What is True Religion?

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 15/Proper 17
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 15 and James 1: 19-27
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
James 1: 17 (NIV)


I confess that I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the Bible. I think that we, as Christians, should study the Bible and know what’s between the two covers. I’m not suggesting that I think we should know everything in the Bible. I certainly don’t even after studying it most of my adult life. There are still things in the Bible that surprise me.

But what also surprises me is some of the things that people think are in the Bible but aren’t. Here’s a list of the most common misquotes from the Bible.

1.       “God helps those who help themselves.” This is probably the most misquoted phrase in Christianity. I don’t know how it got started but it’s blatantly false. It’s true that God does help us but God’s actions are not predicated on us first helping ourselves. God helps us through his grace not as response to our actions.

2.       “God will never give you more than you can handle.” And then someone will add – but God seems to be getting pretty close to the line right now. Do you know what? I’ve said that one myself. Do you know what else? What I’ve discovered is that God sometimes does give us more that we can handle because that’s when we learn to trust in him and his strength. It’s when we learn that we need something beyond ourselves to get through the difficult times in life. Don’t think that you need to rely on your own strength. That’s because God has all for strength that you will ever need when you turn to him.

3.       “To thine own self be true.” That’s actually a quote from Shakespeare and may even be completely contrary to the Gospel message which calls us not to reach inward but to reach out to others.

4.       “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Here is another common misquote. It is a quote that does indeed exist. It is part of a 17th century poem by Samuel Butler called Hudibras which actually mocks that whole idea of spanking. Interestingly, there are various uses for the rod in the Bible. The most common one is found in Psalm 23 where it says, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” That is they are used for guidance as shepherd guides his sheep. It is seldom used as an article of punishment in the Bible.

5.       “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” This also is not in the Bible – at least not as a chapter and verse but the thought certainly is. Remember that Jesus talked with the worst of the worst when it came to sinners; so much so that his integrity was questioned by the religious leaders. He also told them to go and sin no more. So maybe this one gets half-marks for being a decent idea but you’re still not going to find it using chapter and verse.

6.       “Money is the root of all evil.” No, that is not what the Bible says. The Bible says that the love of all money is the root of all evil. It’s not the money that is inherently evil. It’s the love of money that tears families and people apart.

7.       “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Nope, not in the Bible. The expression actually came into common usage among upper class Christians in the 19th century as a way of encouraging their children to become professional rather than taking up a trade or becoming a farmer where they might get their hands dirty.


Those are all common misquotes but I’d like to give you one more because it’s one that I hear it all of the time from people, especially preachers who should know better. Here it is: “Christianity is not a religion. It’s a relationship.” I know that some of you just started squirming in your seats because you’ve heard that before and you may have even said it yourself. Maybe that comes as a bit of a surprise. So let me explain my rationale.

The main text that we’re going to use today comes from James 1: 19-27. It starts off in James 1:19-21 (NIV) by saying this: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”

There are no big mysteries here. James is talking about how Christians should behave. He’s saying that we need to listen to what people say and not get all bent out of shape just because you may not initially agree with them. Maybe they have point. And just because you don’t like that point doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the point they are trying to make. In fact, they may be right and, as odd and disconcerting as it might seem, you could be wrong. James implies very strongly that we need to be willing to accept that as a possibility. How do we do that? We do it humbly.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Good idea. Maybe we could avoid some of our conflicts with other people if we just took the time to listen to what they really had to say. I’m not saying that’s easy to do because it might mean that we have to put our egos on the shelf for a few minutes and open ourselves up to what others are trying to say to us.

That’s one thing that James tells us to do. Then he goes on in James 1:22-24 (NIV), “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”

That’s the next thing. Don’t merely listen to the word. Do what it says. This is interesting because the first few verses told us to listen to the words of other people and these verses tell us to listen for the word of God. There is lots of listening going on here.

If we don’t listen to God’s word what happens then? Then we are like that person who looks in the mirror, turns away and immediately forgets what he looks like. How many times do you look in the mirror every day? A few, right? You want to know what you look like; whether your hair is neat, whether you have something stuck in your teeth that needs to come out, whether you cut yourself shaving. whether your shirt looks good. You look in the mirror so that you can present yourself to the world in the best possible light. So you want to remember what you look like so you can adjust accordingly. But if you forget what you look like as soon as you walk away from the mirror, you will walk out in to the world less than you could be which, of course, is less than God wants you to be because God wants us to be our very best.

Then we come to James 1:25 (NIV) which says, “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” In this verse James talks about what it means to look into the word of God and not forget what it says. It means that you will be blessed. You will be all that God wants you to be.


So, what is all of this stuff about listening to what people say and listening to what God says? In a nutshell it is this: It’s doing what God wants you to do. Or in other words, it’s putting your faith into action. And isn’t that what the book of James is all about. We’ve studied James before in various Bible studies and small groups. It’s all about putting faith into action. And that is exactly what the final few verses are about that we are going to read this morning. James 1:25-27 (NIV) says, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

James points out one more way to put our faith into action. First, we should listen to people’s words. Second, we should listen to God’s word. And finally, we should be careful about our own words. That’s what we should do. Those are ways of putting our faith into action. And if we don’t do them, we are simply deceiving ourselves. If you think you’re a religious person and you fail to do these things, then you aren’t doing what God wants you to do and you need to get back in the game.

But then in the final verse, James brings it to a head by defining what religion is. It is caring for people and doing what God wants you to do. That’s religion from a biblical point of view. And that’s why it always amazes me that in some Christian circles, “religion” is almost a four letter word as if there is something wrong with religion. There isn’t. Religion, from a biblical perspective is a good things. In fact, it’s required.

Biblically, religion is simply putting our faith into action. It is living out the faith that we profess. Our faith is what we believe. Our religion is how we practice that faith in our lives. That’s what the Bible says. Nothing more, nothing less.

