The following is a manuscript for the sermon I preached in Calvin College's chapel on February 18th, 2013. The sermon was delivered as part of a preaching series on the Belhar Confession, a document written by the South African church in response to Apartheid. "The Church's unity: a healthy witness." James 2:1-13.
As some of you may know, I’m a native New Yorker. I was born and raised on Long Island. And when, by God’s providence, I ended up in west Michigan, there were some things I had to adjust to. What I previously knew as soda was now erroneously called ‘pop’. I would come across people, who I didn’t know, who would greet me with a smile and that was strange—you must understand that, for a New Yorker, such friendliness from strangers is considered quite rude.
But, by far, one thing that took time getting used to was the number of young couples getting engaged and married. Perhaps this is endemic to Calvin, but I remember being shocked by this—most people my age, back home, had no immediate plans for marriage. As a freshman, I already knew some people tying the knot. And I vividly remember asking myself, and for some reason I specifically thought about the young women in the relationships, I asked myself: does she really know what she’s committing herself to? Now, I’m not trying to be a hater. I’m not against young marriages. But I want to point out a simple reality: sometimes we don’t fully know what we’re committing ourselves to. But that doesn’t stop us. Yeah, she might have to learn about the relativity of his “high” cleaning standards. Yeah, he might have to get to know her creepy extended family. But such a deep commitment of love is something we grow into. In life, we often run into things naively…but where there is love, it covers a multitude of sins.
In a similar manner, my brothers and sisters, I want to raise a question. When we decide to follow Jesus, do we really know what we’re committing ourselves to? We like to think that we know, but we often don’t. The disciples surely didn’t know. Three years. That’s how much time they spent with Jesus, listening to his teaching. As far as they were concerned, they were fully on board. They were zealous; they were on fire for Jesus. They would defend him to the death. But it’s not clear whether they fully understood his mission. Over and over again, Jesus has to remind them that the Son of Man will go to Jerusalem and suffer. Israel’s messianic figure will triumph, but by dying on a cross and being raised to life. Is this what they had signed up for?
At the end of the day, there is no deception and no excuse. Jesus shows his disciples what they have committed themselves to, and they can either live into it or they can resist it and contradict it. The church can profess Christ, and yet possess a witness that is not faithful to him and his mission. We can be zealous. We can be agents of renewal. And yet, our walk can sometimes become unsound and disjointed from the true implications of our allegiance. That is why the church needs doctors, nurses, therapists to check our pulse, to check whether our witness is healthy.
And that is precisely what James is doing. Like a good doctor, he’s running a diagnostic. He’s looking at the churches scattered in the Diaspora; he’s looking at the scan and saying: “Hmm. Something doesn’t look right here.” Notice the first question that he asks. James observes congregations that are caught up in elitism, partiality, and sharp socio-economic divides and the first question he asks is: “do you really believe in Jesus?” In the defense of those James is questioning, these Christians were not doing anything scandalous in their time. Roman society was highly stratified, and it was the cultural norm that people with a higher status received a privileged place wherever they went. Besides, focusing on individuals who were in the halls of power could be seen as a rigorous form of cultural engagement on the part of the church. “Of course we believe Jesus,” they might respond to James, “these social interactions are just the way that the world works. Look at the senate. Look at our neighborhoods. These divisions are a natural part of communities. It’s not as if we reject the poor from our services. All are welcome. We have an appropriate spot for everyone.”
It’s easy to separate our social life from our discipleship. But if we look closely at the life of Christ, we come to see that our social life is one of the very things he came to transform. In being baptized in Christ—into his crucified and resurrected body—we are also baptized into the peoples he is gathering for himself, the Body of Christ. The ways we relate to people cannot stay the same. Indeed, for the disciples, it did not stay the same. When Peter responded to the call of Jesus, he probably didn’t know what this had to do with the people known as Gentiles. He probably didn’t know that in uniting himself to Christ, he would also be uniting himself to a strange group of people. And when it became apparent, he resisted. He refused to eat with those Jesus had made his brothers and sisters…until, finally in a vision, God gave him new eyes to see what he previously saw as unclean.
James is able to see that there is a contradiction at play in these congregations that are following certain social divisions. God is at work in creating a new family of brothers and sisters that are born not merely of flesh, but also of Spirit. When you decide to follow Jesus, your networks can’t stay the same. We can’t continue to follow what is merely natural to us. We need to be born again.
The Belhar Confession is an extremely helpful antidote for the church in this regard. It says: “We reject any doctrine which absolutizes…the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church.” Moreover, “a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin.” The Belhar Confession witnesses to the fact that our social life can never be separated from our discipleship to Jesus Christ. It’s not just about what beliefs we hold but it’s about who we decide to marry, to live with, to go to church with.
And so, continuing on, verse 4 reads: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” God’s kingdom is turning the world’s values upside down. God has chosen the poor to be rich. Now, these words must be understood in light of God choosing Mary. In the gospels, there is the descent of the Word that took on flesh and dwelt among us—but there is not only a descent, there is also a story of an ascent, the ascent of a young Jewish woman. You see, the good news about Jesus is not only that he came down to us—the good news is that he came down in order to raise humanity up, in order to raise us up into the life of God. James in the previous chapter says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up.” And that is what Mary does when she sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-49, 52-53)” When Christ descends and dwells in Mary’s body, she is lifted up—and this, in some way, shows what will happen to humanity and to creation—that we will be lifted up. This is good news for everyone and especially for the marginalized, the down and out, the rejects, those whom Franz Fanon calls “the wretched of the earth.”
God is at work in creating a new family of brothers and sisters. But what happens when Christians, by their actions, say something else? James Baldwin, that great writer from Harlem, was once commenting on the situation of our country. Wanting to have a discussion that went beyond voting acts and civil rights, he said: “what is really happening is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother…white men have lynched blacks knowing them to be their sons, white women have had blacks burned knowing them to be their lovers, it’s not merely a racial problem…it’s a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it…the American people are unable to face the fact that I’m flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone.”
For Christians, it is a problem of whether or not we’re willing to look at our life and be responsible for it. Baptism unites us in a way in which we’re no longer able to talk about those people, those kids, those immigrants. But we are like Ruth when she said to Naomi: “Your people will be my people.” Do you know, my brothers and sisters, that when we said yes to Jesus…we said yes to one another? We said yes to our neighbors. We said yes to our enemies. We said yes to the Image of God. We said yes to the creation that groans. Do we know that this is what we have committed ourselves to?
The end of the passage says: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” James should not be misinterpreted as promoting any kind of works-righteousness. Instead, he is trying to diagnose whether our actions, as Christians, align with Christ. When they don’t align, we need to repent. And we need to realize that there is a difference between guilt and repentance. Guilt is based on fear. Repentence is based on love. Guilt makes us feel bad. Repentence cuts us to the heart. Guilt can try to get us off the hook. Repentence asks how we are implicated. Guilt tries to suppress. Repentence laments. St Augustine said that, “the law of liberty is one of love, not fear.” When we fail to be faithful disciples of Christ, we repent because we love. And we repent knowing that there is mercy for us.
There is judgment to be sure. But mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy triumphed over judgment in South Africa. It was Christians who established Apartheid. And yet, it was Christians who called it into question and dismantled it. In the midst of that dark legacy, the Belhar Confession stands as a sign of hope. For the church universal, it functions as much needed medicine. We follow Jesus naively…but where there is love, it covers a multitude of sins.