Both the letter of James and what Jesus says according to Mark’s account, are calls for integrity. Jesus was hard on conventional religiosity – pointing out the real difference between insisting on rituals like ritual washing before eating and yet having little love or compassion in their hearts.
Jesus quotes Isaiah and says “ These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” and calls religious people like that “hypocrites” which of course is Greek for actors – people simply playing a role.
In my experience the very emptiest of religion can be the most ritualistic where you know there is no spiritual heart and is a triumph of form over substance. In another rhetorical flourish Jesus called the Pharisees who approached religion in this way “Whitewashed tombs” meaning that everything is pretty and well ordered and respectable on the outside but is dead on the inside. You could say with some justification that Jesus hated religion, but what he means is more nuanced because what he actually railed against was unspiritual, empty, religious forms.
And Jesus’ brother James takes up this thought and runs with it. James himself and the Jerusalem church he led clung much more closely to traditional Judaism and its outward forms and Mosaic law than did Paul (who himself was of course an ex-Pharisee), but despite that or perhaps because of it James recognises all too well the inherent danger of rites and rituals and beliefs themselves becoming detached, cast adrift from our actual lives and the way we live them and the way we relate to people and treat them.
James famously goes that one step further of course and in a way quite shockingly says that no matter what you say you believe in, it is completely useless until it is enfleshed in your life. And even further than that the implication of the last verse of the reading from James today is that in many respects he doesn’t care what doctrines you believe – because pure and undefiled religion lies in how we treat the vulnerable and weak.
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v.22)
It is the lack of integrity in religion that people really hate. From the really major and obscene things like priests abusing children, to simply talking about love and acceptance and welcome and then refusing to offer someone the communion bread because they don’t belong to our club or are deemed in some other way unacceptable.
Going back to Jesus he says “In vain do they worship, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions”. That should make us all shake when we read out our doctrinal statements - I’ll say no more.
What is the commandment of God that Jesus accuses the Pharisees of abandoning? Well it forms part of the start of every Communion service. Jesus maintains that the entire law and the prophets – that means the entire body of scripture – the commandment of God - can be summed up as “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself”
The teaching from both readings today – from Jesus and his brother – is show a little integrity. Integrate the inner and outer you. What we do should be an accurate reflection of what we say we believe. There has to be an alive spirituality underpinning the rituals otherwise we run the risk of becoming a whitewashed tomb – looks and sounds good but is actually dead inside.
None of us are perfect, least of all me, so if our goals in terms of our actions are still a fair way off from our talk, which is likely (!) we should at least though be “on the way” to integrating the two and we do this through Spiritual practice.
Nurturing a lively spirituality which is a relationship with the divine and integrating that into our lives was the premise of the Spirituality days we held here at Gainford. Not an optional extra for people interested in mysticism but according to Jesus the heart and soul, the beating heart of true religion.