Rogate (The Fifth Sunday after Easter) May 17, 1998
281, 408, 400, 48
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. Thus far our text.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Let’s say you asked somebody on the street what he did for a living. Suppose he said, “I’m a doctor.” He’d probably think you were crazy if your next question was, “How may days a week are you a doctor?” “Why, seven days a week!” he’d say. “I’m always a doctor—that’s my profession!” Ask someone what his political affiliation is. Say he’s a Republican. If you then ask him, “How many days in the week are you a Republican?” he’s liable to think you’ve got a screw loose. He’s probably been with that party all his life. It’s the same with gender, nationality, blood type—and a host of other factors that are imbedded in our individual personalities. These things don’t change from day to day. You’re either one thing, or you’re something else. What day of the week it happens to be certainly has nothing to do with it!
Isn’t it too bad that religion is different? Sadly, there are a lot of “Sunday Christians” around. People who act like pious Christians on Sunday, but on the other six days of the week behave as though they never heard of the Bible. In our text for today, James says that such people are fooling themselves—they’re pretending that one-day-a-week Christianity is acceptable to God. Let’s look more closely at our text, as James compares—
Which are you?
The Apostle James was writing to a group of believers who had a serious problem. James wasn’t speaking to unbelievers who hadn’t yet heard the Gospel, and he wasn’t speaking to lapsed believers—those who had lost their faith altogether and quit coming to church. No, James was talking to members; to people who still considered themselves Christians, and who still came to hear the Word, but for whom God’s Word no longer made any difference in their lives. By hearing God’s Word and not doing it, James told them, their faith was turning into a dead faith. They were becoming “Sunday-only Christians.”
In a effort to get his point across, James tells a little parable of his own. He says, For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. You men—have you ever cut yourself shaving and stuck a piece of tissue on it, and then forgotten about it? Two hours later, you’re still walking around with this piece of tissue stuck on your face! As soon as you take your eyes off the mirror, you forget. That’s a common problem among Christians, too, says James. They hear God’s Word, and then immediately forget what it says about them!
God’s Word is a lot like a mirror. We can see ourselves very clearly in it. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we come here to church—to be reminded of what we really are. One thing God’s Law does is reflect every wrinkle in our personality, every blemish, every weakness, every misdeed. In short, it shows us that we are sinners, and that we’re in desperate need of a Savior. Any time you come to services at Ascension Lutheran Church, I can guarantee you’re going to hear that part of God’s Word—the Law part. It’s something God wants to remind us of, so that we’ll turn away from our sin and not be entrapped by it.
The problem, as James sees it, is that for many Christians that message is heard, but not remembered. It goes in one ear and out the other. There was one Old Testament preacher, named Ezekiel, who had the same problem. The Lord was getting fed up with the people in his congregation; God said to Ezekiel, “They come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them.” Ez 33:31-32. The Word had no effect on their real, everyday lives. They were Sunday-only Christians!
In case the message isn’t getting through to you yet—in case you’re still thinking this doesn’t apply to you—James gives us a concrete example. He touches on a sin all of us are guilty of at one time or another: it’s in how we handle our tongue. In verse 26 he says, If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Now there’s a hard one to slip out from under! Which of us can truly say that all our talk reflects our faith in God, that our conversation at all times clearly tells people that we are Christians? James is saying that you can act as pious as you want to in church on Sunday, but if you’re right back on the phone Monday morning spreading nasty gossip, if you’re tearing down your neighbor over a cup of coffee at the work—then there’s something wrong. It’s one indication that the message of God’s Word isn’t really taking root in your life. It’s one of the warning signs of “Sunday-only” Christianity.
You may be shuddering to yourself right now, recognizing some of these things in your own life. And that’s good! That’s what the Law is supposed to do. But James not only describes the problem, he also gives us the cure for the problem. According to the text, the cure lies in “looking into the perfect law of liberty, and continuing in it.” Real Christians, the Apostle says, hear the Word and do it!
It’s important for us to understand what James means by “the perfect law of liberty.” It’s not some kind of “eleventh commandment.” It’s has nothing to do with the “Law” of God that condemns sin. The perfect law of liberty is just another name for the Gospel. It’s the message that Jesus came to earth to live and die for us. That His love for you and me drove Him to the cross, and that His sacrifice there frees us, completely, from our sins. That’s the principle of Christian freedom—“the perfect law of liberty” that Jesus has blessed us with. Through Christ, God is delivering an emancipation proclamation to us. He tells that we are free from every spot and stain and sin of which our conscience may accuse us. It’s that freedom that Paul rejoices in when he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Rom 8:1-2.
That Gospel message of freedom through Christ is the other part of God’s Word that you will hear from this pulpit every single time you come to worship here. What does that freedom mean to you? If you really listen and let the message sink in, it will mean a lot! Quite a few years back there was a very moving mini-series shown on television, called “Roots.” It chronicled one black American’s family history, from Africa, through the slavery period in the U.S., right down to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. One viewer said that, when the final show reached it’s climax, his kids were so excited by it that they ran all over the house shouting, “They’re free! They’re free!”—Shouldn’t we be at least that excited when we hear the message of our freedom in Christ? Think of it! We’re not condemned anymore! We’re free from the deadly power of sin, death and the devil! Just as certain as the fact that Jesus died on the cross is the fact that we’re going to spend eternity with our Savior in heaven! If that’s not an inspiring message of freedom, I don’t know what is!
That freedom is the motivating factor in the life of a real Christian. It’s what prompts us to serve God and our neighbor—not out of duty, but out of gratitude and love. Martin Luther summed up the relation of faith to good works very simply; he said, “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.” What Jesus did for us is the only thing that saves us. But you know, a person saved by Christ can’t help but react to this great gift with a life of active service.
The good works that follow faith are the identifying marks of a true Christian. I used to hunt on some land in Wisconsin that contained an apple orchard. Some of the trees were sour crabapples, and some were tasty Jonathans, but I could never tell the trees apart until autumn arrived and the fruit came out—then the good trees were easy to identify. Likewise, the fruits of faith are what identify a Christian. Jesus once said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit…Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Matt 7:17-20. Think about it—what is it that tells the people who live around you whether or not you’re a Christian? They can’t look into your heart. They’re not going to come check our church record book to see if you’re on the membership list. They’re going to look at your life.
So let the fruits of your faith come forth freely in your life! Consider what Jesus has done for you. My friends, you just can’t think about that for very long without wanting to do something for Him in return! James gives another concrete example when he says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Caring for people, especially those of our Christian fellowship in this church who need help—that’s real Christianity. Being careful not to get too cozy with the sinful trends and lifestyles around us—that’s the evidence of an active faith in Christ. These things are the natural fruits that appear on the tree of our faith. Sometimes we don’t even think about them. We just do them. That’s how real Christians act, inspired by their Savior’s love!
The front doors of this building we worship in may not seem particularly significant to you. They’re plain-looking doors, just like you’ll find on many other buildings. But those doors are very important, because in a way, they determine exactly what kind of Christian you are. Does the Word you hear make it past those doors as you leave on Sunday morning? God grant each of us an inspired, true Christian faith, the kind that gets carried along past those doors and out into our daily lives. May each of us be the kind of real Christian who hears and believes the Word that is preached, and continues in it, day by day. The kind who hears the word of God—and keeps it! In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
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