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Religion pure and undefiled

210829 A sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Songs 2:8-13 Psalm 45:1-2,8-13 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First century Christians were the first generation to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah. St James sent letters of encouragement and this letter part of which was read this morning is almost a “how to” book on Christian living. St James called these early scattered Christians “ a kind of first fruits of all created”. The first century Jewish leaders would have been aware of the ancient practice of offering the first crops to ripen just prior to harvest as an act of worship and as a blessing on the rest of the harvest. In his letter to the Christians in Corinth 1 Cor 15:20 Paul refers to Christ as the first fruits of those who have died. In other words, he had risen from the dead never again to die, and here St James is sending a reminder that holy lives are like the fresh and perfect first fruits of the harvest and as such are a perfect and everlasting offering to God.

St James wrote to Jewish Christians, who had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world because of persecution. In their hostile surroundings they were tempted to let intellectual agreement pass for true faith. Genuine faith can transform lives and we are all encouraged to put our faith into action. It is easy to say we have faith, but if we are serious about our faith, it will produce loving actions toward others. We will live our faith and through living our faith and practicing the presence of Jesus Christ daily in our lives our living faith will make a difference. It will be an instrument of transformation in our lives and in the lives of those around us. As faithful Christians consciously living daily in the presence of Christ we will be easily recognised by our behaviour. Can we seek ways to put our faith to work and become a Doer of the Word?

In this “how to” little book of instructions we are reminded to listen a lot and talk a little so that others may feel that they are valued and their ideas matter.

We are advised to consider when we feel angry These verses speak of anger that erupts when our egos are bruised. Or we are feeling hurt and perhaps our opinions are not being heard. When injustice and sin occur, we should become angry because others are being hurt. But we should not become angry when we fail to win an argument or when we feel offended or neglected. Selfish anger does not help any situation.

James advises us to get rid of all that is wrong in our lives and to “humbly accept” the salvation message we have received, which is the word of God planted in us because it will lead to our salvation.

We see the creative and empowering presence of the word of God in this letter of James and it is important to listen to what God’s Word says, but it is much more important to obey it. To do what it says. We can measure the effectiveness of our time spent in study of the word of God, and the time spent in the presence of Christ by the effect it has on our behaviour and attitudes. Can we remember to put into action what we have studied, and act with the insight given to us? Can we remember that God’s law when obeyed gives freedom? It seems paradoxical that a law could give us freedom, but God’s law points out sin in us and gives us the opportunity to ask for God’s forgiveness. As Christians we are saved by God’s grace, and salvation frees us from sin’s control. As believers we are free to live as God created us to live and become our best selves. We are free to be transformed into the fullness of the person God dreamed that we would become. Of course, this does not mean that we are free to do as we please, but we are now free to obey God and to discover the joy of obedience.

No matter how spiritual we may think we are, or how much we think our lives show that we belong to God, we all could all do with a more effective measure of control of our behaviour and speech. We could all not only just listen to the word of God but be doers of it. By doing what God’s word tells us we will participate in God’s new creation, bringing liberation, transformation, and life to those most in need. We might ask who are those in need? In the first instance the people James is writing to. Because they are sinners who have been forgiven and healed by God and because of this, need to keep themselves uncontaminated by the world. Then there are the others, who James names as the traditional ones in need, the orphans, and widows.

In the first century orphans and widows had very little means of economic support. (Unless a family member was willing to care for them, they were reduced to begging and selling themselves as slaves or starving.) By caring for these powerless people, the church puts God’s word into practice. When we give with no hope of receiving in return, we show what it means to serve others. To keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, we need to commit ourselves to Christ’s ethical and moral system, not the worlds’. We are not to adapt to the world’s value system which is based on money, power and pleasure and what‘s in it for me. True faith means nothing if we are contaminated with selfish values.

But paying our taxes and giving towards the work of God through being church and parish outreach is a necessary and important use of our money. It is part of our faith journey and regular and thoughtful giving is an expression of our obedience and willingness to show our faith by our ongoing works. And of course, during restricted church attendance we should not be guilty of restricting our giving if we are still receiving the benefit of income.

We see on the cover of our service book an illustration of pure water and in these times of COVID we are all familiar with hand washing. In the gospel reading Jesus is saying that the cleanliness of the things we use and rituals we do, is confused with inner cleanliness, or is used as a way of avoiding the challenge of inner cleansing. Within the context of the Gospel, we learn that the only one who can transform our inner selves so that we see God’s law correctly and obey it in a responsible way, is Jesus.

Human society cannot survive in any sort of order without some ethos or structure that is enshrined, hopefully in rules and regulations. But it is not a question of whether we have laws, but what kind of law. Are our laws equitable, fair and just and honoured and embraced by all of us? Surely the work that we need to do as individuals and as a Church community is to show others and the world by the way we live – not just listening, but speaking and doing, that God’s law is what truly liberates and transforms us and enables us to be the best and creative people we can be.

The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan TSSF

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