Loving the outsider within, living for Christ not the world
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Since I spoke of pastors last week, I thought I’d continue and remind you about the church itself this week. We’ve been memorizing James at least in the children’s Sunday school, and we’re at the end of James 1. Now he doesn’t actually give much about the church itself, but there is a peculiar quality that we should notice in this passage. James says pure and undefiled religion is this: visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Now on the one hand, this isn’t a full teaching on what the church should be. The church is a group of baptized believers who are committed to gather regularly around God’s word in song, prayer, preaching, and communion. But what is the quality of this fellowship? It’s important for us to realize because American church doctrine goes against this. American church doctrine says, ‘Go to a church where you fit in.’ or ‘Go to a church where you like the preaching.’ Or ‘Go to a church where the children’s ministry is awesome (like where I grew up 😉). We are trained consumers before we’re trained as Christians. If I had my druthers, I would suggest you never leave your local congregation unless there is impossible-to-change doctrinal or moral infidelity. Even in those situations, Paul exhorted the Corinthians church to remove that sexually immoral man from the congregation. In a similar sort of way, I’d be inclined to say pastors ought to man their positions as long as possible. These principles are medicine to the American consumerism of our day, and would actually force our hand to chose and learn to love others.
James gives us just a little image of what that looks like. True religion visits orphans and widows in their affliction. Interesting. Who are the widow and orphan? These are the classical category of the outsider and dispossessed. We could easily add refugee here to fill out the picture. They are the people who really couldn’t give much back in that society. So too we must view our place within the church as being concerned for the outsider. In this we struggle, and in this we will always have to fight uphill. But it is for the sake of the least of these. And notice how this isn’t a begrudging thing. I think we could say it flows from the heart. Earlier in James, he says receive the implanted word, and I think the overflow of this word work on our souls is a genuine love for others who we wouldn’t think to love.
Now we could go into considering the orphans and widows in our day, but I don’t think the outsider is limited to them. Widows now-a-days may have retirement and social security to draw from. Many orphans do get adopted. Orphanages are generally a thing of the past because of the abuses in that kind of system around the world, so we have foster care which hides those who are without mother or father. So while these needs continue to an extent, we should continue to ask, who are the outsiders and dispossessed? I think each of us needs to ask this question. Perhaps it is the person the Lord has pressed you to pray for. Perhaps it is the person you don’t get along with. Perhaps it is the person you avoid eye contact or avoid having conversations with because every conversation is awkward (and/or because he’s your pastor 😊), perhaps it is the person who is sitting alone at the fellowship meal, who somehow ended up without conversation partners because of how everyone sat down. Perhaps it is the person who is a tough nut to crack and who doesn’t keep conversations going. What I mean is that there are outsiders in our society- love them and take care of them. But we also have outsiders within our community, and I’ve always noticed that it is these people who are the most neglected. If we as a local body can’t take care of those within our community who are outsiders, I’m not sure we fully grasp the gospel. The gospel has invited just a bunch of ragtag messy people to dine at the same table as we feast on the very word of God.
The second note of true religion is to keep oneself unstained from the world. I’m not sure what James actually was thinking specifically. Each church has had their own worldly ambitions. In Corinth, they overlooked sin, in Ephesus, they pridefully relied on their purity at the expense of their love. And what about us? Do we harbor sin? Perhaps. Do we pridefully pursue purity at the expense of our members? Maybe. I’ve mentioned this in a sermon or two recently, we easily point the finger at other people. We’re really good at identifying the problems of those people out there. But what about me? What about you? We must consider our own heart’s position. I want to suggest that we have taken in some of American culture. Whether it’s the consumerism I mentioned above or the impatience of not getting what you want today or imagining that our collective power in the political sphere will transform the culture (but then we neglect our own culture). Or maybe we do live lives of simple entertainment whether we are ingesting the news or social media or are playing games. Or perhaps we are stained with the world by dabbling in little or big sins here or there (in our lust, anger, pride, dissension, bitterness, strife, or jealousy). Or perhaps we strive after a random model of church instead of seeking daily to more and more conform to God’s word.
I’ve really been enjoying reading the memoir of Eugene Peterson over the past week. If memorizing James and having just talked about pastors last week were two reasons this is on my head, a third is his description of planting a church in the early 60’s when the whole church growth stuff was hot off the presses. He testifies to the band of misfits God saw fit to invite into fellowship in Maryland those many years ago. Nothing lovely, but each person a story of God’s work through various means including the church. If you sit in discontent, pick up his book called, ‘The Pastor, A Memoir,’ and be encouraged. God worked back then through a church caring for those misfits and outsiders, and he’ll keep doing that today.