My sermon today asks the question, “What is True Religion?” You can listen to it here, or read on.
Last Sunday, I offered an intentionally provocative list of things that no one in their right mind would believe. I’m certain that the list made such an impact on those of you who were here that you will never forget it, but bare with me while I repeat these questions for those of you who weren’t with us last week. “The world being what it is today: full of violence and poverty, fear and depression; who can really believe that God is the God of infinite possibility and provision? Who can afford to forgo the cheap rewards of the short-term and wait for God’s provision of eternal life? Who actually believes that the Kingdom of God is available right here and right now? Who has enough time in their day to slow down and stop hyperventilating on mere breath in order to really live? Who can accept this teaching?” If I remember correctly, we decided that each of us would at least try to do these things. We decided to follow Jesus, and as the old hymn says, “no turning back, no turning back.”
In light of our decision to follow Jesus, I have a new question to ask you this morning. Who in their right mind would pray to God for an increase in “true religion”? I mean, really, religion? These days, praying to be more religious is like praying to be the best IRS agent in the field office or praying for superb root canal skills. If God answers your prayer, it might be great for you, but the rest of the world hopes they never have to deal with you. Over the course of the last fifty-years of so, being religious has increasingly become a stigma that most people don’t want to carry. Mention the word, “religion” to most folks and their minds are immediately flooded with visions Pharisees arguing over handwashing, Jehovah’s Witnesses arriving at supper time to handout Watchtower tracts, or angry mobs carrying “God hates you” banners. Others picture Roman Catholic bishops and priests covering up decades of child abuse. For many young people, when they hear the word “religion” the imagine large groups of “anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch, over politicized, insensitive, exclusive and dull1” people gathered to sing unsingable hymns and listen to droning preachers who live to hear themselves talk. To be called religious these days has become nothing short of a pejorative.
Yet here we are, on The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, praying that God might “increase in us true religion.” What on earth are we thinking? Just as it is helpful to know Biblical context, it is also helpful to know liturgical context as well. Most of this collect comes from Henry the 8th’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who wrote this prayer for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday in the first Book of Common Prayer published in 1549. It must be noted that, the underlying meaning of the word “religion” has changed considerably since the mid-sixteenth century. My friend and professor, Diana Butler Bass, in her most recent book, Christianity after Religion, points to a change in the meaning of religion first posited by Wilfred Cantwell Smith in 1962. This change in religious meaning began after Cranmer, in the seventeenth century, and continues to this day.
Smith shows that the contemporary concept of “religion” is a relatively recent invention in European history. Christian writers began using the word “religion” more frequently during the seventeenth century to signify a system of ideas or beliefs about God. Throughout the following centuries, Smith says, “in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true… In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from [systematic] ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorizes, organizes, objectifies, and divides people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, “us” versus “them.” But the modern definition of “religion,” according to Smith, is not close to the original meaning of religio. Unlike religion as system of belief, religio meant faith— living, subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust, a way of life, an attitude toward the divine or nature, or, as Smith describes, a “particular way of seeing and feeling the world.” Accordingly, “the archaic meaning of religio was that awe that men felt in the presence of an uncanny and dreadful power of the unknown…. That religio is something within men’s hearts.”2
A long way round, but the point is that what we are praying for today isn’t a better set of right things to say about God, – a religion that is more true. Instead, we are praying for true religion, a deeper sense of awe that can be felt only when we are brought to the very presence of God Almighty, through a relationship with his only Son our Lord, and a fire in our hearts kept alive through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. Despite all the bad press that the word “religion” has received over the past 50 years, I think we can all get behind this sense of “true religion.”
Cranmer’s prayer continues, “nourish us with all goodness,” and then the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer added, “and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” These are, it seems to me, clear references to the lesson from James that we heard this morning. Our lesson opens up with a definitive word about the God of infinite possibility and provision, “every good and generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” To be nourished with all goodness is to be in relationship with the God of all Creation and to trust in his unfailing care.
Recently, we’ve been trying to teach Eliza to eat healthy things. We’ve tried to teach her that things like cookies and ice cream aren’t to be eaten everyday, and instead she needs to eat fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy items – the stuff of a complete diet. Through daily instruction, she’s starting to pick up on the idea, and often she’ll ask us, “Is this good for my body?” Often, the question is wrong-spirited, “Is ice cream good for my body?” But occasionally, she gets it right, usually after we’ve said no to cookies, ice cream, fruit snacks, and Popsicles, she’ll come up to one of us and say, “are apples good for my body?” One part of our developing religious life is that ongoing instructive relationship with the Father. Walking alongside the Lord, we are always learning how to be nourished with goodness, asking our Father who is in heaven “Is this good for my soul?”
As our relationship with God is strengthened and as we are nourished with goodness again and again, we become ready for the other half of true religion: good works. For James, there are only two characteristics of true religion. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:” he writes, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” That’s it. Care for orphans and widows and keep your nose clean. Seems simple enough. Yet strangely, many Christians can’t seem to find it within themselves to do both. The tension between acts of charity and justice and personal morality seems too much to bear. As Stan Mast from the Center of Excellence in Preaching noted in this week’s commentary, “It is fascinating that the action [James] calls for is dual, in fact, polar, the opposite poles of religion in our Christian world today. Pure religion is about getting involved with the real needs of the world (represented here by orphans and widows) and staying away from worldly pollution. Often we think we have to choose one pole or the other. So, large parts of the church are passionately involved in social justice causes, while other parts are deeply committed to personal holiness issues. James is balanced. Pure religion is about both public justice and personal morality. To think otherwise is to be deceived. The Word calls for both.”3
Now that we’ve decided to follow Jesus, the logical next step, no matter how illogical it may seem, is indeed to pray that God might increase in us true religion, that he might foster that ongoing relationship in us, that we might be continually awed by his presence, that he might teach us what is good and nourishing, that he might motivate us to serve. True religion isn’t popular. It isn’t cool. It doesn’t play in the mainstream media, but it is what the Lord requires of those who would follow him, “no turning back, no turning back.” Amen.
1Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 81 (Kindle Version)
2DBB, p. 97 (Kindle Edition)