Mercy Triumphs
by Jack Wald | February 26th, 2012

James 2:8-13

Do you think James ever heard his half-brother, Jesus, teach? Did James ever see Jesus do a miracle? After Joseph died, Jesus took over the carpentry business but then at some point he passed this on to his younger brothers and began traveling around. When he came back to Nazareth, the stories of his ministry had come back before him and there was a lot of interest in what he would have to say.

In Mark’s gospel he says Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus were present when he spoke. This is obvious isn’t it? Can you imagine that you would not go to the synagogue if your son and brother was going to speak? Especially in a small town you would go. Even if you hardly ever went, you would go to see your brother.

Mark 6:1–6
He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief.

His return did not go as his family had hoped. The people were offended by what Jesus said. Who did he think he was? They insulted him by calling him the son of Mary. They did not say he was the son of Joseph which would have been the cultural thing to do, they called him the son of Mary. The illegitimacy of the birth of Jesus still hung on the family and they carried shame because of that. Jesus had always excelled in Hebrew school and the family hoped he would restore some of their honor when he spoke, but instead they were once again shamed.

Jesus rebuked the town and Mark says he could do no mighty work there except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

This line has always made me smile. If I could only lay hands on someone who was sick and heal them, I would consider it an exceptional day. But for Jesus, it was hardly anything.

But my point in all this is to try to put myself in James’ shoes. To James and his family, Jesus was not a great prophet, he was an embarrassment to his family in their home town. This helps me to understand why Mary and James and some of his other brothers came to get Jesus and bring him home. Jesus was mad and they needed to bring him under control. They wanted him to return to the carpentry shop, keep a low profile and help repair the family name.

Over the next couple years James was not at all sympathetic to what his brother was doing. He taunted him and dared him to go to Jerusalem where the Jewish leaders were trying to kill him. When Jesus was arrested and crucified, I can imagine James had a mixture of feelings. He grieved for his brother but there might also have been some sentiment that Jesus got what he was asking for. The family had tried to rescue him and bring him home but he had insisted on this course and now he was paying the price for his actions.

But all of this changed when Jesus appeared to James after he resurrected. What Jesus said is a family secret and all we know is that James turned from taunting Jesus to being one of the most devout followers of the risen Lord Jesus. He was dedicated and devout in his praying and when he wrote his letter, he quoted the teachings of Jesus more than any other writer in the New Testament, other than the gospels, of course. It seems to me that James tried to make up for lost time. He had once mocked Jesus and thought him to be foolish and crazy, but now he was fiercely devoted to Jesus and his teachings.

Last week I preached from James 2:1-7 where James talks about not showing favoritism. He said we should not show favoritism toward those who are rich at the expense of the poor because God had chosen the poor to be in his kingdom. We should not choose against those whom God has chosen.

This morning we come to verses 8-13 where James shares what is for him the most important reason we should not show favoritism.
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

What scripture is James quoting? Is he quoting from Leviticus 19? I am sure he knew that is where you find  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but my guess is that he quoted this verse because of what Jesus said.
Mark 12:28–31
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus said there was no greater commandment than these two and James took what Jesus said seriously. But someone might say, “OK, I realize it is not good to show favoritism, but there are a lot worse things a person could do. Is showing favoritism really such a big deal?”

To this James wrote:
9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Showing favoritism is a big deal, James wrote. You sin when you kill someone or when you have sex with someone other than your spouse and you sin when you do not love your neighbor as yourself. If you live a perfect life and commit only one little, tiny sin, you are as guilty as if you had committed every sin in the book. And once again, James is standing on the teaching of Jesus: (Matthew 5:19)
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

But even if this was not true, for James the deciding factor was that if it wasn’t a big deal, then why did Jesus say it was the greatest of the commandments?

Why is loving your neighbor as yourself such a big deal? Isn’t it enough that we don’t steal from them and don’t lie to them? Let them do what they want and I’ll do what I want and let it go at that? Why isn’t that enough?

Why isn’t it enough that I come to church, worship God, give my tithe to the church and then go home? Why is it important that I care about the people with me in church? Why is it necessary to forgive someone before I take communion? Isn’t my relationship with God a personal relationship? Why does everyone else have to be dragged into it?

Bear with me as I take us back to the beginning.

