The 15th Sunday After Pentecost September 1, 2013
359, 66, 442, 408
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood and has made us kings and priests to God and His Father—to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen.
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? [ESV]
In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, whose grace is impartial and whose offer of salvation is for every human being, dear fellow-redeemed:
It’s not often that I compose a sermon theme to be deliberately misleading. In fact, I can’t think of another example. But I did it today. When you first read the theme, “There’s No Such Thing as a Partial Christian,” your first thought was probably something like, “Well, I guess no one can be part Christian and part unbeliever. You’re either saved or you’re not, you either trust Jesus as your Redeemer or you don’t.” All of that is perfectly true as far as it goes. But if that’s all I meant, then this sermon would take half a minute instead of half an hour.
No, the real meaning of our theme—and of this passage from James—has to do with the other definition of “partial.” To be partial toward something is to prefer it, to show undue favor toward it, to deliberately grant special preference to that person or thing. This can be harmless as in “I’m partial to smoked pork.” Or it can be damning as in, “The judge, having received a large bribe, was partial toward the defendant.”
Partiality can be good or bad, but in our text for today James makes one thing perfectly clear: When it comes to the way Christians treat one another, there’s no room at all for partiality. We’ll find out why as we consider the theme: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A PARTIAL CHRISTIAN. I. Partiality is inconsistent with the Christian faith and II. Partiality is inconsistent with the grace of God.
The Epistle of James was one of the first epistles written after the resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus. It was written by James, the head of the Jerusalem church, to Christians of Jewish background scattered throughout the world. The epistle addressed some of the problems that particularly Jewish Christians seemed to have at the time. One of them was inconsistency. In chapter one, James says, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). These Jewish Christians evidently listened to the Word, and they agreed with its principles, but then they failed to apply the principle in real life.
Does that sound familiar, by the way? Someone who goes to church on Sunday and agrees with everything that’s said, but then fails to carry it out the rest of the week? Well, if you think you’re uncomfortable now, just wait.
Let’s take an example, says James. Partiality—”My brothers, show no partiality,” he says. [v.1] It shouldn’t even be in the Christian vocabulary. Why not? Well, first and most obviously, because partiality is completely inconsistent with the Christian faith.
We all know the Bible principle—a believer isn’t allowed to show preference toward someone just because he’s rich or powerful. The Old Testament Law said, “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe” (Deuteronomy 16:19). A little later on in this chapter, James says, “If you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9).
So that’s the principle. Christians are not to show partiality. All are equal before God and should be treated equally—without distinction—in the church. It seems pretty simple. But when it came to putting that principle into practice, it wasn’t working out so well. Take the example, says James, of two different visitors to your worship service. “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?” [vv.2-4]
These Christians knew the principle. But when it came to putting the principle into practice, they failed miserably. They preferred the fine-looking gentleman in expensive clothes. They catered to him and treated him with great respect. But they had no time for the poor man in dirty clothes. He could sit on the floor or stand in the back somewhere. And what about us here in our congregation? We’ve have prosperous professional people visit our services. We’ve also had poor people visit. We’ve had recovering drug addicts from the halfway house down the street. Do we treat them any differently? Do we even think about them differently? We shouldn’t! Because when you get right down to it, a soul is a soul. If we believe that Christ died for all of the sinners on earth, then how can we prefer one over another? It doesn’t make sense. There ought to be no such thing as a partial Christian.
Ought to be…A young boy was sitting on the front row watching a ventriloquist perform with his dummy on his lap. Interacting with the boy, the dummy proceeded to ask him questions and talk with him. Well, the boy was delighted. He thought he had found a new friend. So he approached the dummy after the show to ask him to come over to his house and play. The ventriloquist was kind of embarrassed and made awkward excuses until it became clear that the boy wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Finally the ventriloquist explained, “Son, he can’t come over and play with you. He doesn’t play. He doesn’t really do anything, he just talks.”
