we commit out of our ignorance. Still, as ignorance gives way to an open heart, we must willfully turn toward God’s obvious truth. There is within the biblical reality called blaspheme a sense of mystery. Understanding is a path, a journey. God judges sin out of his love and mercy in his own way. God’s will is not always grasped by us. We will understand it as we walk with Christ through the years.
James is addressing a Christian community that is very aware of hurting people yet chooses to ignore them while favoring the wealthy. Our lesson book says blaspheme is a willful insult or slander against God. There is no greater insult than to tell a loving Christ, who has given his all for us, “Not right now,” or ignore him altogether. Remember, Jesus taught, “As you have done it to the least of these you have done it unto me.”
Again, the Shema
It isn’t accidental that we keep running into the Shema. From Deut. 6 we read the “Law of laws.” Jesus said there is no law greater. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart soul and strength; and, thy neighbor as thyself.” This eternal law is a thread that runs through the books of holy Scripture. Read James 2:8-11. How can we dare ask for forgiveness and not offer it to someone who hurt us? How dare we abuse grace and withhold from our neighbor the love of God!
Take an inventory of yourself. Ask, “Have I ignored or rejected God’s call upon my life?” “Have I intentionally avoided or ignored people in need?” “Do I hold a grudge?” How does holding a grudge relate to the Shema?
Again, James is among the initial leaders in the early church, and a devout Jew and keeper of the Mosaic Law. He did not abandon his determination to be faithful to the Law. However, Jesus opened his heart to grace, and grace began to season his faith. Yes, he had two feet planted on the ground, but he had a heart for Jesus and the eternal. Eventually his great faith allowed him to accept tremendous suffering and even death for Christ. Furthermore, in his journey of faith he always heard the cries of the suffering and needy and asked himself, “What would Jesus have me do?” Doing and believing went hand in hand with James, as they should in our Christian life.
Almighty God, we give thanks for your great mercy. Your tender, just love has opened our eyes and hearts. We praise you for the gift of “eyes that can see” and “ears that can hear.” Grant us the courage to willingly act upon what we believe. Continue to teach us that we are a vital part of your will to redeem the world, rich and poor, those in high places and those in low places. May we embody Jesus’ prayer, “Make us one.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.