The three marks of true religion
I’d like us to look at those last two verses of our reading from James
There are three marks of true religion – and I fear that I fail on all of them!
1. If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their heart, their religion is worthless
James speaks a great deal about the tongue. We’ll see that in a couple of weeks’ time.
It is interesting that he speaks of the tongue and not of the written word.
I think that is because, firstly very few people of his time used writing, and secondly because writing requires you to think a bit! You have to get a piece of paper and write something, and then work out how you are going to get that piece of paper to the person you want it to go to. So you start to write, and out comes all the anger and hurt, but then you need to somehow get that to the person you want to receive it. And that gives you time to stop and think, and often it means putting your brain into action. And you are given time to tear up the letter and rewrite it.
But I think, that if James was writing today, he would also include emails, whatsapps, facebook, vkontakt, instagram and twitter posts. Why? Because like speech it is immediate.
One of the things that I have heard from several people who have become bishops in the church that has shocked them is sort of language that people use in some of their emails when they write to them, even clergy. They just didn’t expect that. One of my previous bishops used to answer those emails by asking the person to rewrite their email before he would even consider replying.
But James does not simply tell us to bridle the tongue. He helps us to do so.
‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak (or send the email) and slow to anger’ (v19)
In other words, God gave you two of these (ears) and one of these (mouths).
Or, to use a phrase of my grandmother, before you speak – count to 10.
One thing that I do with emails that I’m tempted to write back to immediately, especially if I am hot, is that before I write, especially if it is a reply, I remove the email address of the person or people I want to send it to. It means that I don’t write it and then hit send in the heat of the moment. I’ve got to think a little bit more.
And that is even more important if we are responding in anger. Human anger may get things done, but it does not do God’s work – it does not bring about the righteousness that God asks for.
The problem is that our anger is too wrapped up in ourselves
In my case it is usually because I have felt slighted or ignored or put on or felt that I have been treated as irrelevant and insignificant. Last week we were in a restaurant, and we were waiting and waiting to be served. In the end, I went to someone to ask when the food would come. I intended to be very calm and level, but as I spoke with them I felt the anger surge in me.
So often we get angry because our ‘I’ has become too big. We think it is all about me, and about the things that I value or desire. And the problem is that the things that I value and desire are not always the right things. That is why the Jesus prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is so helpful – it reminds me of who I am, and why I am not so important. And that is why only the anger of Jesus, the Son of God, can do the work of God – because the ‘I’ of Jesus coincides completely with the ‘I’ of God.
But there is another reason that we need to bridle the tongue.
You see if we are so keen to speak, to tell others what we think, we find it very hard to listen. And James urges us to be people who listen – who listen to others (what are they really saying) and who listen to God, who listen and who receive his word.
2. The second mark of true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress
Orphans and widows in the sort of society in which James lived were desperately vulnerable. There was no social safety net. If they had no relatives to care for them, then anything could happen. We speak today of trafficking and slavery.
Orphans and widows are still very vulnerable in many societies today, along with other people. One thinks of refugees, or people with learning disabilities. Jesus spoke about how the world, how a society, will be judged for how it treats a member of a despised sect who is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, in prison or sick.
What James is saying is that if a person has a real faith, if the word has been implanted in them, if they are born again, if they have been ‘given birth by the word of truth’ (v18), then they will show compassion to the person in need.
This is a huge subject, and I can’t really begin to touch on it today. But a faith that is not expressed in compassion for those in need is no real faith.
John writes about that. He says in his letter, How can you claim to have the love of God in you if you do not love your Christian brother or sister? How can you say to a starving person, ‘God bless you’, if you are not prepared to do something about it?
And while it is good to be part of a community which does work with widows and orphans, quite literally - MPC run a pensioners drop in every other Wednesday, and Vverh, originally started by members of St Andrew’s, run their school for orphans and people with mental disabilities here on our premises – I am not sure that we as individuals can hide behind that!
If your faith is not beginning to help you to see everyone as God sees them – with his compassion and love (whoever they are: in the next verses James challenges the church to receive every person who comes in to their meeting – whether they are wealthy and well dressed, or if they are in dirty clothes and smell – to treat each person with the same dignity); and if your faith is not beginning to give you a greater compassion for people who are in need, then you really need to question whether you have actually received the word of truth.
3. Mark of true religion is that you will be growing in holiness.
‘Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: .. to keep oneself unstained by the world’ (v27)
Earlier in our passage we are told, ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v21)
It does not mean that we become holier than thou. It means that we become more like Jesus Christ.
He was very much part of the world. He had a profession, he was a Rabbi. He taught in the synagogues. Large crowds came to hear him. He went to parties put on by the sort of people who the religious leaders despised. But he did not live by the values of the world – he was different: he was not into status or possessions. He did not use his power for his own purposes, and he did not try to seize political power. Instead he lived for God. He preached the rule and kingdom of God. He prayed for people and they were healed or set free from demons. And he was willing to die so that people could share in, could experience, the relationship that he had with his Father in heaven.
And we are called to become like him. We are to let go of the pride that leads to anger, the filth aht defile us and the lusts that deafen us to the Word of God.
As I said at the beginning, if these are the three marks of true religion, I fail and I fail pretty spectacularly on all counts
How can I bridle my tongue?
How can I become more compassionate; because if I start to care for orphans and widows and people in need in my own strength, I will simply burn out? I know because I have tried, even as someone who claimed to believe in Jesus. And I did burn out.
How can I keep myself unstained from the world?
We need to be hearers of the Word.
Yes, James is about works that follow faith. But it begins with faith. This is chapter 1 of his book.
It begins with asking for wisdom (v5), with receiving new birth through the Word of God (v18), with humbly listening and taking in that Word (v21).
It begins with receiving the love of God, the forgiveness that God offers and with asking God for his Holy Spirit. That is what happens today at communion: we come to offer nothing. We come to receive.
The Word is like a mirror (v22): a mirror that shows us as we are, with all our failures and weakness, with our desperate state without God and our need for God. But it is also a mirror which shows us how and what we can become. It shows us forgiven, beloved and accepted. It shows us holy and radiant, set free from sin. This is the mirror of liberty (v25)
And the Word is like an embedded seed implanted into our hearts (v21). If we receive it and persevere then it will grow in us. CS Lewis describes it as a good infection, that gradually overwhelms our body and soul. It will transform us, from the inside out. And it will slowly, and over time, transform us into radiant plants that bear beautiful fruit, which give us a glimpse of what the future creation will look like; and it will transform us so that we, with the radiance of the glory of God, will bring glory to our God.