So why is it that religion has been given such a bad rap in much of the Church? Why is it that people say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion? Partly I think it’s because it’s a popular thing to say. People hear it. It sounds good and it’s catchy. But, despite everything I just said, I think there’s a legitimate reason why for Christians to have some concerns about religion. It’s because too many Christians have defined religion in a way that is anything but biblical.

Too many people, when they think of religion, think of what they do when they go to church on Sunday morning, or in some cases on Saturday night. Religion, for them is what happens during worship. It’s about singing songs and praying and listening to the message. It’s about receiving the sacraments and having communion. All that churchy stuff. And don’t get me wrong because those are all good things. We should be doing all of them. We should be worshipping together and praying together, singing together and participating in the sacraments together.

But if that’s all there is to religion then there’s a problem because according to James, religion is not solely about what happens in the church for an hour or an hour and a half on Sunday morning. The vast majority of religious practice happens in our lives between the times we worship.


So, let’s get back to the issue at hand. Is Christianity a religion? Sure it is because it is about putting our faith into action. It is about living out what we say that we believe 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year as well as we can. That’s because biblically, faith is what we believe and religion is about how we live out that faith in our lives.

But is Christianity also a relationship? Absolutely. It is about our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is about remembering that he lived to show us how to live, willingly died on the cross to pay the price of our sins, and rose again so that through faith in him we can live forever in God’s eternal kingdom. That happens because we have a relationship with Jesus Christ, because we have received him into our heart and our lives and given ourselves fully and completely to him. Our relationship with Jesus Christ has to be the primary relationship in our lives. It is more important that our relationship with our spouses, our children, our parents or anyone else. That’s not to say that those relationships are not important. Truly they are but our relationship with Jesus Christ has to come first because it is the only relationship that we have that has eternal consequences.

So is Christianity a religion or is it a relationship. The only real answer to that question is that it is both. We don’t have to choose between the two. They are not diametrically opposite ideas. Rather they are two sides of the same coin. Both are required. Both are necessary. And both are biblical.

So let’s listen to the words of others. Let’s listen to God’s word as it comes to us in the Bible. And, finally, let’s be careful about the words that come out of our mouths so that we can care for the orphans and the widows and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. Let’s keep our relationship with Jesus central in our lives and live out that faith that we proclaim as we practice our religion in the world.


We walk this earth day by day receiving blessing upon blessing. We offer our thanks for your many gifts given freely to us out of your generousity and grace. We praise you, O God, and thank you for the beauty of summer, for bright flowers and rustling leaves, for clean water and refreshing swims and road side fruit stands.

Father God, we offer our praise to you in morning and in the evening, in our homes and at work, everywhere, without hesitation or reservation! When difficult times arise, you are our refuge and strength. Thank you for the assurance that we are never alone. We can depend on you when our own resources come to an end. You are worthy of praise and adoration and we will honour you with our thoughts, words and actions, acknowledging who you are and what you have done for us. God you have given us the summer breezes, the fluffy white clouds in the sky, the beautiful flowers in our gardens, the birds singing in the trees and the warmth of the sun. Everything we see reminds us of your awesome power.

We also thank you for the life of Gordon Williams whose life were celebrated this week. Bless his families and friends as they mourn this losses. Give them the comfort and peace that only you can provide.

We lift up in prayer our municipalities as we gear up for municipal elections in October. We pray for good government and good policies. Help is, O God, to see beyond our own individual needs and to the needs of others. We also pray for a good voter turnout.

We pray for our brothers and our sisters who suffer from illness or who are recovering, remembering especially Sharon, Lyle, John and David. We pray for the poor and hungry. We pray for victims of war; keep us kind and compassionate. We pray for those who are sick at home or in the hospital. We ask that you touch them with your healing spirit. We pray for those who mourn the loss of a loved one. Grant them healing and wholeness. Grant them your peace. We pray specifically for Canadian soldiers in many parts of the world who continue to put themselves in harms way for a greater good and more peaceful and just existence. Amen.


September 2, 2018 / Pentecost 15 / Proper 17


Song of Songs 2:8-13; Psalm 15; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27


We are truly blessed to be in the presence of God.

We are honoured to be able to worship in the Spirit.

Let us lift our voices and sing our praises

and magnify the God of heaven and earth.


Loving God, we seek your presence in our worship this day. You are powerful and loving, strong and compassionate. Your wisdom far surpasses our human intellect. Still you call us your children as we gather before your throne of grace. Regardless of the struggles and distractions that we face in this life, help us to always remember that there will come a day when we will be called to stand before you, our Judge and Redeemer. Thank you that you have given us the assurance of eternal life with you. Amen.


Hear our confession, O God of the Ages. There are times when we fall victim to the sins of prejudice and narrow mindedness. Help us to recognize and appreciate the unique callings, talents, and gifts of each member in the body of Christ. Every part is important and has a needed function. When we fail to understand or appreciate a person role and ministry, help us not to reject or criticize them, because we are all part of the one whole. Forgive us when we fail to accept others as you have accepted us. Amen.


When we fail to love others, there is still a God who loves us and accepts us just as we are with all of our blemishes and sin. Not only does God forgive us, through the Spirit we also are enabled to walk the sanctified life of Christ.


Our gifts we offer, our hearts we bring, our lives we give to you, O God. Use our offerings for the service of your Kingdom that all may hear your Word and seek to live the sanctified life of Christ. We ask your blessings and your grace, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Go into the world as servants of the Living God to be a light in the darkness and a fresh scent in a lonely land. God calls us to reach out a hand to our neighbours and welcome them as Jesus welcomed all people. Open your heart, open your home, open your life to those around you that the Spirit may shine through you and transform the world.

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