From Grace’s to James

(A meditation on James 2.1-26 presented at Wine Before Beer, June, 17, 2014)

It takes less than two bars for everyone to know what’s up.
Less than eight beats and anyone who hasn’t been dancing joins the throng.
Hands raised, bodies gyrating, smiles of recognition, faces of joy.

There we were.

Poor and rich,
red and yellow, black and white,
homeless and well-housed,
straight, gay, trans and bi,
young and old,
male and female,
all dancing till kingdom come.

You see,

There’s a city across a river
and its shining from within.
People are dancing on the ramparts
beckoning to you, come on in,
to the city of refuge.

It’s another night at Grace’s.
Another night of music and art at Sanctuary in Toronto.
Another night of celebration.

And as Red Rain launches into
“The City of Refuge”
the Sanctuary community dances
with deep longing,
with ecstatic joy,
with faith and doubt,
with tears of loss and hope,
and … with a confidence that this dance floor
is a city of refuge,
even as we long for the liberation of that other city,
across the river, that’s shining from within.

And this night we are dancing on the ramparts
beckoning everyone to come on in,
to the city of refuge.
And here’s the thing,
you didn’t have to bribe the doorman to get into this party,
you didn’t have to be one of the beautiful people to get into this club,
you didn’t need to have a ticket, or dress a certain way, or know the right people.

There were no reserved seats,
and no preferential treatment to certain folks.

And on the dance floor,
the only thing that got you special attention
was the beauty and creativity of your dancing,
there for all to enjoy,
not as some narcissistic strutting your stuff.

And if things got out of control at this party,
well Simon, Erin and Thea were the bouncers,
so really, what’s to worry about?

James would have enjoyed an evening at Grace’s.

And I don’t think that he would have needed to scold us about being deferential to the rich,
and marginalizing the poor.
Nope, not that night at Sanctuary.

But he did write his hard hitting letter to the church in the first century,
and I’m pretty sure that he would have written it just as strongly in the 21st century.
So we need to listen closely to what he has to say to us tonight.

James sets the terms of his message with a question:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism
really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

When we read later about faith and works, you need to remember this opening question.
Do you really believe, James is asking.

And, for what its worth, this is why James and Paul are not in any disagreement.

As strongly as James rejects ‘faith without works,’
or pious religious belief devoid of justice.
so also did Paul reject a ‘faith’ that has no embodiment,
a faith that has not shaped the body of Christ,
as a community alternative to the body-politic of Rome.

When it comes down to it,
Paul and James are asking the same kinds of question in different ways.

Do you really believe that Jesus is the Lord of all of life,
if you still live as if Caesar is Lord?
Do you really believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
if you still place your hope in the power of status and wealth?
Do you really embrace that glory which resides in this Messianic Lord,
if you are still entranced by the fading glory of this world?
You see, all of this deferential treatment of the rich suggests that, in fact,
you don’t really believe any of this.

Now, when Jesus got talking about the perils of riches, he said,
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God!
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 18.25)

And as you read James it is clear that he has no intention of making it any easier
on the rich than did his big brother, Jesus.

Let’s be clear, he says:
the rich dishonour the poor,
they are rich through oppression,
they love to use the courts to their own advantage,
and in doing all of this they blaspheme the very name of Jesus!

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

And I’m not about to nuance James or try to soften his language.
I’m not about to say that we all know some rich folks who are deeply Christian,
who are profoundly generous and committed to kingdom justice.

That may well be true, but James doesn’t care.

Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God,”
and if that’s good enough for Jesus, then its good enough for James.

Then can the rich enter at all?

Yes, says James, but only by fulfilling the royal law:
“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

But such a love would require a radical transformation in the
social, political, economic, ecological and spiritual lives
of the rich.
Such love means no more partiality.
No more giving even more privilege to the privileged.
No more preferential treatment of the rich.
No more scapegoating and marginalizing the poor.
Such love means no more cheap politics of
tax cuts for the rich
and service cuts for the poor.
Such love means living out of an economics of
generosity, not scarcity,
care, not exploitation.
Such love means living out of an ecology of
loving stewardship, not aggressive management,
creational regeneration, not ceaseless extraction.
Such love means a spirituality that has the eyes to see
that the poor are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,
and that only a faith manifest in works of justice is true and fruitful.

Or you could sum it up this way:
“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”

The royal law of loving one’s neighbour is the law of liberty,
a law that sets free,
a law that refuses to oppress,
a law that is fundamentally committed to liberation.

Speak and act for liberation.
Speak and act for freedom.
Speak and act for liberty.

While James will return to the question of how we ‘speak’ in the next chapter,
he will first dwell on how we are to ‘act’
if we are to fulfill the royal law,
if we are to be judged by the standard of liberation.

When I was a very young Christian I found myself caught
in the quagmires of theological debate.
What doctrines were true?
Yes, I followed Jesus, but what did I in fact believe about
free will and predestination,
the gifts of the Holy Spirit,
human depravity and the grace of God,
whether you could be a Christian if you hadn’t been “born again,”
is the Bible the inerrant word of God?

And in the midst of all of this theological furor in my mind,
I came to an important conclusion:
If the theological question at hand
didn’t actually impact the way people lived their lives,
then it simply didn’t matter.

If doctrines that people held had no material significance
in their politics, their economics and their lifestyles,
then those doctrines were immaterial
and should require no further reflection on my part.

I think that James is saying something like that.

So you’re a monotheist who believes that God is one, are you?
Big deal, says James, even the demons are monotheists.

You can believe whatever you want,
and those beliefs can be profoundly true,
but if those beliefs do not translate into lives of justice,
lives of radical hospitality,
lives of deep love,
then those beliefs are bullshit.

Actually they are worse than bullshit.
You see, as a farmer, I have a high respect
for the fertile potential of bullshit.

James says that faith apart from works isn’t fertile at all,
it is barren.

Bullshit is alive, faith without works is dead.

True doctrine without the healing work of justice and generosity
is a lie, regardless of its orthodoxy.

You are justified, James is saying,
that is, you are made just
by embodying justice.

Safe faith,
without dirty hands,
without the daily risk of seeking justice,
without the sweat of good work,
without the vulnerability of loving our neighbours,
is no faith at all.

But a faith that is embodied and proven through such work
needs to be sustained and animated by a communal practice,
a communal hope,
a communal imagination,
a communal song
that calls forth a communal dance:

There’s a city across a river
and its shining from within.
People are dancing on the ramparts
beckoning to you, come on in,
to the city of refuge.

Let’s keep dancing, sisters and brothers.
Let’s keep dancing.


Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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