True Religion

Posted 9/2/2018

Scripture: James 1:17-27

We live in a world that is far different than the one most of us knew as children or young adults. Growing up, most of us understood religion to be a matter of going to church, believing a certain set of beliefs and being a generally a “good” person. Beyond that, believing certain things (that is, accepting certain “dogmas”) was often a very important part of being a member of a church. Faith was often defined as accepting certain ideas about God, Jesus and the Christian life. And the fact was in those days, most people went to church and at least publicly followed this understanding of what religion is.

However, today’s young people are increasingly dis-affiliating from churches — as church membership and attendance records readily show. The fasting growing segment of the religious landscape today is those who are called the “nones” — that is, those who do not hold any affiliation with any organized religious group. 

It is worth noting these “nones,” while uninterested in joining a church or any other organized religious group, often define themselves as being very “spiritual.” In other words, it is not that they have no interest in spiritual things; it is that they have turned their backs on what they call “religion.” For this group of people “religion” means any organized form of religious community, including their organized system of beliefs (dogmas), and they have no desire to be “religious.” 

This group, and many of our younger generations generally share several other characteristics that impact how they view and relate to churches and what has been traditionally thought of as religion. In contrast to what they see are religion, they see spirituality as being much more about what you do than what you believe. Furthermore, they don’t find their spirituality in any single Christian tradition — or even any single religion’s beliefs. They readily take beliefs from many religious traditions and combine them in ways that make sense to them. For these generations a “personal” spirituality is literally one that they have personally constructed — and it most likely isn’t, and certainly need not be, like anyone else’s.

So, in a world where there seems to be this stand-off between churches and older religious traditions and those who are interested only in what they call spirituality, what are we to make of the notion of religion/spirituality? Is adhering to a given tradition right? Are the new, primarily younger adherents of a “spirituality” that is all about what you do not what you believe right? Do we need to follow a set of doctrines or should we pick and choose what makes sense to us? Just what does make for religion/spirituality? Or to put it more pointedly in what seem to be today’s options, which really defines us as Christians — our adherence to a tradition (that is, what you believe) or what we do?

As we wrestle with this question, and with the current trends concerning religion and spirituality, it may be that James can help us. In our passage for today, James talks about what people who are truly religious/spiritual look like. And in certain ways, that is the focus of the entire book of James (and frankly, most of the content of all the letters in the New Testament).  

As we consider what James has to say, it may be helpful to take a moment and look at the history of the use of James in the life of the church. Among the early Christians (those Christians before there was a more or less established listing of books of the New Testament in the 400’s), James was one of the books that was frequently “questioned,” probably at least partly because of the authority the letter had in heretical circles. And, at the time of the Reformation, Luther also questioned the inclusion of James in the New Testament, calling it a “straw gospel” because of it’s emphasis upon works. However, despite his apparent disapproval of James, Luther didn’t “remove” it for the Bible. Clearly, James has been in some ways controversial within at least early Christian circles and is in some key ways “different” that the other New Testament letters. Yet equally clearly, James was accepted as an authoritative part of the Scriptures.

Having said that, as we see in today’s lesson, James does pointedly do one important thing. He reminds us that truly being religious/spiritual is about what we do — and in James’ case, particularly about how we treat others, especially those within the Christian community.

But ultimately James says there really isn’t a choice between religion being about what you believe or what you do. We are to be “hearers” and “doers.” In other words, the Christian community was formed by their common faith in Christ — what they believed about Jesus. Yet what they believed was also to result in a radical reshaping of what they did. True or pure religion involved “car[ing] for the orphans and widows in their distress, and … keep[ing] oneself unstained by the world. That is, it was to result in relationships of caring and concern AND in what we today might call morality or moral purity.

As I’ve walked through the years as a Christian, I’ve come to agree with James’ approach to “religion.” What we believe matters greatly. Being a Christian means putting your trust in Jesus alone. And it means trusting Jesus as your Savior, not just following him as a good example or great teacher. There is a certain element of what can only be called “tradition” — a core of what we are to believe — that is essential to the life of a Christian. 

Yet, the fact is we believe in and follow a person — not a set of statements about God and Jesus. That means that there really is a crucial element of the Christian life that is defined by how we live. Christian faith is not simply believing in Jesus it is also our doing what Jesus would have us do. Christianity is also about, as Scripture puts is, having our life transformed until our life has about it the qualities and characteristics that defined Jesus’ life.

And, one key place this transformation happens most deeply and most intimately is in our relationships with one another. For Jesus and James, the community of those who followed Jesus related to one another in particular ways; ways that were different than the ways of the world about them.

In Jesus’ and James’ day, one’s life was defined by the social status one held. And, just as is true today, social status was a combination of things like wealth, political influence and educational level. It was pretty much beyond the possible to seriously improve one’s social status — although it was very easy to lose one’s status. Thus, one might move up a bit in social status, with the most influential changing where they stood in the pecking order. But it was rare, if not impossible, for the average person, much less a low status person, to ascend to the ranks of the influential. Furthermore, the relationships between those of differing social statuses was clearly defined and unequal.

This inequality was emphasized by the Roman system of relationships based on patronage. To put it simply, patronage means if you were wealthy or had political influence, you were able to do things to help others. And having helped them, they owed you. Most of the time, the decision to help someone else was based on their ability to help you at some point in the future. People with no influence and no possessions had little hope of finding a patron to help them with the difficulties they faced in life. People with at least some influence (or potential to become influential) and a degree of wealth had a chance of someone with greater status taking them on as a patron. And if you were of high status, with lots of influence and possessions, you would have little trouble finding someone to be your patron. 

To be a patron was to increase one’s status; and the higher the status of those to whom one was patron, the higher your status became. 

In contrast to this system of status and patronage, James insists on the equality of Christians (something we’ll look at more next week). Rather than becoming their patron, James insists on simple care for the poor and socially disadvantaged. In other words, James says our following Jesus radically changes how we relate to one another. 

Thus, James insists true religion, or the Christian faith, is about BOTH what we believe and what we do. True Christian faith doesn’t exist without both. In a world that seems increasingly to separate a core of Christian beliefs and a way of living the Christian life from one another and to loudly proclaim only one of them as true religion/spirituality, the Bible clearly tells us we need both.