Sadly, a lot of “Christians” are that way, too. They don’t really do anything, they just talk. In fact, it’s true of all of us, to one degree or another. We have good intentions, but don’t carry them out. We agree with the principle, it’s the practice we’re not so good at.
Aren’t you glad Jesus wasn’t like that? His love for us sinners was action, not talk. In order to address the problem of our sin, He left the splendors of His heavenly throne and came down to earth a humble human like us. Because He loved you and me so much, He walked right into the clutches of His enemies. He said to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, “What shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12:27).
Jesus went right on, suiting His actions exactly to the Word of God. From the betrayal in the Garden, to the court of Pontius Pilate, all the way to the cross. Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t show partiality? What if He treated us poor sinners the way that that James’ readers treated their poor church visitors? But He didn’t. He died for all people, irrespective of wealth or status or social position. That’s who Jesus is—completely impartial, welcoming to all who will confess their sins and come to Him for forgiveness. And that’s who His followers should be, too. That’s why James says, “show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”
There’s a second reason why there really is no such thing as a partial Christian. Not only is partiality inconsistent with faith in Jesus, partiality is inconsistent with the grace of God. James goes on, “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?” [v.5]
I’d like to introduce you to the poorest person I know. He has no money at all. Worse—he has huge debts, debts that (let’s face it) he’s never really going to be able to pay back. His clothing isn’t just old and shabby, it’s dirty and filthy and repulsive. He smells bad. He has absolutely no redeeming features, nothing that could possibly make anyone love or even care about him. Who is it? It’s you. And it’s me. Actually it’s every human being by nature. For Isaiah says, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6). Each of us is guilty of a multitude of sins, and we’re broke, and we have nothing with which to pay our debt before God.
But guess what? Poor as we are—morally bankrupt sinners that we are—God has chosen us! God has chosen us who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. With the death of His Son on the cross, God made a way for our debt to be paid. He provided atonement for our sins. He opened a way for us so that you and I can one day walk through the gates of Heaven into the halls of eternal paradise! Through faith in Christ, the riches of the kingdom of God itself now belong to us!
In confirmation class we were discussing Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, which says, “I believe the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel and enlightened me with His gifts.” What does that mean? Well, imagine someone leading you into a darkened room, pitch black, and telling you, “Everything in this room now belongs to you.” It wouldn’t mean too much, would it? But suppose he snapped on the lights, and suddenly you could see that the walls were lined with shelves, and on each shelf were stacked bricks of solid gold! That’s what the Holy Spirit has done for you. He’s opened your eyes and snapped on the lights, so that you can see all the riches that belong to you in Christ. You see things that the unbelievers around you can’t see.
To you belong vast riches the likes of which no unbeliever can ever conceive. Riches like peace with God, a quiet conscience, the assurance of forgiveness, the power to pray and know that you’ll be heard, comfort in every sorrow, strength to meet all of life’s challenges, and most importantly, the assurance that you are indeed, as James says, an heir of the kingdom through faith in Christ, and that you will spend eternity with your Lord Jesus in Heaven! Or as the hymnist put it:
We are rich for He was poor,
Is not this a wonder?
Let us praise God evermore,
Here on earth and yonder! [TLH 97:3]
That’s why there’s no such thing as a partial Christian, for when we realize the pure glory that is ours, the riches that belong to every believer in Christ, it makes no sense to show partiality in the church. In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days he read the Gospel accounts seriously and was quite attracted to the Christian faith. So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher saw only a poor man in humble, homespun clothing, and he refused to give him a seat. Instead, the usher suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned.
I pray that none of us will make the mistake the usher made that day, that we will never show partiality, for we are Christians and, as James has taught us today: There’s no such thing as a partial Christian. It’s inconsistent with the Christian faith, and it’s inconsistent with the grace of God.
God grant us His grace, so that we welcome all people equally to partake with us in the riches of His kingdom. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.