Sermon by Stephen Linton 29.08.2021

St Mark’s  1030   29/08/2021

Sermon by Stephen Linton

Religion that is Real

James 1: 17 – end, Mark 7: 1-8, 14, 15, 21-23

So to begin, here’s a question for you.   Do you still dress in your Sunday-best to come to church?   Many of us no longer do that, but when I was a boy, I had two suits.   One for school and one for church.   When I outgrew the school suit, or it began to wear out, the Sunday one took its place, and a new suit was bought for Sundays.   Times have changed, and nowadays I suspect many people wear a suit for work and leisure clothes for church.

The next Olympics are to be held in Paris, in 2024, 100 years after the last time they held them, in 1924.   In the film, Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell, who you remember refused to run on Sunday at those Games, was walking to church with his family, when a boy crossed the road kicking a football.   Liddell confiscated the ball and admonished the boy for playing on what he called the sabbath, though of course the sabbath is really on Saturdays, not Sundays!

And in my youth, we similarly kept Sundays strictly, and not just in what we used to wear, but also what we were allowed to do.   What’s more there was a very restrictive list of what we could do during the week.   No smoking, drinking or bad language, of course, but also no dancing, no cinema:  in short, we were to avoid at all costs contamination by what was considered to be worldliness.

Nowadays perhaps the opposite is true.  For many Christians, there seems to be little to distinguish us from those around, those we meet at work, our friends and neighbours.   Indeed, those Christians who do try to be different sometimes attract publicity for all the wrong reasons, such that our message is often seen as entirely negative:  don’t do this, that or the other, rather than the entirely positive good news of our God, who loves everyone unconditionally.   And the good news of Jesus, who shows us God’s love and invites us to the heavenly party.

So what is the answer to this dilemma?   How should we live, as Christians in a largely indifferent world?   How do our readings this morning help us?

Let’s first look at the reading from the letter of James.   Sometimes James has been seen as being in opposition to the letters of Paul, in that Paul taught that salvation was by grace through faith, while it is sometimes suggested that James wrote that we gain salvation by doing good works.  But let’s look more closely at today’s passage.   James tells us to not just listen to God’s word but to follow it.   But the motivation to do good comes after and from God’s word.   Doing good is the outworking of what God teaches us in his word.   James says that listening to God’s word and then failing to take action is like looking in a mirror and then forgetting what we look like!   Hearing God’s word should have consequences as to how we live in God’s world.

And James then goes on to give examples of that:  to look after widows and orphans, and to avoid being polluted by the world.   Widows and orphans in those days were especially vulnerable and needy, and Paul too tells the early church to care for them.   And avoiding evil influences in the world around doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world and becoming a hermit.   Because James tells us to be involved in the world, caring for the needy and so showing by how we live what God’s world should be like.

Let’s look at our reading from Mark’s gospel.   The Pharisees were being critical of the disciples of Jesus for failing to keep to the ceremonial washing.   That was more than simple hygienic washing of the hands before meals, but, as Mark explains for his Gentile readers, complicated rules about cleaning cups and dishes as well as hands.   It was part of the tradition that had been developed over centuries as to how to keep the laws of Moses set out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.   But as Jesus says elsewhere, the Pharisees made life difficult for ordinary people by what they added to those laws.  

Now there is no doubt that many of the Pharisees were good conscientious religious people.   But they missed the point.  Not that the rules were bad in themselves, but that they obscured what their religious faith was really about, and that became a hurdle for the people that needed to be jumped before one could be accepted by God.

But in commenting on these ceremonial washing rules, Jesus went on to teach that what defiles a person is not about contaminated input but about contaminated output.   It’s not what we take in, but what we do that matters.   It’s not being in the world that is wrong, but conforming to the standards of the world where they conflict with God’s word.

So what does this say to us this morning?   In our daily lives are we seen as people who are showing God’s love for all we meet, in word and deed?   Or are we seen as being suspiciously irrelevant with a tendency to be critical or to exclude those not like us?   James tells us that pure religion, in other words how our Christian faith should be seen by others, involves showing God’s love, caring for those in need, seeking to bring truth, justice and hope to a world which has got its priorities wrong.

And so for the church, what is the message?   Unfortunately, we are more often seen as being negative.   What tends to hit the headlines are the misdemeanours of many in the past over safeguarding, or our attitudes to those from other racial groups, or the role of women in the church, or our views on LGBT issues.   And that’s not to say that we should not have personal views on some of those issues.   But for the media that seems to be what the church is all about:  rules that are seen to be out-of-date or offensive today.   When what really matters is proclaiming God’s love for all, and his kingdom of truth and justice and freedom.  

Just as the Pharisees, who held that adhering to minute details of the rules was what mattered, are we at risk of doing the same?   Sometimes our traditions, the way we like to do things, can seem more important than what our faith is about.   Not that those traditions are necessarily wrong, but that their purpose is to help us in our worship, not to take over our worship.  

So James tells us to not just listen but to do.   We can enjoy attending church, listening to sermons, or reading our Bibles at home, but if that makes no difference to how we live, then James calls that religious practice worthless.   He goes on, ‘Religion that God accepts is to look after orphans and widows and keep oneself from being polluted by the world’.   Not in the sense that doing such things gains us salvation:  no Paul is right to say that salvation is freely available to everyone, whatever they do, by God’s grace, and through faith in him.   But then that needs to be evident in how we live, and in response to God’s love for us.   So there shouldn’t be a conflict between word and deed.   Both are needed.    

 

Today we live in a world that’s in a mess.   Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Haiti; wildfires, Covid-19, poverty, famine, and climate-change; all these dominate our news bulletins.   But what we as Christians have to offer an uncertain world is not a set of rules, but the good news of God’s love.   Good news of a meaning for living and of hope for the future.   Good news that won’t simply solve everyone’s problems but will give them strength to live with those problems day by day.  

So this week let’s take God’s love with us into the world around us, in both word and deed.

Let’s pray:   Father, may our time in church today have an effect on how we live in your world tomorrow.   Help us to show your love for those we meet, in both word and deed.   Amen.