Don’t Look Down!
Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. (St. John 7:24)
Once upon a time, when I was a boy, it was enjoyable to watch professional sports. Back then, you even could have heroes in the pro leagues – people you actually admired and emulated.
These days certain professional sports are insufferable – not because of the quality of play, but because of the quality of person playing the game. I’m specifically speaking of the National Basketball Association and of the National Football League. Certainly there are some laudable and noble people in these and in other leagues; but the inflated egos of so many of those athletes are utterly repulsive.
To be sure, you and I face folks with inflated egos every day: they might have power or money or be well known, and they therefore peer down their noses at underlings such as you and me. And if we’re not careful, you and I can begin to try to curry their favor by giving them not respect but worship.
Inflated egos are foolish. In the world they often cannot be avoided; but here in the church they must be eradicated.
Problem is, many churches embrace egotism, thinking that egotism and success are one and the same.
This situation begs the question: what does it take to be a successful church?
Does it take bright lights and packed pews and “the right crowd” on Sunday morning? Look around Christendom: apparently, such is Churchianity’s definition of success.
Egotism and the obsession with appearances might prevail in this world, but in the church, you and I are called to a different approach. This morning St. James reminds us that Christ alone is our ego, our object of worship; and that you and I are to glorify him by looking up at him, not down at our neighbors – be they poor or struggling.
The world divides people based on income and other superficialities.
Almighty God divides people based on whether or not they are covered by the blood of His Son.
Let us bring glory to the only One who deserves glory by viewing everyone as He views them: sinners in desperate need of the Savior.
St. James here deals with how you and I are to treat rich and poor visitors to our church; but before we examine our duty, let’s first understand James’ reasoning behind our duty. Jesus, says St. James, is the ONLY ego in the church: therefore you and I must look up to him, not down on others.
“The Lord Jesus Christ” is perhaps the most-glorious title for our Savior, but James adds in 2:1 that Jesus is the Lord “of glory.” In verse 7, he says the name by which Christians are called – the name of Christ – is the “worthy” name. (Incidentally, “worthy” is the word from which we derive our word “worship;” it literally was “worth-ship”). Your focus, then, must be on Christ’s honor and not on social strata within the local body of believers. Indeed, before our glorious Lord, all those strata crumble.
Thinking through the Scriptural teaching about Jesus, we are reminded of St. John’s teaching about the Lord. Jesus, John says, is the Word made flesh: the eternally existing God, by whom all things were made. He is from the beginning, and his eternity makes Jesus glorious.
Did not our Lord also reveal his glory in his life on earth? Consider his perfect obedience: he came not to destroy but to fulfill the law of God, and he alone fulfilled that perfect law perfectly. Consider too his miracles. Who else could heal the lame as did Jesus? Who else could turn water into wine or multiply the loaves and fishes? No one but the eternally glorious God.
Of course, Christ’s ultimate display of glory was his saving work at Calvary, his powerful resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the place of authority in heaven. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, because Jesus humbled himself in perfect obedience to the death of the cross, he has been given the name that is above every name – the name worthy of all worship.
Sure, it’s one of those “churchy” sayings that you and I hear all the time: Christ is to be glorified in his church. Don’t miss James’ point, however, as he stresses that Christ ALONE is the Lord of glory. He ALONE has the ego, the preeminence, in the church. And he must be glorified in how you and I conduct ourselves in his church.
As Christ alone is the Lord of glory, James secondly instructs us that Christ alone is to be glorified. James offers two specific ways in which you and I glorify our Savior in the life of the church: by thinking of others as Jesus thinks of them, and by having a “kingdom focus.”
The Western world – and not merely the NBA or the NFL – tends to exalt those who are physically attractive or athletically skilled. If you possess money or power, you too will garner “admirers.” Folks in society, who tend to enshrine money as one of their choice gods within the pagan pantheon, look down on less-wealthy people as though the poor were intrinsically of lesser value.
Funny thing, though: this world also crucified the Lord of glory, because he came to earth not with pomp but in complete humility. We must, then, call the world’s judgment into question.
What’s more, the Lord is no respecter of persons. As St. Peter says in The Acts, God sees two classes of humans: those united to His Son by faith, and those outside of Christ who consequently deserve His wrath for their sin. He doesn’t care if you’re a Jew or an Italian or a Scotsman; He doesn’t care if you make six figures or no figures. He doesn’t care if you can pass or shoot or kick or sing. He cares if you’re cleansed by His Son’s blood or not.
Indeed, James says, God chose the materially poor of this world to inherit the riches of Christ’s kingdom: peace, forgiveness, life eternal and all the blessings Christ has earned for his flock. As John Bunyan writes in The Pilgrim’s Progress, in the Valley of Humiliation, people are more apt to see what really matters: not money or social status but one’s standing before his Maker. Heaven and hell, not the next luxury car, are more likely to be the poor person’s concern.
Christians in James’ era typically weren’t affluent in a physical sense. The same is true now: Christianity, as you and I well know in Leakesville, does not produce windfalls.
You and I glorify Christ by thinking as God thinks about people: honoring the poor, seeing beyond the outward circumstances of a person’s life and judging righteous judgment. A friend of mine tells that the finest, wisest Christian he ever met was a poor Russian farmer whom the world would have dismissed instantly, but whom God would call rich. Money doesn’t matter; Christ matters. You and I must esteem those whom the Lord esteems, regardless of their outward appearance.
James says you and I also may glorify the Lord by having a kingdom focus, which means we put his commands and his priorities first in our church life.
When a poor person and an obviously rich person walk through those doors behind you, why must you treat them equally? In part, because the King said so. Loving your neighbor as you love yourself means you don’t relegate a poorly clad person to the corner: would you want to be shoved in a corner because of your income level or skin color?
When you and I seek to stock our church pews full of rich, high-society people, James says we’re actually helping the enemy! The rich, whose autonomy and power dissolve in the face of Christ’s glory, sometimes resent Christ and have been some of the fiercest enemies of Christ’s church through the ages. With Christ’s kingdom in view, you and I seek their spiritual conviction and conversion – not their approval or their money.
When you walk into work or into the marketplace tomorrow morning, you will be enveloped by egos. You will enter a world that craves power and prestige, a world obsessed with self and with image.
It shouldn’t be so in the church. It can’t be so in the church.
There are a lot of egos in Churchianity and a lot of churches that deem themselves successful based on the names on their rolls and the types of cars in their parking lots. When someone in a beat-up Ford drives up, they’ll let him through the doors … but not with joy. Really, they’re “better than that.”
Jesus doesn’t want a stratified church. Rather, he considers a church successful when her members give him first place and view human beings as he views them: sinners in need of his healing work.
The church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette argues that the church’s successful growth in her early centuries didn’t spring from Constantine’s imperial edict making Christianity a licensed religion. Instead, Latourette argues, the church grew because it was a welcoming community that took sinners “just as they were.”
Praise the Lord, this church has welcomed people of all income levels. Thank God for His grace!
But in the years to come, what if people of different colors visit us? Or will we welcome someone who openly struggles with drugs or has a checkered past or battles particularly awful sins?
This church, if it is to be Christ’s church, must keep her focus where it needs to be: UP, on Jesus. You don’t have the right to look down at all.
Only the Lord of glory looks down on people.
Thankfully, his gaze is loving.