“Spiritual but not religious” is an increasingly popular description for many who’ve turned their back on the traditional, institutional practices of faith but who still acknowledge that they are more than simply bodies and brains.
Even the “Coventry welcome” that graces the cover of your order of service proclaims a measure of distaste for “organised religion”...(I guess it would be cheating to claim that I’m much too DISorganised to be in danger of any such thing myself) – though it would be hard to think of anythign more symbolic of religious institutions than an Anglican Cathedral congrgation busy about its Sunday worship.
One way and another, religion is getting a pretty bad press these days – and perhaps that’s understandable.
After all, ours is an age that values personal choice and freedom above almost everything else...yet the very origin of the word “religion” is all about binding “Obligation, bond, reverence” says the dictionary definition, before reminding us that the word comes from the Latin “religio” - to tie...from which we also get ligature, ligament etc.
If you’re a free spirit believing passionately in the autonomy of the individual then why WOULD you choose to be tied into a way of life that might seem to be all about restictions, about the law of “thou shalt not”…
What possible benefit could there be? How could such practice help you to grow?
At first glance it seems, actually, as if Jesus might agree with this view. The Pharisees, who are the supreme practitioners of the RELIGION of Judaism, have come from Jerusalem to investigate what’s going on around this charismatic itinerant Galilean...And their first criticism is that his followers are sitting light to their religious obligations. Those Pharisees are very very anxious that the disciples are neglecting personal hygiene – you can imagine them saying to one another “It’s the slippery slope! If we let this go, they’ll have broken every one of the commandments by tea-time”. They’re great ones for the minutae – but in their focus on the details they’ve lost sight of the big picture. They have clung zealously to all the demands of the torah, but not to the purpose behind it – to create a people set apart in a special relationship with God…
If that’s not the main agenda, - if that relationship is not reflected in every aspect of life, - in our words AND in our deeds– then we’re practising the kind of religion that is simply not worth the paper it is printed on. Jesus has lots to say about the ways in which our behaviour reflects our state of inner being...the truth of our hearts. It’s just not possible to conceal that, long term – from one another, from ourselves and of course from God. Even, or maybe especially, if that truth is ugly – spoiling our cherished self-image – it cannot be evaded for long. That’s what defiles. So the message is that our aspirations to practice true religion will achieve nothing if we’re not actually connecting with God.
This is the situation Jesus presents to the Pharisees. He recognises the good intentions behind their adherence to the law. These are not his natural opponents, but rather brothers who’ve become distracted along the way.
Jesus knows that they WANT to be in a right relationship with God – but that’s not the way they’re living. Instead they’ve used obedience to the letter of the law as a substitute for living into its reality of love.
“This people honours me their lips but their hearts are far from me...” - and what’s in those hearts cannot but leach out, spoiling all their aspirations, defiling them even as they engage in a relentless pursuit of religious purity.
James makes the same point “Be doers of the word...”
Religion exists not to create ties that restrict us from really living but to give us a trellis which supports us as we grow in faith and love…
For James there seem to be two opposing forces competing for our time and energy...and that time and energy comes as a gift from God, an outpouring of grace give to us that we might bless others.
This is the essence of true religion.
Not the observance of rituals, not obedience to laws for their own sake but time used in loving service…
Put like that it sounds so simple – and so obvious. You’ve known it for years.
To choose the good is to practice pure religion, a reflection of the goodness of the Father of Lights from whom all good things come...to tie ourselves thoroughly into our relationship with him and to allow God to transform us as we respond to grace at work in us.
But somehow it never is.
As a friend said, It’s not WHAT you know, but what you DO with what you know.
We may know that when we fail to “walk the talk” - when we hear the word but let it slip from our minds immediately, changing nothing in ourselves, we’re falling tragically short...but that doesn’t always inspire us to do something about it.
But I’m very much afraid that ACTION is not an optional extra. Really, it’s not.
When I was quite a small child I remember going out one Sunday with a school friend’s family – who were, rather startlingly in the cosy middle England of the early 1960s, not practising Christians. As we passed a church, the congregation were pouring out and my friend’s mother said, without a trace of irony, “Look at the good people”. It seemed natural and easy to equate the practice of religious observance with a matching life-style then.
5 decades on, immured as we are in investigations into historic sex abuse, conscious of the weight of institutional imperfection, I can’t imagine she’d have made the same connection…
“BE DOERS OF THE WORD.
Walk the talk. - or there’s no point to any external observance of our faith.
It is the Gospel in ACTION that will make our worship pure and vital...will transform empty ritual into life-giving encounter.
Without that, we might just as well stay at home with the papers.
So, let me say it again. True religion can be measured in the impact of Sunday’s worship on the working week. If there’s no visible difference in the way we respond to the needs of a broken, hurting world...if we worship Christ in Word and Sacrament on Sunday but ignore him in those troubled and troubling people whom we meet on Monday morning...then we’ve overlooked the vital ingredient and got stuck with the superficialities as surely as those who glance at themselves in the mirror but fail to really see themselves at all.
We receive richly from God – so that we can give generously in response to God’s grace. Remember, the point of religion is to bind us, one to another, and fix us firmly in our relationship with God.
Left to myself, I know that I’m easily distracted, prone to wander off course – so actually a few ties to keep me heading in the right direction are entirely welcome, even necessary.But it’s the direction that matters – the orientation of our lives towards the God who is wholly, and eternally LOVE – with no variation or shadow of change...