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. 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. 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 1:22-27(NIV)
It may sound odd, but I think that the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a lot like brushing your teeth. What I mean by that is, just as tooth brushing has far more benefits than just removing food from our teeth, so too do the bread and wine of communion offer us more than just a physical ingesting of the elements. When we brush our teeth not only are we getting food off of them and out of in between them but we are also adding to them microscopic elements that kill harmful bacteria and others that build up our enamel and make our gums healthy. There is an effective process going on. Likewise, when we participate in Holy Communion and we take in the bread and wine it also is effective, as the Spiritual presence of Jesus is very real and works in us to nourish our soul. Working to sanctify us, to make us holy.
Continuing with this clean teeth idea, imagine you walk into your bathroom after just eating lunch, and you look in the mirror to find a big green blob of spinach from the salad you just ate. Now, I know a few of you probably detest spinach, so you are welcome to substitute whatever you wish for this object invading your pearly whites.
So, you look in the mirror and you see this glob of spinach stuck right between your teeth. You look at it for a bit, you realize it is there, you know how it happened, you know it is not good for your teeth or your smile to have it remain there but you walk away from the mirror and go about your day, doing nothing about it. In fact, you don’t even remember that it’s there.
Now this probably seems a little bit absurd for us. Any of us who saw this chunk of spinach in our teeth would obviously get out our toothbrush or floss and remove it. But the thing is, this is exactly the absurdity that James discusses in the first chapter of his letter.
In order to make the bridge between these verses and that illustration we need to look at them a little deeper. In fact, there is a word in these verses that has a lot more meaning than what we see here in the NIV translation, and in fact, looking at that one word alone – really deepens the message. The word is “himself.”
Now in the greek text the word used here translates as “The face of their birth.” The ESV translation uses the term “natural face”, so it says, “ A man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror” What scholars have come to understand is that when these writers referred to one’s natural state, what they meant was the natural state of all humanity which is being separated from God, sinful. With that in mind, we can read this verse now with a clearer understanding, and therefore link it to the teeth illustration easier.
What James is saying is this – Someone who is only a hearer of the word but not a doer is like a person who sees their sinfulness and brokenness in the mirror but walks away and forgets what he saw. Therefore, does nothing about it. In other words, it is like someone who sees the big gross chunk of whatever in their teeth, but walks away, does nothing about it, and forgets it is even there. What James is saying plainly is this. There are some who come and participate in worship, they hear the word, they may even read it, they see their sinfulness, they see they need to do something about it, but no sooner do they leave church or close their Bible, the go on, acting just as they always have, as if the word had no effect on them.
The sad truth behind this message from James is that the good majority of people attending churches in America today are living this way. Christians in name only. Knowing the truth of the gospel, but refusing to really make the changes they need to and get the junk out of their teeth.
This is something that each of us needs to pray about and talk about with a trusted person. Those who call themselves Christians, must think about their life. Are you listening to God’s word and his Spirit as you live your everyday life? Are you looking in the mirror, seeing your faults, and just letting them fester or are you one who takes God’s word seriously, who examines yourself, sees your sin and your weakness and does something about it? Not only that, are you one who is inspired by the word towards true religion?
True religion, or better translated true worship, isn’t so much in the customs and traditions we participate in at church on Sunday morning but lies in caring for widows and orphans, and of course for living lives that are unstained by the world, according to James.
Oftentimes us church goers have specific ideas for how Sunday morning should be. We create an environment based on those ideals and we put an enormous amount of effort into making sure those ideals are upheld. To some extent, we want to be sure our worship is orderly and we show reverence and honor to God but that shouldn’t be at the expense of caring for others and building up one another, so rather than the world impacting us we impact the world.
Jesus takes us a step further in the 7th chapter of Mark’s gospel. The Pharisees question Jesus and his disciples about not following the customs and traditions for handwashing – Accusing them of having defiled hands. Jesus answers by saying it is not the hands that defile but evil lurking in the heart. It is not to say that the custom of handwashing was bad, but Jesus calls the Pharisees out on the fact that they care more about maintaining this set of ideals and man made rules than they do their heart, and their actions. They have made their worship a series of customs and alienated those who do not follow them. They put more weight on if one’s hands were washed than deeply evil sins.
How can we link this back to James? True religion, true worship is worship that is focused on loving God and loving our neighbor. We love God by following his word, not just hearing it but following it, and we love our neighbors, the widows, orphans, those with defiled hands by having compassion on them, assisting them, giving to those in need.
Our desire should be for true religion to increase throughout the whole church and this starts when we come to participate in church where we are nourished not only with the bread of life but with the word and when we not only hear the word but do it.
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.