I don’t think I’ve shared the story about how Amy and I got engaged. We were young, well-rested, untouched by the sleepless reality of parenting. And, because we were so well-rested, we would often get up early and get coffee or breakfast and watch the sunrise together. Well, I decided this was the perfect opportunity ask Amy to be my wife. So, I got to our usual spot early one morning and I set up all the stuff I needed. I had really thought this through, guys. I set up my bible so I could read her a passage from scripture, I set up a bowl of water and a towel so I could wash her feet, symbolizing my commitment of lifelong service to her, and I also stashed 2 photographers in the bushes to capture the whole thing. (I was expecting some applause there it’s all good).
Now, when she got there, I was super nervous – clammy palms, sweaty pits, you get the image. But when she walked up to me, I gave her a hug and got down on one knee and said those words so many people long to hear. I said, “hey, you know how we’ve been spending a lot of time together and stuff? I wanna keep doing that until one of us dies. Yeah, I wanna keep hanging out until we’re dead.” Now, this was a running joke between us, but it’s kind of the same as our cliché today: “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” It’s kind of as ridiculous as saying “it’s not a marriage, it’s a couple of people hanging out until they die.” There are a lot of reasons why this cliché is, ultimately, futile and our task this morning is to figure out why. The first step of that is to figure out just what we mean by “religion.”
Now, at the beginning of our passage this morning James talks about the “implanted word that has the power to save.” It’s tempting to read this passage and understand James as referencing the bible as we know it, but the reality is that the bible we know today has existed for less than 1000 years, so that’s not even an option. And that being said, the usage of “word” – “logos” in the Greek -- to reference the scriptures wasn’t something that was necessarily assumed. But directly above our passage, James references the “word of truth” by which God gave birth to his church. We often talk about Jesus as the Word of God, and though I think that’s a fitting title for Jesus for other reasons, I don’t think it’s what James is talking about here. I think James is referencing the preaching of the apostles who proclaim Christ crucified. That’sthe word of truth. It’s not a set of scriptures or the title for Jesus’ lordship. It’s the fundamental message of the gospel, the “kerygma” in Greek. This is the word, this is the proclamation on which the church is built. And James exhorts the Christians he’s addressing to not merely be “hearers” of this word, but “doers” of this word.
Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. If we want to throw religion under the bus, we should do it to the kind of religion James speaks against here: being hearers of the word, and not doers. This is the real root of the problem. This is the kind of religion we should really be taking aim at. “Hearing” the word and “doing” the word shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, and you can definitely err on either side. Hearing the word without doing the word leads to legalism, and doing the word without continuing to hear the word anew leads to traditionalism. Both lead to a stale, irrelevant faith. And I would be willing to bet that people who want to use the cliché we’re talking about this morning are the people who are probably hearers of the word but not doers. Hearing the word isn’t a problem. Hearing that Jesus loves them and died for them isn’t a problem. The problem is that they’re not moved to do anything because of it. I call this “Jesus is my girlfriend” Christianity. It’s all about this relationship that somehow metaphysically exists between me and Jesus and how it fills me with warm, fuzzy feelings.
Typically, when we say this – it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship – we want to throw institutional Christianity under the bus in favor of these warm, fuzzy feelings. We want to say that all of this isn’t necessary. And I’m telling you that, as a pastor, I agree. All of this is not necessary to the Christian faith. But the problem is that the people who usually make this claim like to drink deeply from the well of institutional Christianity while also railing against it. If you attend something that could be classified as a “worship service,” then you’re partaking of the institution. It doesn’t matter if your pastor preaches for an hour and it’s a hyper-emotional experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re connected to a denomination or not. You’re still in the same boat until you’re willing to ditch institutional religion altogether.
Okay, that’s religion, that’s part one. Now, let’s deal with the relationship part. At some point, we got it into their minds that we can have a relationship with Jesus, akin to the other relationships in our lives, without skipping a beat. We’ve bought into the idea that if we just say that we love Jesus and we’ve welcomed him into our lives, it’s enough, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not. First of all, anybody can do that. Anybody can do that. Hitler could do that. Judas did that. Those words mean absolutely nothing if they don’t find an echo in your life. Second, even if we posit that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead and now reigns in some heavenly place, we can’t have a relationship with him like we have relationships with others. I can’t relate to him the way I relate to you or the way I relate to my wife and kids. We have to relate to him in a different way, and the way we relate to him is here.
There’s a reason the church is called the body of Christ. The church is Jesus’ earthly-historical existence. It’s the group of people who see in him the divine and allow themselves to be moved by his Spirit. Jesus lives in us. And if we want to have relationship with him, we have to have a relationship with one another. It’s only with one another that we can partake in what James calls “pure religion.”
He tells us that“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.”So, religion, when done well, isn’t a bad thing at all. Pure religion is merely loving service to the least of these in the world. If this is true, if this is what pure religion is, then it can be found anywhere; it isn’t exclusive to Christianity. Christianity may give us a grammar for how to talk about the event of pure religion, but it’s not the only way to talk about it. According to our passage, pure religion belongs to everyone.
This pure religion becomes tainted, though, when it becomes divorced from loving service, when it becomes exclusively pietistic and inward turning, when it becomes all about me. And this is the kind of religion that’s supported when we use the cliché we’re talking about this morning. Christianity that’s all about me isn’t Christianity. The Christian faith is about an event which shakes us from our dogmatic slumber. It’s about living a life which is a strange paradox of religion and relationship. To discard one in favor of the other is to sell Christianity short. To have true religion, here and now, we need both. Religion is what facilitates the relationship, and the relationship is what legitimizes the religion. Let me say that again: Religion is what facilitates the relationship, and the relationship is what legitimizes the religion.These things belong together. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Christianity is all about the paradox. God and man. Church and world. Faith and doubt. Sin and righteousness. Religion and relationship.
So, don’t fear religion. Don’t push it away. Lean into it! According to our author, pure religion is the only thing that really matters. It’s not the differences in our beliefs, it’s not our dogmas or denominational differences. It’s the way we love each other. It’s the way we love this world and the people in it. So, be religious! Be a zealot! Be unflinching in your convictions. But always make sure that you’re pursuing the right thing. Because there’s a lot to be done in the world, and pure religion is the only way it’s going to get done.