Theme: Treat everyone as equals
Last week Tom explained that for the next few Sundays we would be studying the epistle of James. Now I recognise that this is a major departure for people who come to the 09:30 service regularly where we are more used to a gospel message. However if you read James then you will see how his letter picks up the central themes in Jesus teaching, particularly from the Sermon on the Mount.
James' message is very simple - no deep theology, just simple, hard hitting truths. James cuts straight to the heart of the matter and his directness is a precursor of Nike's "Just Do it!"
This week the Challenge is to treat everyone as equals before God, not to show prejudice in any way.
It is ironic that one of the central tenets of the American Constitution is the statement
"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" yet the American Civil War, and the Civil disturbances of the 1960's resulted from federal government action to prevent racial discrimination. Some people were more equal than others.
27 years ago Martin Luther King Jr, stood on the steps of the Washington monument in front of the crowd supporting Civil Rights legislation and proclaimed
"I have a dream, a dream that my little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character".
And in case we feel smug let's remember that in the UK it was only as recently as 1921 that women secured the right to vote. We live in a world where discrimination of some type or other, whether it on grounds of race, sex, age, is the norm.
As I was preparing for today, my eye was caught by a couple of stories in the news. Unremarkable but a poignant reminder of the racial undertones still prevalent in modern society.
The first concerned a young black girl who was caught shop lifting in a town in South Africa. The owner of the shop decided to humiliate her by painting every part of her with white paint as if by changing the colour of her skin, he could somehow change her behaviour.
The assumption was clearly absurd and indicated the racist framework that the shop keeper was using to judge the other person. Rather than a victim of crime, he was in fact a criminal. By concentrating on her colour, and not seeing the person he failed to recognise that the real cause of her crime was the abject poverty in which she lived, the result of 30 years of apartheid.
The second, almost inevitably with the Olympics just a couple of weeks away, was news about research into the genetic make-up of coloured and white people to see if there was any biological explanation for the former's sporting success, particularly in sprints. Instead of discovering a genetic explanation, the researchers concluded that the routes to success lay in natural ability, drive and hard work.
The tragedy is that we are living in a world where people judge by appearances.
If you don't believe me flick through the Sunday magazine, or watch the adverts on TV. How many of them target the image that you create. Whether it is the car that you drive, clothes that you wear, blemish free complexion, fat free figure, or sophistication that you exude.
When preparing for an interview you are warned that the impression that you make in the first 30 seconds is critical to your chances of success. It doesn't matter what you have achieved, even whether you are right for the job, no it is all down to what you said and how you held yourself when you walked into the room.
A fundamental tenet of our Christian belief is that everyone is equal in God's sight. Yet it is difficult not to have our views coloured by the standards around us the whole time.
James challenged his readers to consider whether they were really even handed with everyone in their group. He highlighted the fact that the early Christian Church while ostensibly welcoming people, were particularly courteous, bordering on the obsequious to those who were rich.
They paid more attention to those who were rich. They were offered the best place in the meeting, the leaders were concerned to ensure they were not offended, even though these were the same people who were prepared to throw them into prison if they defaulted on a debt.
Their practice, segregating slave from master, made those who were poorer feel like second class citizens. By their attitude towards them they were creating the impression that people who were less wealthy, those who didn't have the same status were less important in God's sight, and had a less critical role to play in the Church.
This is directly against the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to what he says :
"God blesses those people who are humble. The earth will belong to them"
Matthew 5 vs 5
James forces us to consider how do we engage with people who visit our church for the first time. Does it make any difference what they are wearing, whether they appear to be from the right side of the tracks (wherever that may be), how they talk.
Lets recap, before the break we were reflecting on how we treat people in this Church. Do we adopt God's perspective, or are we subconsciously influenced by the standards of the day ?
It is very easy for social standards to become the accepted convention within the church, particularly in a church that is associated with "upholding" the Establishment.
Years ago a friend of mine, Steve Goddard, wrote a song titled "Child of my time" in which he recounted the tale of someone's first experience of going into a Church.
Although the steward on the door was very welcoming, from the outset he was made to feel an outsider. Whether it was the different clothes that people wore, the way that people turned their heads to look at him as if he had walked into the wrong place or the unfamiliarity of the service. Each element made him feel as though he was a foreigner in a strange land so much so that he was "Caught between the Devil and the C of E".
Subconsciously we can judge people based on appearances. This is not just a risk for Anglicans either.
A prominent Baptist Church in Dallas decided to use the occasion of the 10,000th person joining the church to gain some publicity. It can be daunting when you first take a step across the threshold - so they wanted to ensure that people knew what they were about. Yet rather than relying on fate and perhaps ending up with a story about a wizened old lady who was not known by anyone more than a block away, it just so happened that the 10,000th member was the kicker for the Dallas Cowboys !
After all if you want publicity, a story to make people sit up and take notice then it is essential to have a well know celebrity along.
Within the Christian Church there is still a pecking order regardless of whether you regard yourself as "High" Church or Low Church.
This week in the Dominus Jesus, the Vatican declared that "The communities which have not preserved the Episcopate i.e. the link with the apostolic tradition via the Roman line are not Churches in the proper sense. The author, presumably reflecting the current thinking in the Vatican, effectively relegated anyone worshipping God outside the structures and traditions of the Catholic Church as not quite there, a second class citizen of heaven, if indeed you got there.
Now this may surprise you given my background, but I can understand the sentiments underpinning that statement. When I was younger the Brethren assembly where I grew up in held a similar conviction. Except on that occasion Catholicism and Anglicans were on the outer, Methodists were suspect, while Baptists were ok, but only just so! The only people who could be guaranteed of salvation were those worshipping in the Brethren tradition, as we had it right.
Groups can be very powerful, they unite people behind a common goal but they can become exclusive. God does not expect us to show partiality to one person or group at the expense of another as everyone is equally valuable in his sight.
We do not have the right to judge others, often on superficial grounds, as God has demonstrated his love for everybody. In fact Jesus warns us time and again about judging others. God alone sees what we are really like and more importantly what we can become.
Salvation from God's judgement is not something that is earned, it results from the grace of God, made freely available to anyone who is prepared to listen. We are not here because of right, it is because of what God has done for us. As the people of God we must not become the stumbling block, the obstacle between people and Christ by our attitudes towards visitors, or each other.
So the challenge from James this week is - Don't concentrate on outward appearances, instead remember what we have received freely from God and treat everyone as equals.
Simon de Bell