Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “Authentic Christianity” based on James 1:17-27 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered on Sunday, September 2, 2018
Ferdinand Demara was a man who wore many hats. His mile long resume included stints as a civil engineer, a doctor of applied psychology, a monk, a philosophy professor, a lawyer and a warden at the Texas State prison. There was only one problem. He didn’t have a single diploma, certificate or license to do any of it. He was a brilliant con man, with a photographic memory and astronomical IQ, who successfully did all those jobs—albeit for short periods in different places under various aliases. Perhaps his most impressive impersonation came when he passed himself off as surgeon during the Korean War and literally saved the lives of numerous casualties, including one who required major chest surgery. In 1957, TIME Magazine described him as an “audacious, unschooled but amazingly intelligent pretender who always wanted to be a Somebody, and succeeded in being a whole raft of Somebody Elses.”
I don’t know about you, but Ferdinand Demara’s story captivates me. To think of a man so brilliant that he could succeed in so many fields with no formal training—it’s the stuff of Hollywood films and best selling novels. But let’s face it, under normal circumstances, being an imposter is a decidedly BAD thing! I mean, honestly, would you really want your professor, your lawyer or your heart surgeon to be a fake, a person without any formal training or certified competency?
Isn’t being an imposter when it comes to our Christianity also a decidedly bad thing? Think about the Pharisees in our Gospel lesson. They wore all the right clothes, quoted all the right Bible passages, observed all the right outward rituals. They looked the part. And yet Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs”(Matthew 23:27)—pretty on the outside, rotten and decaying on the inside. In other words, he condemned them as imposters.
James was worried about the same things. He wrote to people who were phoning it in, Christianity-wise, sleepwalking through life, thinking they could wholeheartedly embrace sin and embrace their Savior at the same time. To put it another way, the book of James questions fake Christianity and challenges people who were thinking: “I’m a sinner. But God forgives. So it really doesn’t matter what I do or how I live, because you know ‘Jesus saves’ and all that stuff.” James confronts that attitude by asking his readers, if not in these exact words…did you ever consider that you might be the imposter?
Yikes. That’s a hard question to have to grapple with. I mean, it’s relatively easy, maybe fun, for us to flag hypocrisy in other people. Nobody wants to consider themselves an imposter, especially with something as important as our faith. But look at the things James mentions in our text. And then superimpose it over our lives. Is there any way that this is going to end well?
James describes Authentic Christianity when he says….Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Are you slow to speak? Or are you lightning fast on the draw, willing to talk right over the other person, because you need to make sure your point is heard and heard now. Are you slow to become angry? Or does the bile always bubble hot in you, right below the surface, ready to lash out at the first thing that even mildly annoys you or the first person who gets in your way?
James says….Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Are there times when you head home from listening to the Word at church and do the exact opposite of what we just talked about in worship? Or does your Monday morning way of speaking differ immensely from your Sunday morning way of speaking?
James says…. If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself. Do you want to do better with your words, but then don’t? Do you try, but some times forget? Do you promise to keep a tight rein, but then in the heat of the moment, there you go again—saying something that’s more from a red hot heart, than a cool calm head? Do your words and actions always match up with your values and principles? Mine don’t. Yours don’t either.
Does that disqualify us from Authentic Christianity? Or is it possible that that just might be Authentic Christianity? Or at least a part of it. The Pharisees never considered themselves to be hypocrites. They were quick to speak and slow to listen, no matter how many times Jesus warned them. But we just listened. And were convicted. We didn’t speak….except to say, Jesus forgive me for my hypocrisy.
Jesus even loves hypocrites. He even loves me. He even loves you. We struggle with consistency. But his promise remains ever valid and his blood remains an ever acceptable payment for sin. When our actions prove us false, we look in faith to the One who is true. When confronted with the impurity of our hearts, we cling all the more tightly to the One who is pure—and covered us (head-hands-mouth-and heart) with his perfection. Jesus saved me and you.
That’s authentic Christianity.
If you ever start to feel like you might be the imposter, look less at your works and more at the font. Remember his table. Drink deeply of the Word. It’s in those places that our true identity is revealed, because it it’s there that God tells us who we are. And he does not lie.
Yes, Jesus even loves hypocrites. But he does not love hypocrisy. Jesus forgives us for those times when we are exposed as imposters. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to be an imposter.
Authentic Christianity means looking at temptation like it’s poison, not drinking it like it’s a glass of water on a hot day. Authentic Christianity means struggling against the devil like the apostle Paul did, boldly proclaiming “Sin will not be my master!” (Romans 6:14) Authentic Christianity means listening closely to the words of Moses in our Old Testament lesson: Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Authentic Christianity means revisiting and recommitting to the path James describes in our text. 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.
Don’t pass that by too quickly. You know… “Don’t know any orphans, so cross that off. Be kind to little old ladies. Will do. The world is bad. Got it.” James is talking about two general attitudes that radiate from an authentic Christian constantly, everyday. Embrace those who need you. Keep the world at arms’ length. That doesn’t mean we’re anti-social. It does mean that we take much of what we see on TV, or on social media, or in workplace conversation and we say, “That’s not what I’m about.” Live in the world. Enjoy God’s blessings in this world. Don’t be polluted by the attitudes of the world. It’s not doing the right thing in order to get to heaven. It’s doing the right thing because you already are. That’s authentic Christianity.
May the Holy Spirit enable you and those you care about to believe it, to grow in it and live forever because it. Amen.