This Sunday, as with every Proper 17 Sunday, we will pray that God might increase in us “true religion.” Three years ago, when this collect happened to also join the lessons appointed for Proper 17 in Year B, I took the opportunity to preach on the subject of true religion with some help from my friend and professor, Diana Butler Bass, asking the question, “what is true religion?”
Three years later, I still find myself asking that question, especially in light of the lesson from James, which ends with these words that seem to capture the yin and the yang of religion, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Scholars are uncertain about the etymology of the word “religion.” The more popular understanding says that it comes from the Latin, religare, which means to tie or to bind. That is, true religion means to be bound to a way of life. In the Christian expression, that means to follow the Way set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in his life, death, and resurrection. Others, however, follow Cicero and suggest that religion comes from relegere, which means to read over again. Again, from a Christian point of view, this means that true religion is found in the practices of Christianity: prayer, scripture reading, fasting, and even attendance in worship.
The word translated as religion in James is equally troublesome, however it probably carries a connotation that fits more with Cicero than with common understanding. Robertson suggests it comes from thermoai, which means to mutter forms of prayer, and that the author is using it ironically. True religion, then, isn’t merely showing up at Church, saying the right things, and going through the motions, but rather, true religion is following in the Way of Jesus. This doesn’t preclude prayer, study, and regular church attendance, but it means sharing the fruit the grows from those practices: love, compassion, charity, and self-control being chief among them.
So this Sunday, as we pray that God might increase in us true religion, keep in mind what you are really praying for: the chance to listen for God’s will in prayer, Biblical study, and worship AND the opportunity to live out God’s will in acts of love and kindness throughout the week. True religion is a 24/7 job that can only be done with God’s help.