Radical Welcome

Judgment and favoritism may be natural human behaviors, but they have no place in God's house.

A church historian recounts a tradition that emerged among certain early Christian fellowships. Whenever a member of the community entered for worship, an usher would greet him and tend to his needs. However, if a stranger walked through the doors (and even more so if he was a poor stranger), the bishop rose from his seat and swiftly made his way to the entrance, offering a gregarious welcome and demonstrating friendship with the one typically consigned to the fringe.

Though we don’t know how widespread this particular practice was, the motivation behind it emanated from the core of Christian faith. Take a look at the book of Acts: woven through its wild stories of Christianity’s inexplicable explosion is the persistent theme of how the church existed as a counterculture in stark contrast to powerful, exploitive societal norms. Those who were easily discarded in Jewish or Roman culture (the poor, the sick, the weak, the outsider) were welcomed enthusiastically into the community of Jesus’ followers. The theme continues throughout the New Testament, where we find the church enacting Jesus’ insistence on friendship to the poor, the stranger, and the outcast.

READ James 2:1-13

This gospel imperative explains why James was so profoundly disturbed when word reached him that in some of the churches, the rich were given preference over the poor. Church leaders doted over a person wearing “a gold ring and fine clothes,” but when a “poor man in dirty clothes” entered the assembly, he was dismissively pushed aside (vv. 2-3).

Sadly, this scenario has been reenacted throughout human history: the poor are diminished while the rich amass more power, more deference. This is why Scripture, from Old Testament to New, announces that God lifts up the poor. He seeks out those who are impoverished, the ones left to fend for themselves, and the ones who have been oppressed. The Lord is truly a friend of the poor (Ps. 140:12; Luke 4:16-21).

This is good news for all of us because everyone is, in some way, poor. James certainly had the financially destitute first in mind, but the word poor carries a broad meaning in Scripture. In a world fallen from the goodness God intends, there are limitless ways we are impoverished. We may feel wrenching grief, pain, or guilt. We may be stuck in the pervasive grip of loneliness. We may worry about how to feed our children, or we may fear we will never have children to call our own. No matter how you are poor, receive this gospel word: God has chosen you. As James 2:5 says, “God [has chosen] the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.”

Since God enacted a radical welcome for all of us who are outcasts, and since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ binds together a new humanity, James could not understand why judgment and favoritism continued in the Christian community. The church is where our external distinctions are no longer barriers to relationship—and where God welcomes us all together in Christ.

For James, this reference to “Christ” was crucial—it’s a royal title (v. 1). Essentially, he’s asking us, Do you remember that the Lord is in charge here? How can you play favorites when Jesus is King? This question cuts to the core because favoritism was an explicit denial of Christ’s authority and His “royal law,” which decrees, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8).

The church is the place where outsiders are no longer strangers but friends, where all are welcomed and everyone finds connection. There, the lowly are lifted up and the destitute given plenty. And those who have been pushed aside find themselves pulled right up to a prime seat at the King’s table.

REFLECT + EXPLORE

Reflect on these insights from supporting scriptures. If you have time, explore the passages and journal your responses.

• One antidote to condescension and exclusivity is the recognition that we are all in a similar position: in need of God to meet us in our broken places.
Read Matthew 5:1-12, the opening lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Note the many kinds of struggle, helplessness, and vulnerability—the passage is a litany of ways that people need God’s grace and healing touch. Which areas resonate with you?

• Reread Matthew 5:1-12.
On this second pass, pay attention to how God intervenes for each person. What might it mean to be “blessed”? What are the implications for us when we realize all broken individuals are blessed by the same God and find hope and healing in His loving rescue?

• James reminds us that the Lord breaks down barriers and creates an inclusive new community.
Read Acts 2:42-47. How do you see this gospel of friendship and belonging—without barriers of ethnicity, class, or gender—exhibited among Jesus’ followers?

RESPOND

Answer the following questions, and journal your thoughts if possible.

• Where do you see relational barriers (such as favoritism, prejudice, or fear) at work in your life? Ask God how He wants the power of Jesus, the King of our lives, to break down those barriers.

• How might the Lord be calling you to step into relationship with another person? Where are you to love another as yourself?

Related Topics:  Christian Fellowship

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1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.

2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes,

3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, You sit here in a good place," and you say to the poor man, You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,"

4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?

5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?

7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?

8 If, however, you are fulfilling 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.

10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

11 For He who said, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY," also said, DO NOT COMMIT MURDER." Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

12 I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted And justice for the poor.

16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.

17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

18 THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,

19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD."

20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.

21 And He began to say to them, Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.

2 He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying,

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.

44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;

45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

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