It begins with the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Everything begins with the Trinity because in the beginning, before there was a beginning, pre-existing the creation of the universe, God was. Father, Son and Holy Spirit existed in relationship with each other. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have needs and those needs are perfectly met as each person of the Trinity honors and lifts up the others. Each person of the Trinity affirms and encourages the others. Each person of the Trinity submits to the others.

In the perfection of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity there is such a perfect unity that there is one God. This is the best way I can grasp the mystery of the Trinity.

The Triune God wanted others to share in their relationship and so the universe was created and man was created. God created Adam from the dust of the earth and then said (Genesis 2:18)
“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

Adam existed but he existed alone and Adam was not complete by himself. So God created Eve. Male and female [God] created them, the writer of Genesis said.

Immediately, God created man and woman. He created Adam and Eve in relationship with each other. He did not create an individual; he created a community.

God calls us to himself and each of needs to choose to follow Jesus, but when we follow we are called by Jesus into community. We are meant to follow Jesus in relationship with others who are following him. Our faith is a faith of relationships. We are not meant to live solo Christian lives. We are meant to follow Jesus in community.

When you read through the Bible, you need to keep this in mind that God has worked consistently through the millennia to bring unity to his creation. God wants his creation to be in relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in relationship. The early church in Acts is not the model for us as a church. If that was the case we would be modeling ourselves after those who imperfectly loved each other. The model for us as a church is the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As they love each other, so are we supposed to love each other. This is God’s desire for us.

Let me give you some examples:

When Jesus taught about marriage, he quoted from Genesis and then said: (Matthew 19:5)
they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Why did Jesus teach that we should not get divorced, except in certain circumstances? There are a number of reasons but underlaying them all is that divorce is wrong because God works to create unity and divorce divides and cuts off relationships.

Why do Paul and the other New Testament writers have lists of negative behavior?  For example, this is Paul’s list in 2 Corinthians 12:20:
For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.

Parents tell their children not to fight because they need peace and quiet in the house. Fighting is just too stressful. Is this why God places such an emphasis on not doing these things? Does God want a little peace and quiet? Not really. The reason God does not want us to quarrel, be jealous, be angry or hostile and so on is because each of these actions creates distance between us. These behaviors break off relationships and God wants to unite us, not see us become divided.

The prophets came after the three great kings in Israel’s history: Saul, David and Solomon. After the death of Solomon, Israel broke up into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Ten tribes formed Israel with their capital in Samaria and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin formed Judah with their capital in Jerusalem.

With this split began three hundred years of civil war between the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The various kings of Israel and Judah made alliances with Assyria, Egypt, Syria and others as they fought against each other.

In the Adult Sunday School class, Gordon Fee mentioned that the prophets wrote oracles condemning these nations but the strongest and longest condemnations the prophets delivered were reserved for Israel and Judah. Why? Because God met with Abraham to create a nation, a people belonging to him. God worked with Isaac and Jacob. God prepared Moses to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt and then used Joshua to bring Israel into the promised land of Canaan. God wanted Israel to be his holy people and this civil war pulled his people apart, broke off relationships, created separation when God wanted unity.

Why did Jesus come to be born as a baby, to live and then die on the cross? Because of our sin we are separated from God and God created us to be in relationship with himself. There is no end to what God will do to bring us into unity with himself and with each other.

The history of church splits must grieve God. Peter wrote in his letter (1 Peter 2:9–10)
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Jesus died to bring us into relationship with the Triune God. He gave us a common identity. We are the people of God. This is such a beautiful description of who we are as God’s people and yet what have we done?

Right from the beginning, in the book of Acts,  the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus were upset with the bias of the Hebrew-speaking followers of Jesus. The gospel spread, the church grew and as it became institutionalized, it began to split off with one group against another. The Orthodox church split off from the Roman Catholic church. Luther split off from the Catholic church and the Protestants have been splitting ever since.

I am not opposed to someone being Catholic or Orthodox. I am not opposed to denominations. Different branches of the church have different ways of worshiping God and people prefer one way or another. That is fine. But when a branch of the church claims that only they are the true church and other parts of the church are mere twigs, this works against God. When one branch of the church says only their members can take communion or only their communion is correctly taken, then that part of the church is working against the Triune God.

None of us should be so arrogant that we think we have wrapped up the church into a neat little box. The institutional churches, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, are like someone who builds a sandbox at the beach and sits there playing with the sand. They think all of God’s sand is inside the wood structure they have built but they are blind to all the sand on the beach around them.

