Sunday, September 09, 2012

Seeing and Serving the "Invisible" People

[This was shared during the 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

James 2:1-17
Through the centuries, the New Testament book of James, from which our second Bible lesson for today is drawn, hasn’t enjoyed much appreciation by we Lutheran Christians. Martin Luther himself called it an “epistle of straw,” worthy of being burned.

Yet Luther also said that this New Testament letter had important wisdom for those who already believe in the gospel.

And that’s why I believe the book of James is, as much as any other book of the Bible, the Word of God: It’s a word from God about how to live as though Jesus Christ really is the Savior and God we confess Him to be.

The Church, as I’ve said before, is Christ’s hospital for recovering hypocrites. It’s in the fellowship of the Church that we are confronted by the reality of our sin and hypocrisy, face the reality that death is sin’s natural consequence, and that only those who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus are set free  from sin and death.

But it’s also in the fellowship of the Church, gathered around God’s Word in Jesus’ Name, that God affects those mid-course corrections that we imperfect hypocrites need as we travel through life toward the moment we meet Christ face to face.

In today’s lesson, James addresses one of the most common ways we can go off course in our faith: Showing partiality to some people over others.

Please turn to the lesson, James 2:1-17. James begins:
My brethren [sisters, too], do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?’
The churches to which James wrote were themselves largely composed of poor people. Yet, James says, they fell all over themselves in welcoming rich people to their worship gatherings.

This may have been something they did out of habit; the poor of ancient cultures were taught to be completely subservient to the rich and were also taught that wealth was a sign of God’s favor.

On the other hand, they may have treated poor visitors to their worship the way they did either because it made them feel good to be superior to somebody else for once or because they had been taught that poverty was God’s curse for sin.

Whatever the reasons for their partiality, James was saying it was always wrong! It still is.

And you know what? Partiality of any kind is always wrong.

In a sermon on this passage from James, Pastor Maxie Dunham tells the true story of a woman, Dr. Ridenour, who, in her mid-forties, suffered from a stroke that rendered her partially paralyzed for some time.

“The paralysis,” Dunnam writes, “was an embarrassment, creating a kind of vulnerability and nakedness, a sadness, and an infinite kind of loneliness.” People didn’t know how to relate to her and so, hung up on their own discomfort, they ignored Jesus’ command to love others as we love ourselves and ignored Dr. Ridenour. She became invisible.

Who do we avoid--who do we render invisible--by ignoring them?

“Did you meet the visitors in worship last Sunday?” I’ve routinely asked the members of the three congregations I’ve served as pastor over the years. Inevitably, it seems, someone will say, “No. I didn’t meet them because I never met them before.”

Isn’t that answer a way of saying, “I didn’t meet them because I don’t want to meet them”?

It’s really a handy way to foil God’s purpose for our lives. And what are God's purposes for us?

Take a look, please, at 2 Corinthians 5:20. It says:
“Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For [God] made [Christ] Who knew no sin to be sin for us [Christ, though sinless, bore our sin on the cross], that we might become the righteousness of God in [Christ].” 
Through our faith in Christ, God has made us right with God [that’s a big part of what righteousness means for us, being right with God] and we in turn are to be ambassadors for Christ and His kingdom to other people.

But, if we make other people invisible, we won’t have to be ambassadors. We won't see anybody who needs the gospel.

 “I didn’t see that visitor to worship,” we say.

“I didn’t know there were hungry people in Hocking County."

"I didn’t know that my neighbor was unemployed or having health issues."

"I didn’t know about their grief.”

This is no different from those Jesus condemns in His parable of the last judgment. Take a look at Matthew 25:44-45. “Lord,” the condemned ask plaintively, “when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” You can’t see people you’ve willfully made invisible, of no account, unworthy of your consideration, concern, or even a simple greeting.

In Matthew 5:46, Jesus says that, at the final judgment, he will say to those who have condemned themselves by ignoring Him and others, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”

Now, don’t get confused!

You will not be saved from sin and death and purposeless living by doing good works.

In Jesus Christ, God has already done all the work needed to save us so that we can live this life with purpose and look forward to living with God for eternity.

Jesus didn’t lead a sinless life, die on a cross, and rise from the dead just to turn you into a neurotic who thinks you have to work hard at doing enough good things to earn God’s love or grace!

God already loves you. That’s why He sent God the Son to die and rise for you.

Turn please to Ephesians 2:8-9. It says:
“For by grace [that is, God’s charity] you have been saved through faith, and that is not of yourselves [you didn’t earn your salvation]; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” 
We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Period.

For God’s “amazing grace,” we should give glory to God every single day!

But faith in Jesus Christ is more than the acceptance of an intellectual proposition. James puts it this way back in our lesson, at James 2:17: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Faith is a trust in Jesus that will so free us from concern about ourselves that, if we let it, God will open our eyes to see others.

We’ll see the visitor to worship, the hungry, the jobless, the grieving.

The still small voice of God will tell our spirits, “Now that you have eternity with Me, what have you got to lose from reaching out to others? Not even death itself can separate you from Me. So, go for it!”

A man I know, a Christian, hesitated to call on a friend whose wife had just left him. He didn’t want to butt in and he was sure others were reaching out to his friend.

Besides, the very idea of calling his friend made him feel uncomfortable.

What would he say?

How could he handle those awkward silences?

But when he told a wise friend about his hesitation, the friend told him, as gently as he could, “Get over yourself. Your discomfort is not the issue at hand. The issue is that, right now, is that your friend feels alone, isolated from others and from God. You need to call your friend.”

He did and you know what? He learned that he was the first person to have called that hurting man in weeks. He was so glad he’d taken his friend’s advice!

First Corinthians 12:27 says that we Christians, members of Christ’s eternal Church, are part of the “body of Christ.” That means that we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

What does that mean exactly?

Well, for one thing, it means that no one should be invisible to us. Jesus, God the Son, could have stayed safely enthroned in heaven, listening to the praises of the angels, acting as though you and I didn’t exist, ignoring the fact that without His intervention, we would live this life without His help, die in our sins, and spend eternity in hell.

But the God of love was unwilling to give up on us so easily. We weren’t invisible to God!

That’s why we’re told that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

And when Jesus walked on this earth, He reached out to and loved all sorts of people: the rich, the poor, the religious, the unrepentant sinners, the blind, the lame, the grieving, the in-crowd, and the forgotten.

Jesus could do that because He operated in the certainty that, as He trusted in God the Father, nothing could separate Jesus from Him: not the hatred of the crowds, not the condemnation of religious or government authorities, not the torture or execution or death on the cross He would undergo.

As believers in Jesus, we can live in the same assurance.

So, this week, I want to ask you to go to God in prayer and make a simple request.

“God,” we can pray, “this week let me put my faith into action. Reveal to me one person who would otherwise be invisible to me. It might be someone I have tried to forget or it may be a stranger I’ve never met. Help me to see them as you see them, as children in need of Your grace and help me to reach out to them in Your love in some way.”

I’m going to be offering the same prayer myself.

May God help us to put away partiality.

May God help us to love as He has loved us.

Faith without works is dead. May our faith in Christ be alive every day!

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