James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8
(Due to a technical failure, no audio this week… sorry!)
The people of God, the Jewish nation of Israel, actually spent very little of their history being the nation of Israel.
They started out as a tribe, an extended family, that made good; that somehow escaped from the shackles of the region’s first great empire – Egypt – and established themselves as a nation by invading the land of Canaan. There they were united under a single ruler – king Saul, and after the madness that brought his reign to an end, under David, and then his son Solomon.
But after that period, they collapsed, first into civil war, then into exile under the Babylonians and then the Persians. And though, under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra the people were able to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, they remained subject to foreign empires: Greece, Egypt (again), the Syrians, and finally the Romans.
So though we – and the scripture – speak often of the Kingdom of Israel, that only represents a small fraction of the history of the people – if the time from Abraham to Christ was one day, the Kingdom of Israel existed for about forty minutes.
So though that brief moment in history dominated the hopes and dreams and memories of the people, they had spent most of their existence managing to keep their identity, to be and remember who they were, not through structures of government, but their systems of religious identity; through the worship of the Temple, through the confessions of faith, through obedience to the law of God.
These things were not just parts of their lives – these were the things that made them who they were, kept them united, identified them as a people who belonged to God.
The scribes and the Pharisees – the representatives of the Temple and of the Synagogues respectively – had many things that they disagreed about, many arguments. But they had this in common – they had dedicated their lives (as their ancestors had for generations) to keeping the people of God as the people of God. In the face of political peril, persecution, turmoil and war, exile and return, through the destruction and rebuilding of not one, but two Temples, they had managed to hold the people, more or less, together.
And then along came this radical, this trouble maker, who treated the law as if it didn’t matter.
And worse – people were starting to listen to him, starting to take what he had to say seriously. As he told them, by his words and by his actions, that the traditions that united them were meaningless to God.
I hope you feel a bit of sympathy for the Pharisees. We’re ever so good, in the Church, at seeing them as the enemies of the new movement, the Kingdom of God; but in truth, I suspect they might be rather more like us than we realise – in ways that are both good and bad.
For they had a deep and rich tradition, a story of the people and of God that they had kept alive as other kingdoms and empires, other faiths and gods, had risen and fallen. They had remembered who they were, continued the worship of God in the face of opposition and disinterest. They had, in fact, done many of the things that we do.
But somehow, at some point, the reason behind it all had slipped away; true religion had been, at least in part, obscured by the traditions of the faith.
But at least they understood that the faith was something that needed to be lived.
James, in his epistle, seems to be addressing the opposite problem. Parts in the early Church (of which James was a prominent leader), perhaps encouraged by Paul’s preaching on salvation by grace through faith alone, had concluded that their confession of faith in Jesus, and their lives of prayer and meditation, were all that mattered to God. As elements of Gnostic philosophy – which understood the physical world as something meaningless, to be escaped by spiritual knowledge and practice – worked their way into the Christian faith, this understanding grew stronger.
James, most likely writing from the Jerusalem Church, and certainly steeped in the Jewish traditions out of which that Church had emerged, wrote against this development:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like
It is not enough to hear, not enough to believe, not enough to have faith: you must also do.
So in our two readings today we have two dangers for the life of faith. The first is to believe that the things we do are important; and the second is to believe that they aren’t.
Which really does describe the tension that we live in.
We cannot simply live as if our faith were a private, internal, spiritual affair. To come to Church on Sunday, to listen to a sermon and nod along – either in agreement or because we’ve dozed off – pray, hear the scriptures, share in communion and fellowship; or to read our Bibles and pray in our own private lives: that is all, in the words of James, to look into the mirror.
And looking into the mirror isn’t a bad thing – indeed, it’s both good and necessary. But to look into the mirror that is the practice of religion, and to do nothing about what you see, to walk away and forget what God has revealed to you in those moments – that is the self-deception that James speaks of. Seeing and hearing something of God, but doing nothing about it.
We cannot claim faith if we do not live it out.
And that’s the point that the Pharisees, for all their faults, got.
They understood that if their relationship with God was going to mean anything at all, it had to be lived out in the details of life, in decisions big and small.
Their fault wasn’t that they thought what they did mattered. That was their insight. An insight, let’s not forget, that led them to be willing to die rather than betray their faith.
They fell on the other side of the tension. They believed that what they did as an expression of their religion mattered: but had lost the meaning of the faith in their desire to cling on to its trappings.
So I wonder which is our fault? Which is yours, which is mine?
Are we like those who James would criticise, living out our faith in word alone; asserting the Lordship of Jesus but allowing our lives to be shaped by the needs and wants and norms and priorities of the world around us? Do we hear the scriptures each week but walk away and forget what we have seen, forget what we looked like when we gazed into the mirror of God’s story?
Or are we like those who hold firmly to the traditions of the elders, who know the importance of the faith that we have been entrusted with, and work tirelessly to keep it, to see it passed on to the next generation – but have somehow lost what it means, why it matters, how it is transforming the world.
Can we somehow find that path which holds and honours our traditions, keeps alive our story, but avoids the sterility of the Pharisees; reminding ourselves of what the Kingdom of God demands of us, looking deeply into the mirror of our faith and then doing something about it?
Living, not just believing.
Being the people of God in deed as well as word.
Holding the traditions of our faith for what they mean, not just because they are.
Passing on to the next generation a faith, not just an institution.
With God’s help, let it be so.