This is one of the reasons I love RIC. RIC brings together denominations, nationalities and races. RIC helps us to understand that some of the things we were brought up to believe in our churches are more central to our faith than others. We find unity in the love of God that sent Jesus to die for us, in the Holy Spirit who was given to help us grow in our faith and in our longing for the return of Jesus.

We love our neighbor as ourselves because we have been loved by God and as the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love each other, so are we supposed to love each other. In the prayer of Jesus in John 17 he said that our witness to the world that God sent Jesus and that God loves us is based on how we love each other.

This brings us to the last two verses of this section of James.
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James tells us to speak and act as those who are to be judged. Our actions do matter. Our faith without evidence of faith is not really faith at all. (When we come back to James in January of 2013, this is where we will begin.)

James is thinking here of the parable of the unmerciful servant Jesus told. This is the parable where a servant owed the king a huge amount of money and could not repay the debt. The king forgave him and then the servant went out and beat up on a fellow servant who owed him just a little bit of money and could not repay it. The king heard about this and threw the unmerciful servant in jail.

Because the servant who had been forgiven such a huge debt did not forgive his fellow servant, he was shown no mercy. This is what James tells us. If we who have been shown great mercy do not show mercy, God’s mercy will be taken away from us.

Stuart Briscoe is an Englishman who pastored a church in the US from 1970 to 2000. When I was a new Christian, he came to our church in Boston to speak and gave an illustration to explain what is mercy and what is grace. I have never forgotten it and whenever I read the Bible and see the words mercy or grace, I remember the illustration to help me understand what I am reading.

A mother bought a brand new carpet for the living room. For some reason, even though she had young children, she bought a white carpet. She wanted to make the room look clean and bright and the white carpet made the room look beautiful.

She called her son into the kitchen and explained that with the new carpet, he had to be very careful not to eat in that room so nothing would be spilled on the white carpet. Then she gave him a chocolate ice cream cone and he ran off, enjoying this treat. He immediately forgot what his mother had told him, ran through the living room, tripped on a table leg and spilled his chocolate ice cream cone on the brand new white carpet.

So what should the mother do? Mercy is not giving him a spanking for disobeying her. Mercy is not giving him what he deserved. Grace is giving him another chocolate ice cream cone.  Grace is giving him what he does not deserve.

James concludes this section by saying mercy triumphs over judgment. This is a great four word summary of the gospel of Jesus. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

If mercy is not getting what we deserve, what do we deserve? We deserve to be rejected by God. Our sin makes us unable to come into the presence of God. But God showed us mercy. God did not give us what we deserve. God spared us his rejection and then God showed us grace. God gave us what we do not deserve. Jesus died in our place and gave us the right to come into the presence of God and live with him for eternity.

God did not judge us as we deserve to be judged. God’s mercy triumphed and we have the hope of eternal life with him as a result.

Does God show favoritism? There is no one here God does not love. There is no one here that God does not want to spend eternity with him. Although we are deserving of his rejection, he accepts us because of his love for us. God has chosen you to be part of his family and he does not play favorites within his family.

When someone in church offends you or irritates you, it is important to remember what Jesus has done to bring us together into unity. Remember how far God has gone to bring you into his kingdom. Remember how patient God is with you when you sin and turn back again to follow him. Remember that in your case, mercy triumphed over judgment, This is why you forgive. This is why you try to resolve differences. That is why you also let mercy triumph over judgment in your relationships in church.

When James met Jesus after his resurrection, James became a changed man. There had been tension between James and Jesus but no longer. James was brought into relationship with Jesus. Jesus had slept in the same bed as James and now Jesus let James know he wanted them to be together for eternity. James learned firsthand that mercy triumphs over judgment.

When there was conflict in the church in Jerusalem between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, and Paul came with Barnabas to testify to God’s work among Gentiles, I think this experience of being forgiven and brought into an intimate relationship with Jesus is what made James stand up and seek a way to bring the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus together. James worked for the unity of the church.

Here at RIC we many not be able to bring the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches together in unity, but we can work to make sure we are unified. I loved out coffee half-hour last Sunday. I loved seeing people talking with people they normally do not talk to. I pray that out of these conversations, some good friendships will develop.

You don’t have to be good friends with everyone in church but if there is tension between you and someone else in church, then you have to deal with that. God wants us to move forward as a community of followers of Jesus. This is our most powerful witness, how we love each other. We need to be slow to take offense and quick to forgive. We need to show mercy as we have been shown mercy. Like James, we need to work for the unity of the church.