GCI Sermon – September 5, 2021



The Shabby Clothes of Christ

James 2:1-17 ESV

“All the crème de la crème watching us watching them.” This is the crowning line of the song “Masquerade” in the musical Phantom of the Opera. The song appears when the arrogant aristocrats throw a masked ball to show off their wealth and indulgence with no idea how tragically their story will end.

James talks with us today about favoritism: “All the crème de la crème watching us watching them.” Why is showing favoritism such a universal urge? Why do we immediately resonate with James’ words? There are parts of James’ letter that are difficult to understand, but this hypothetical scenario hits home to all of us. We’ve all been there.


So what’s the cure to this sickness of favoritism that squanders our energy and poisons our relationships?

The antidote to favoritism, as James lays out for us, is a matter of:

  • Insight
  • Implementation
  • Integration

First we must have insight.

It’s easy to be less than sympathetic to the ancient audience this letter was first sent to. We wag our fingers and judge them as ignorant, immature communities of a darker age. Favoritism?! Surely we’ve evolved beyond that!

But let’s pause for a minute and look at this audience sympathetically. Favoritism in their age wasn’t just bad manners, it could be a matter of survival.

Life in the ancient world was, as Thomas Hobbes described, “nasty, brutish and short.” Poverty was rampant, leaders were corrupt, and a common cold could kill you.

Favoritism toward the wealthy was a way to get a better job and socially promote yourself and your family. Picking the “right” people could be the difference between making a living and going hungry.

It was more complicated than: “All the crème de la crème watching us watching them.”

“Favoritism” to them wasn’t simply the self-focused rudeness we might think of when we hear the word today. Yet even in these desperate circumstances, James tells them that kingdom people don’t practice favoritism. He calls them to the ongoing everyday revolution of bringing God’s kingdom into the world.

Even in our “sophisticated” age, favoritism is still a real thing. When you’re young, you’re vying for popularity; when you’re an adult, you’re networking. We’re making those connections whether you’re hoping for a good seat in the cafeteria or a corner office.

Perhaps these maneuvers aren’t a matter of physical survival, but they can become just as vicious and hurtful. Ask the teenage girl who is banished by her friends because she puts on weight. Ask the low-level worker who can’t afford to go to the golf outing and rub the right elbows.

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (James 2:1 ESV)

The Greek term for “show no partiality” comes from two words—“face” and “to be seized by.” The connotation here is that we’re seized by the face of things—we’re enthralled with the surface.

James describes the surface details in this passage, contrasting “…a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing and a poor man in shabby clothing.” These are the appearances that “seize” us and where we need to pray for insight to see through them.

James calls us to see others beyond what others can do for us. He precedes this passage with defining “true religion,” part of which is looking after orphans and widows (1:27). These are two people groups, especially in those days, who can do nothing for you. These are the most disenfranchised people in that society—they thoroughly “don’t matter.”

But they matter to God, and we need insight to see that. We need insight to see that our identities are much higher and deeper than just these surface details that seize us so easily.

So the first anti-venom for favoritism is insight.

The second component James recommends is implementation.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22 ESV)

This is another important point about the context of James. In ancient times, your moral and ethical life was a matter of philosophy and tradition. The people in society who talked about character were similar to Oprah and Dr. Phil today.

Religion in the Greco-Roman world was not connected to morality. The gods didn’t particularly care how you treated your fellow humans – they just wanted sacrifices and might give you a plentiful harvest or healthy children if you sacrificed enough.

One of the issues in the early church was implementation—understanding that Jesus didn’t just call you to change your beliefs, but to transform your whole life. Jesus was not another god to be added to your shelf of gods at home in hopes that he might bless you. The message of the gospel was to clear that shelf and replace it with Jesus alone—the Lord of heaven who is also the Lord of your everyday life.

So James confronts us with the everyday revolution of the gospel:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15-17 ESV)

Jesus is not just another vestige of belief, he is the Lord who wants our heart not our lip service.

Again, we can find ourselves judging the ancient world. How could they think of faith and ethics as two different categories? It might seem primitive to us. But don’t we see this disconnect in our modern world as well? Church might be a social hour we are comfortable in, but outside these walls are we unkind, clique-ish and judgmental—especially to those outside our church circle?

Or do we simply catch the moral code going on in the culture? Cohabitating, premarital sex, pornography use are considered completely acceptable in many cultures today. But these things get in the way of being a light in the world and they tell lies about God’s focus on relationship and loving others as he loves us.

If the world doesn’t see you exemplifying Christ Monday through Friday, they won’t care what you do with your Sunday mornings. In this passage on favoritism and in other places, James takes aim at acceptable, “everybody-does-it” sins and calls us to implementation.

There was a practice in the early church we could learn from today. When a church member arrived at worship, they were shown to their seat by the usher. But when a stranger arrived, particularly a poor stranger, the bishop himself left his chair and welcomed the newcomer.

When the stranger arrived—especially the poor stranger who could give nothing in return, they were welcomed by the highest “ranking” person there. Do we implement the gospel this way?

So the anti-venom for favoritism also involves implementation.

Finally, we must practice integration.

One of the striking aspects of the scenario that James presents us here is its intimacy. The rich man and the contrasting poor man are “coming into your assembly.” These people are right there at your elbow, standing next to you at coffee hour.

This is not just James telling us to avoid judging people we see on the street or through a television set. These are people who are right there, breathing our air and shaking our hand. To love people in the abstract is far different than the hard work of welcoming them. The “obnoxious kid” jockeying for your attention, the dementia patient telling you the same story yet again—these are the “shabby clothes” Christ arrives in.

To show this kind of radical welcome, we need to experience integration. This is a strong theme for James:

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4 ESV)

This word for “perfect” —telios in Greek—shows up seven times in James’ letter. It’s not talking about moral perfection as much as it is referring to “wholeness”—an integrated person whose actions reflect the values and morals of Jesus they claim to believe in.

The integrated, whole person is someone whose identity is completely reflected in their actions. James knows that most people don’t live what would be called “evil” lives, but fragmented lives.

We might aspire to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, maybe even read a book about it, but still only fellowship with those who look and act like we do. We might be deeply moved as we think about ethical excellence in all we do but still close shady deals or hide commissions when it comes to “real life.” On Sunday morning we hear a sermon about love and Sunday night we treat a homeless person like he’s invisible because he should just “go get a job.”

We live so much of our life fragmented – believing one thing and showing another by our actions—sometimes without even being aware of it.

Do we live our lives as loved people, who don’t need the validation of the “rich man with the gold ring”? Do we live out our belief that God loves and speaks through all people when the “poor man with shabby clothes” shows up? Do we trust that when we welcome those Christ welcomes that he will take care of us? That no time is “wasted” when we walk as he walks and welcome who he welcomes?

The integrated, whole person sees no disconnect between their beliefs and their attitudes and actions.

“All the crème de la crème watching us watching them” — it sounds exhausting. Trying to keep up appearances when your looks are fading, trying to exude confidence when you’re scared to death—this is the vicious trap of the fragmented life.

James gives us the antidote to the relational poison of favoritism.

Insight—Looking beyond the surface of things to the greater kingdom realities at stake.

Implementation—Putting actions to our words and beliefs—letting your Monday through Saturday look like your Sunday morning.

Integration—Whole, loved and trusting people who welcome anyone with the strength Christ gives them, eager for God’s new adventure with every relationship.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it well: “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” We never know when he’ll arrive or what shabby clothes he might be wearing. Open the door.


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