Readings: James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Let us pray: God who welcomes all people and challenges us to live in the way of Christ, may your word for us be both comforting and disturbing, that we may better be a transformed and transforming community in Jesus name. Amen.
Isn’t it interesting and a little uncanny when something that you have been pondering during the week appears really strongly in the readings for Sunday – this has happened to me often and it is no different today. On Wednesday night we spent an hour and a half at study group trying to get a handle on what is meant by righteousness – and came up with a variety of understandings and interpretations – for me the best way to understand it was as living in right relationship with God and each other. I had a quiet chuckle when, in preparing for this sermon, I realised that the letter of James and those of Paul also have a somewhat different take on what it means to live in righteousness. They would have fitted into our study group rather well! Whereas James saw righteousness as faith intricately co-existing with works, Paul tended more to understand it as a place that faith alone brought you to and out of which works would come. As I read further I found that not only was the word righteousness up for debate but they both had variations on the meaning and practice of what was meant by faith and works. Faith or belief for Paul is primarily trust in God with works seen as a somewhat separate practice; for James faith and belief is more about assenting to ideas about God, ie agreeing that God exists, to which personal commitment and relationship needs to be added. He says in support of this viewpoint – ‘even the demons believe’. You may be feeling a trifle confused there and that is not surprising – and of course I have made some fairly large generalisations or perspective there which you may or may not agree with. But what it does illustrate that then and now there are different understandings of what it means to live in or receive righteousness – to be in right relationship with God.
In fact it was light-heartedly postulated on Wednesday night that maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t talk at all about God – it was just too hard to come to agreement on what words and concept meant, to ‘get’ all the nuances and ‘lose’ all the enculturated meanings that are attached to the words we use to share our faith and beliefs. But that wouldn’t do, for it is in the talking and discussing and exploring of these everyday words that we come to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God and who it is that God wants us to be.
So I am going to run with James’ take on righteousness for a little while and see where that takes us – that of where belief/faith are inextricably entwined with what we say do and be. And the reason I suggest this is that the people he was preaching to, probably around 60AD, and those who would have read this letter were in a not dissimilar position in society to us today. These early Jewish Christian groups were a tiny minority existing within large populations that were at the best indifferent or at worst exceedingly hostile to their beliefs. That is no different. They were also people who within living memory had been part of an established recognised institution of belief, one that held some considerable sway in the habits and attitudes of their societies. That holds considerable truth for us. James was concerned at the impact of the surrounding population on the fledgling faith – that they would fall back into the values and behaviour of the majority when Christ was calling them to live a radically different life, one that was often at odds with the greater society in which they lived. Sound familiar as well?
And I am going to be slightly, well probably more than slightly, controversial and invite us to think about all of these things in light of the marriage bill that is before Parliament at the moment and our responses to it. Where sits our right relationship with God and each other in the midst of this very real situation?
It seems to me that we have gotten ourselves in a right old pickle over this and that to some extent we are actually debating the wrong issue. When I get over my annoyance at the media telling me that I am against it because I am a Christian, I begin to focus on some of the aspects of the debate that trouble me as a Christian attempting to live a life that is reflecting my faith in God and deeply determined by the new life that is Christ Jesus.
My first thought is: what is with this fixation on sexual issues – for me right living is about grace and forgiveness and fighting injustice and taking stands on greed and violence and exploitation – now if those abuses are within a sexual relationship, whatever that might be, they need to be challenged. Where love, faithfulness, care flourish in relationships, they need to be celebrated. So why is it that our righteousness is defined instead by sexual orientation and the little things like adultery, child abuse, bullying and sexual violence within relationships get less of our energy and passion?
We as Christians are a minority in our society – a society that the Christian church heavily influenced in living memory and in fact still does but as a legacy rather than a living relationship. Maybe this is a good thing to be a bit separated (many would argue so) but it seems to me that when we do do relationship, all our energy and passion and ‘public speaking time’ if you like to call it that is not that wisely spent – I can think on a million things which society embraces that Christ would want us to be challenging, overturning the tables on - and yet we debate the moral value of what is now a largely secular, oft repeated and increasingly devalued legal institution. I am being extremely cynical about marriage there I realise, but there is a reason I believe. What I would like to see is the Church recovering what marriage is actually about – the lifelong commitment of two people who promise before God and community that they will love and care for each other and will honour God in that relationship. I don’t think we are very good at differentiating between those ways of living that we deem righteous simply because they have always been so and those acts and utterances that Christ would call righteous because they value God, faithfulness, love, and justice above all.
Because that was the other question that James had to deal with - ‘who was influencing who?’ He was concerned that the distinctive transformed living that was ‘being reborn in Christ’ would be diluted, lost in the pressures and temptations of the majority society. If we, as James, see righteous living as belief in God made know in Christ, intricately woven in with commitment, relationship and works then righteous is more than committing to God, being saved in Christ Jesus, but is also totally about the often counter-cultural, always radical approach to life and relationships that we engage in –by definition we have a different perspective, a Christ perspective. So I ask the question: on the issue of marriage equality – is conservative society pulling the strings of the church or is the church able to recover and restore marriage as a demonstrable way of living in right relationship with God and each other in love and faithfulness – no matter how those marriage partners might be defined?
These are my views, formed and shaped by who I believe God through Christ and in the Spirit to be. Yours may well be different on this particular issue –righteousness is not about being of one mind but of allowing your relationship with God, with Christ to be the transforming power in your life, over and above and sometimes against the culture you live in. Only you can determine what that means for you. Amen