James 2.1-17

As I stand here, surveying all these fine, honourable, respectable Christian people in Church this morning, I can't help wondering to myself how many criminals we have in our midst this morning. I nearly became one myself on Tuesday as I was slowing down on my way into Shap I was doing around 35 mph when I saw the speed camera van. No letter arrived, I'm pleased to say, but it was a close run thing. Of course, we can laugh at this - we all know that speeding is a criminal offence, but it's so minor that it would be ludicrous to call a speed offender a criminal (though some would argue otherwise).
But in our epistle reading today James is warning us very strongly about taking the same blithe attitude to sin. He was addressing a particular problem of Christians showing favouritism in church - giving the rich the best seats. It might seem a tiny, insignificant fault, one which God surely ought to overlook, but James says that it shows that their whole faith is worthless and that they not truly Christian. It may seem harsh, but a little thought shows us what he's getting at.
Most of us, of course, think of ourselves as good people, but we can only do that by overlooking a great many minor faults and failings. We know that they're only minor faults, because we decide ourselves which of our faults are serious and which are minor. The minor ones are the ones we do nothing about and get defensive about when we're challenged about them. By carefully redefining all our faults, we can comfortably classify ourselves as good people.

And this seems to be a fairly universal approach for humanity. Despite the fact that this world is full of violence and greed and neglect, it is remarkable that I have never yet taken the funeral of a bad person. Everyone who has ever come my way for a funeral has been a "good" person. And certainly no-one has ever been in any danger when it comes to the Last Judgment. Because they were "good", they are bound to be allowed straight into heaven, because "if Uncle George can't get in, then no-one can."
Well, actually, that is exactly James' point, because, if final judgment is based on our goodness, none of us is getting "in". "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it." - so says James. Just as one speeding offence makes us criminals, so the slightest bit of bad in us makes us sinners. And sin is not good. It is rather like my well publicised potato blight. It baffled me for weeks, because it was just one small brown spot on a plant that was otherwise so obviously healthy. The crop looked fantastic, so I left it alone. Big mistake! That little brown spot was the symptom that should have told me that the whole plant was rotting and dying. Only when judgment day came, and the plant was dug up, did I discover how far the rot had spread.
When it comes to goodness, God's perspective is that we are either good or we're not. If we are good, it would show consistently in every aspect of our lives. It doesn't, so we're not. It's no good saying that we're mostly good or reclassifying our faults as minor and expecting them to be overlooked. If we're not good, we're not good. And if we're not good, we're in need of mercy from someone who is good. But God alone is good.

So if we're blithely going through life trusting to our own goodness, we are in danger of living blindly, rather like the two aunts of Little Pig Robinson (my favourite Beatrix Potter story) who "led prosperous uneventful lives, and their end was bacon."
Of course, some people get around this need for goodness by dismissing the idea of judgment altogether. It's okay, because there's no "God", as such, just an afterlife that we all move on to after death. But the trouble with that is that there's no evidence of such an afterlife and even if it did exists, what sort of afterlife would it be unless there was some sort of justice done to sort out the mess of this life? Afterlife without judgment is a very bleak prospect.
But James here is drawing our attention to the most important concept at the heart of the Christian faith - it's the concept we call "grace". None of us is good by our own merits - indeed, if we can't face that in ourselves, it's just a sign of how deluded we are on the whole question of goodness. And if we see our religious practise as somehow gaining us brownie points, we really have missed the point. The miracle of Grace is that goodness is given to us as a gift. God takes our sin away, through Jesus' death on the Cross, and gives us his goodness as a gift through his Holy Spirit living in us. That is the only cure for the blight of sin. And we can only survive judgment if we have received God's mercy - because "mercy triumphs over judgment" (as James says).

And once we have really taken this to heart, it changes everything about our lives - and this is what the book of James is all about. We no longer show favouritism or judge our fellow human beings, because we know that we all stand on a level. None of us has any room for feelings of superiority, for we are all sinners. So humility is a key characteristic of the Christian and that opens the door for us truly to "love our neighbour as ourself". Doing that, James says, is what truly fulfils God's holy law and we cannot do it without first recognising that we are all sinners and all in need of mercy.
But equally, we have no reason for despondency. Because the recognition of ourselves as sinners comes hand in hand with the recognition of God's Grace. He shows us such lavish kindness and love that our sins are forgiven and his goodness and life are given to us as a free gift. We are set free and like any former slaves set free, we are called to rejoice continually. And that is what Christian worship should be - the continual rejoicing in the fact that God has set us free.
And then, of course, it affects the way we treat others - how we love our neighbour - and those of you who heard my sermon last week will know what characteristics that produces - people who speak graciously, who listen attentively because they have genuine care for the other, people who give generously and without restraint because they have received so much from God and know that he will continue to provide for them - and because they genuinely consider their fellow human beings to be equal to them, their brothers and sisters, because they believe that they are responsible for their brother or sister and share freely with them.
Now James is calling us each to examine our own hearts afresh. What do we see there? Are there symptoms of blight? Is there anger in our hearts? Does it come out of our mouths when we speak? Do we feel that bubbling tension and resentment inside us when we give? Are there people we are holding at a distance or grudges we refuse to forgive? Do we do only what pleases us or do we serve and give out of joy at what God has done for us? Have we taken to heart what God has done for us? Have we faced the truth about ourselves and, just as importantly, the love God has for us?
All these things will show us whether we have accepted God's grace or not. If not, then we have missed what Christianity is all about and however prosperous or uneventful our lives, we are still lost and our end is blight. But if we can take God's Grace to heart, put it back at the centre of our lives, where it should be, then it will change everything. It will release us from the burden of our own feeble goodness, it will change our motivation for - everything, it will help us truly to love our neighbour, and it will mean joy and life and peace to us.

Preached: Bolton (Joint Service), 9 September 2012