Sunday 30th August 2015 - True Religion
Over the last decade we have heard over and over again people describing themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”. I’m never quite sure what this means but I think it has something to do with acknowledging a god or a higher power or something “other” but making it clear they do not go to church or are a member of a religious organisation.
This is quite a shift from the decades prior when people, especially Australians, would rarely admit to such metaphysical possibilities. It seems the church has lost its appeal, maybe even its integrity or moral authority but people still want to admit to something beyond themselves.
What does it mean to be “religious”? Is it following a set of teachings, agreeing to a set of doctrines, following a particular person, living a certain way? All of these? Something more? If someone says, “I am a Moslem” we have a rough idea what they mean. They follow the teachings of Mohammed as written in the Quoran and try to live the 5 Pillars of Islam: Believing there is only 1 God and Mohammed is his Prophet, Praying 5 times a day, observing the Ramadan Fast, Paying the Zakat (giving 2 ½% of your income to charity, visiting Mecca at least once in your life if you are able. If someone says, “I am a Buddhist”, we have a rough idea what they believe. They following the teachings of the Buddah, who was not a god, but the great teacher of enlightenment. Through meditation and pure living they have respect for all life and ultimately they wish to achieve perfect enlightenment which is found in the great cosmos. If someone says, “I am a Jew”, it is more complicated. One can be a Jew by nationality only – a “non-religious Jew”; one can be a Jew by religion but not by nationality – the convert; one can be both. The religious Jew follows the teachings of the Scriptures which we have as the Old Testament. They are waiting the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One who will again establish the reign of God upon the Earth. If someone says, “I am a Christian” it should mean they not only follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth but have asked for the forgiveness of their sins through his death and resurrection and thus become a Child of God. However, since the Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 312 AD he made Christianity the “official” religion of the Empire and since then we have this murky situation of western countries thinking they are “Christian” and so people born therein thinking they are “automatically” Christian. For example, in England, The Church of England is the State Religion so anyone born in England is automatically deemed to be a member of the C of E unless they join some other denomination or religion. This is also why you see Bishops as members of the House of Lords. In our reading today James says something quite different.
He outlines 3 steps in order to live as a Christian. James is writing to Christians who are fleeing persecution and also those choosing to stay in Jerusalem attempting to survive.
Step 1 Clean Up Your Act (verses 19-21)
James reminds us that we have 2 ears and 1 tongue so we should listen a lot more than we should speak. In fact he says we should be “slow to speak and become angry”. This advice is even more salient today when people react quickly and sometimes unwisely on Facebook and Twitter. Many people have gotten themselves into a lot of trouble because they have quickly responded to something without thinking about what they are saying. Once it’s out there it’s there forever. Even without social media we have all be known to lash out with our tongues without thinking and we have regretted it. I remember a Children’s Address when I was in Sunday School where we were told that speaking is like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube – once it’s out there is no way of putting it back. We can apologise but the words are still out there. Along with speech James says we need to rid ourselves of all immoral behaviour. Our actions and our beliefs need to be in synch if we claim to be Christians.
Step 2 The Word in us can Save Us (verse 20B-25)
Remember James is writing to Christian believers. The word in us can save us. We know what Christians are to believe. We have been taught it. When he was drowning John Newton remembered what he was taught in Sunday School and that saved him. The kurnel of Christian belief is quite small. There are many doctrines, many theologies but not all of these are saving doctrines. You don’t need to believe in a literal 6 day Creation to be saved or to be a Christian. I don’t. You don’t need to believe that all the Bible is literally true. I don’t. The centre of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Christ of God and that because of his death and resurrection we can know God and be known by God and that relationship with God gives us eternal life. To do that we then following the teachings of Jesus and seek to be like Him in our generation, in our culture, in our day and time.
It’s more than just living in a “Christian country”. More than being a “good” person trying to do the right thing. In fact James describes a person like that as being like a person who looks in the mirror and then goes away and forgets what he looks like. Nominalism is not Christianity.
Step 3 Believing is Doing (verse 27)
Being a Christian is not just believing certain things. Christianity is not just doing certain things. Christianity is when your faith motivates you to live a life of consistency. What you believe translates into what you do and how you live. Believing and doing are 2 sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep yourself from being polluted by the world.” Bringing food on the 1st Sunday of the month to assist the homeless is true religion. Providing fellowship and a meal and some mental stimulation to Seniors twice a month is true religion. Trying to ease the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is true religion. Reminding ourselves of our faith teaches by attending Church and Bible study and having fellowship with other Christians is true religion. The Church is not to be a garage that protects and keeps us safe but rather it is Service Station where we re-fuel and are serviced in order to hit the road again.
I’m not so interested in being “spiritual”. I want to be rightly religious. I want to rub shoulders with like -minded people who want to learn more about the faith and be encouraged to go out and live it. This is what God requires and that’s good enough for me.