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Pure Religion?

What is pure religion? Photo: josulivan-59/Flickr

What is pure religion? Photo: josulivan-59/Flickr

Even a cultural neophyte can spot major world religions by their outward forms, ceremonies and liturgies. A group of Buddhist monks in yellow robes and shaved heads or a yogi with a long beard sitting cross-legged on a cushion while meditating are easily identifiable.

Even within the Christian faith one can easily spot the difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The style of cross used will indicate whether it is Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

So what’s my point? First, as a disclaimer, I am not making a judgment on any particular religion, the point I am making is that the world’s main religions are easily identifiable by their external forms and ceremonies.

Within Christianity this is also true, whether Catholic or Protestant.

But as followers of Christ, what should our public liturgy and forms look like?

Should they be similar to any other world religion? Is it the shape of our cross or our robes that are important?  Old hymns, no hymns, or rock and roll for Jesus – does it matter that much?

To the outsider, what do they see – just bells and smells or something greater?

James and pure religion

Come with me to find the answer in one of my least liked verses in the whole Bible:

“If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”(James 1: 26-27 NKJ)

“Religious” – I always cringe when I hear this word; as a Christian my main focus is on a relationship with God, not in being religious.

I hate religion. Why would God want me to have pure religion when I have always assumed it was a four letter word?

When I studied James 1: 26-27 I received a pleasant revelation.

The book of James was written to believers concerning their behavior. The proof of your faith is a practical walk of doing the faith, not just talking about it.

In verse 27 the phrase “Pure and undefiled” is used to describe religion. The Greek word for “pure” means just that: “clean, clear and pure” while the word undefiled means “unsoiled and pure.”

The word “religion” is where this passage gets exciting! According to Strongs, in both verses it means “ceremonial observance” while the word “religious” found in verse 26 means almost the same thing: “ceremonious (ceremony) in worship.”

What James seems to be saying here is that real ceremony (outward ritual and form) that God accepts is to show the world that our faith is a verb and not a noun.

According to James, our liturgy and external forms would consist of keeping our mouths shut when we need to, helping those in need around us and keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.

I realize that Jesus can be seen in the ceremonies of many churches, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing at all. I want to keep this passage in proper context; it is not the only passage on the subject of religious ceremonies found in the Bible.

Much of the Old Testament laws and ceremonies speak so wonderfully of Christ – that’s where the writers of Matthew, Romans and Hebrews come into play. James is a pragmatist; his religion is one of walking the talk.

The other thing I find interesting about James’ choice of words is he only refers to the external outward form of true religion.

James looks at true Christianity like a farmer would an egg. The shell must be clear and free of cracks, but it only represents externally what is really on the inside. The farmer does not say, “Ah, the perfect egg,” and then eats the shell while throwing the inside away. The shell is needed and important but only as it represents what is inside.

The Apostle Paul wrote much about the inside of the “egg”: what saves us – faith “in” Christ; what motivates us – Christ’s love “in” our hearts.

Remember, James is addressing those who are already Christians — the finished product. He knows that true religion not only contains an external “shell” but also our minds and spirits.

I do want to make this point clear. A liberal humanistic church that runs a soup kitchen to feed the poor, but does nothing to see lost humanity redeemed to Christ is not James’ idea of servants of Christ.

James and Paul agree works will never save us; we are saved by faith alone, and that faith (if it’s real faith) will bear godly fruit (works). 

I’d like to make one last point regarding our “egg analogy.”  When a farmer puts an egg on a light box the light shines through the good ones. The light will always shine through the good ones from the inside to the outer shell (forms & ceremonies). If the inside is true it will be revealed on the outside.

James is like that chicken farmer holding “us” (the church) up to the light of God’s Word; if that Christian or church has true faith inside, it will be revealed on the outside by our forms and ceremonies!

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