In James 2:2-4, we find a tale of two churchgoers. The Christian community is gathered for worship, and into the meeting walk two very different people. Both of them have to be told where to go, so both are probably guests. The “ushers” are the first people these guests come in contact with. And the ushers immediately notice the outer appearance of the two newcomers.
The first man is wearing gold and expensive clothing. A gold ring was a clear sign that a person was upper class in James’ day. This is a man of status and great wealth. In today’s terms, this is a recognized politician, a famous athlete, or a Hollywood star. So the ushers hurry to meet him. They get out their iphones and snap a quick picture with him. Then they give him a privileged position in the meeting; they escort him to his seat at the front of the room, close to the speaker, where everyone can see this honored guest.
Then a second man enters. And as he does, the smell of the room changes. This is the typical homeless person in our day. He probably has only one set of clothes, and these clothes are disgustingly unclean. The ushers look at each other, waiting to see who is going to have to deal with him. Finally, one of them inches toward the man, but not too close—he might have some sort of disease! The poor man is offered the choice of standing in the corner or sitting beside the footstools of the more important guests. But all the time the usher is hoping the smelly homeless man will just hurry up and leave. “I’m tired of dealing with this nobody,” the unlucky usher thinks to himself, as all the other ushers crowd in around the distinguished guest at the front of the room, taking more pictures and uploading them to Facebook.
James pictures the church fawning over the wealthy man and then treating the poor man with contempt. While he thinks specifically of the socioeconomic divide, we should read this as a warning against all forms of discrimination. We could retell the story, inserting some other type of person. A good-looking, newly married man and woman walk into the sanctuary, and the ushers help them find a wonderful seat. But then a few moments later, a homosexual couple walks in. What happens? Would they feel welcome? Would they feel loved? I’m not talking about approving of their relationship. At the church where I serve, we are unapologetic about the biblical teaching regarding marriage: one Christian man and one Christian woman, pursuing holiness together, together for life. We do not approve of same-sex unions, but we do want the gospel to advance to all people. We want all people to be transformed by the power of the Word and the Spirit, and this certainly includes lesbians, gay people, bisexuals, and transgender individuals. So we must not treat these people with disdain. We must welcome them into our worship gatherings, our community groups, and–dare I say it–even our own homes.
The elders at our church are reading a number of books together this year. One of these is a book titled Compassion without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends without Losing the Truth. In the opening chapter of the book, the authors make this convicting statement: “People gripped by the gospel are able to reach out to anyone in a way that balances truth and love.” Wow. What would our churches look like if we really were ready to reach out to anyone? I think they would look, even smell, a lot different.