Religion has a bad press these days. I want to talk about religion today; I could do that referencing either the Gospel reading or our reading from James. Let’s look at what James has to say about religion:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
A few years ago, I was in a bookshop and overheard a man ask for a particular book, a ‘self-help’ or ‘new age’ kind of title. He was told the book was in stock, and it was in the ‘Religion’ section of the shop. He looked somewhat ashamed to be seen looking for a book that would be kept in the Religion section.
‘Religion’ gets a bad press these days. Some people associate it with all sorts of negative things, and blame it for violence and war. For example, there’s a slogan that refers to the tragic events of 9/11:
Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.
And that is applied to mild-mannered Christian types like us just as much as it is to radical Islamists.
Short, snappy soundbites like this are a poor substitute for reasoned conversation, but they get inside people’s heads and they have their impact.
Religion has a bad press within the churches too. When I was young, in my Brethren church we were taught that we were not religious. Religion was the human attempt to reach up to God. We were taught not to trust robes, liturgy, candles, even crosses on the wall or on the Altar. All we needed was a relationship with Jesus though faith. Religion got in the way.
More recently, people have made a distinction between religion and ‘spirituality’. Here’s another slogan for you:
Religion is for those who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been there.
A group of Christian people were once asked to say the words that popped into their heads when they heard the word ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’. They came up with words like these for ‘spirituality’: experience, connection, searching, intuition, prayer, meditation, nature, energy, inclusiveness, openness, wisdom, inner life, and freedom to doubt.
These same people—Christian people—thought of words like these when ‘religion’ was mentioned: institution, organisation, order, dogma, authority, buildings, structure, defined, principles, hierarchy, boundaries, and certainty.
The words associated with spirituality are much more positive than those associated with religion. Clearly, these church people think of themselves as spiritual.
There are some negative words that went with spirituality—words like individualistic, selfish, and self-centred. But there were still yet even more negative words associated with religion: cold, outdated, embarrassing, rigid, hurtful, narrow, controlling, and mean.
Is it any wonder that a survey found that 25% of Australians call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’? I mean, who wouldn’t rather be part of a spirituality that was searching, energetic, intuitive, open, and inclusive, rather than be linked to institutional, dogmatic, authoritarian, narrow, and hurtful religion? I know which list I like better.
But I end up with this nagging feeling. Aren’t we playing with words when we separate religion and spirituality from each other? It seems to me that there are false accusations being thrown at ‘religion’: it’s about rules, it’s based on fear, it doesn’t take people’s questions seriously. Friends, that’s what it does when it’s misused, when it goes wrong. And religion can go wrong. Big time. Unfortunately, there are people who judge all religion by its worst excesses.
James has something to say about ‘religion’ in his little book. What does James mean by ‘religion’? He means seriously engaging in public prayer and study and worship. Doing these things thoroughly and regularly. It may be from the heart or it may be rule-bound; James calls it all ‘religion’.
Well that’s good, isn’t it? It’s good to pray, to read the scriptures, and to worship with the rest of the people of God? Isn’t it what we’re meant to do?
Yes. It is.
We become like whatever we worship. If we worship money or power, we are allowing ourselves to be formed into people who put these things first. And similarly, sometimes religious people worship the trappings or exalt dogma over love. Yet if we worship God, if we worship God the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, we will be formed as people who reflect the love and the life of God.
We become like the thing we worship.
That’s why James cautions us about religion. Not so we’ll avoid it, but so our ‘religion’ will keep us focussed on God and upon Jesus, God’s Son.
So what does James say?
- Watch your tongue. You’ve got two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion.
- Think before you speak.
- Put your faith into practice. Don’t be a hypocrite.
- Care for those in need in practical ways.
- Stay pure in heart.
Not a terribly spiritual list, is it? Not all that religious? It’s about everyday, practical things. Religion—and spirituality—is about life. As Jesus said (Matthew 7.20-21),
you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Some people speculate that the James who wrote this letter was James the brother of our Lord. If he was, then both he and Jesus had similar concerns. Perhaps they got them from their mum? After all, Mary is the one who sang these words:
[God] has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
James has left us with a very serious list. It has a lot to say in how we treat those we live and work with—guard your tongue, watch your temper. It says that Christian faith is about practical help for those in need. We are giving to Operation Christmas Child out of this spirit. Our second offering for the mission projects we support on Communion Sundays comes out of this spirit.
But I have to say I don’t think our country is doing too well at this caring for ‘orphans and widows in their distress’, insofar as these orphans and widows represent people seeking asylum from persecution or oppression.
I believe James would assume that we would care for asylum seekers who are running from persecution. But we seem more intent on putting them out of sight.
James is a practical letter, and James is a strict teacher. But you know, he’s no stricter than his big brother Jesus. Being a Christian is demanding. It doesn’t stop at the church door on our way out today.
Are you into religion or spirituality? You can be both spiritual and religious. Our faith is about the Spirit transforming us from the inside—to keep us ‘unstained by the world’. And it’s about the Spirit working through us to transform our world—that’s why we care for ‘orphans and widows in their distress’.
Let me suggest that you read the whole of James in one sitting sometimes soon. It’s only five chapters, and it takes an average reader thirteen minutes. But it will be time well spent—if you do the word that you read.