Vicar's Sermon - 6th September 2015
What might it have been like? The church or churches that James wrote his epistle to: what would they have looked like...who would we have found there?
When you think about it, Christianity (of course) was viewed with suspicion in the first few centuries of its existence. By the end of the first century Christians no longer found a place in regular Jewish society: they had been expelled from the synagogues. Jesus, of course, had been crucified as a pretender to the authority that rested in the Roman Emperor: whilst Rome treated Jews and their religion as something of a special case within the Empire Christians were not tolerated. Their refusal to acknowledge the Emperor’s divinity combined with their allegiance to another Lord made them fair game for persecution.
Worship then, took place in homes, not the great church buildings that we now treasure across Europe and further afield. Worship might take place secretly. Because it was in someone’s home it was likely to involve some form of hospitality - a shared meal, a meal that spoke of the table fellowship that Jesus enjoyed with his disciples, a meal that was to speak of the coming Kingdom of God.
Who were the hosts? Common sense would suggest that the church community should meet in the largest available space – the largest home. The largest home was probably owned by the wealthiest person in the community.
And who might come to worship? Who might find their way into the first Christian communities? As we have reminded ourselves through our study of the book of Ephesians the first Christians were practising Jews but soon, to these were added ‘non-Jews: the gospel found a ready welcome amongst the Gentiles. Most especially the gospel took root amongst those who were poor, those who found hope in a message that proclaimed that God Himself had become poor that they might become rich. The ‘crucified messiah’ made no sense to those with wealth and power – he was a deluded fool – but to those who prayed for God to change the world so that justice and righteousness might flourish and all people might enjoy His blessing, Jesus made a lot of sense.
So in James’ churches we have Jews and non-Jews learning to understand one another- people bringing their tradition and upbringing, their ways of being and doing, their likes and dislikes shaped by centuries of cultural expression and ingrained into their self-understanding into one place: into the new family of God. And the challenge for them is to learn to live together – to respect one another, the bear with one another, to welcome one another for all are equal in Christ.
But as if this were not enough in today’s lesson from James explosive epistle we see that there were vast disparities of wealth on display within the Christian church – the person with fine rings and clothes enters the community and is compared to the person who has come wearing dirty clothes. ‘Now’, says James, ‘here’s another challenge for us, let’s look at ourselves and measure our actions against the gospel’.
It makes uncomfortable reading and no doubt did so back in the first century too. But first the good news – with a sting in its tale. The good news from this passage is that rich and poor were in the same place. There are very few places in the world where people who have much and people who have very little can meet. It is not just in the parable of Dives and Lazarus that a great gulf exists between rich and poor. The summer newspapers reported new high rise properties being built in London with different entrances for those who paid for the penthouse suites and those who, in theory would be their neighbours but whom the glitterati do not wish to meet –social engineering so that the rich do not have to see the poor.
Behind James’ words of warning lie the gospel story of Jesus welcoming the outcast, touching the unclean, sitting and eating with tax collectors and sinners, speaking words of forgiveness to those who knew their sin only too well. We can’t escape this inheritance: this is who we are as Christians brothers and sisters so ‘do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?’
James’ community still had room for rich and poor even if he needed to pull them up short on how the relationships between them played out. But the sting in the tale comes when we ask ‘what about us?’ Our inheritance here is of being the state church that has created special pews for the local gentry back in the 18th century, that put the footman by the door, the children in the far corner and the hoi polloi up in the gallery. Our inheritance is that when the larger properties at the bottom of The Bank fell into disrepair and became the overcrowded tenements of the 19th century we shut the south door to them as our main entrance and built a new North door in the tower – so that the important people could come in through it. From where we sit we are welcoming and open to others. But what impression do we give to those looking in from the outside? Our tradition is of being the faith of the powerful, the gentry and the well to do – ot of the poor of the parish.
But it’s more than the welcome we give on the front door isn’t it? ‘Stand there’ or ‘Sit at my feet’. We wouldn’t use these words but the attitude behind them isn’t far away from the hearts of all of us. It’s an attitude that can just about tolerate someone but doesn’t actually want to engage with them, doesn’t want to get to know them or find a space for them within the community and has a clear idea of who is important and who is not. James will have nothing of this. People who are poor don’t just need food and shelter – they need somewhere that can give them dignity...a place to call home, a place that recognises that they can make a contribution to society not just be a drain upon it. James again speaks of God’s bias to the poor hammering home that we can’t get round this in the practise of our faith. It is the poor he says who bear Christ’s image. It is those in need who bring some of the greatest gifts to us – they it is who help us to hold lightly to material things and challenge us about our reliance upon them, they it is who remind us that love is possible and loneliness and alienation (the curses of our own time and society) can be overcome. They it is who remind us that the world isn’t condemned to a fight to the death between different races or between rich and poor but that all have a place at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven. They do so by finding their place in the church – the firstfuits of God’s kindom.
Again, James reminds us that the Christian community is to live by a different set of values to those of the world. As modern Christians it seems that we are desperately searching for new models of more authentic Christian living in which God’s Kingdom can be seen and His values embodied. James points the way by calling us to grow into a more authentic Christian community. This is hard, but it starts with how we treat one another, it develops into our learning to welcome the stranger and what they bring to us, it grows as we sit and eat with the person who is not like us who challenges our prejudices and expands our hearts. It flourishes as we learn both to give and receive from those in need. That is the kind of church we are called to be – a church to which people want to belong and a church in which all people can belong. That’s something to aim for.