CARDBOARD CHRISTIANS vs. REAL CHRISTIANS
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. 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."
In the name of Jesus Christ, who said, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it," Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Have you ever been at a carnival or a state fair and had your picture taken standing behind a cardboard cutout? It's kind of a fun thing to do; they'll have a life-size cardboard picture of a weightlifter with bulging muscles, or a beautiful fashion model in a swimming suit. All you do is stand behind it and put your head in the cutout space at the top. The photo you end up with can turn out turn out to be pretty funny. You can show it around to your friends, and everybody gets a good laugh.
But of course, everybody knows it's just a joke. You'd never dream of trying to claim that that's what you actually look like in real life...nobody would believe it anyway. But you know, that's just the kind of illusion that a lot of "Christians" believe about themselves! In our text for today, James says that many people who consider themselves "religious" are just fooling themselves - standing behind a cardboard cutout of what a Christian should look like, and claiming that that's what they really are. Let's look more closely at our text, as James compares...
"CARDBOARD CHRISTIANS vs. REAL CHRISTIANS" Which are you?
I. Cardboard Christians hear the Word and forget it... II. Real Christians hear the Word and do it!
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, here James is particularly talking 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 says, their faith is turning into a dead faith. They are becoming "cardboard Christians."
In a effort to get his point across, James tells a little parable of his own. He says, "If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was." That's a common problem, isn't it? I've known plenty of people like that, and I'm sure you have, too - people who seem to think that they are extraordinarily attractive, when really the opposite is closer to the truth. Presumably those people see themselves in the mirror every morning, but they evidently don't remember that image for very long! They're kidding themselves, and James says the same thing is true about the cardboard Christians. They hear God's Word, and then immediately forget what it says.
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 Word does is reflect every wrinkle in our personality, every blemish, every scar, every weakness. 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 St. Paul's 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 cardboard 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: it's in how we handle our tongue. In verse 26 he says, "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless." That's a hard one to slip out from under, isn't it? 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 cafe...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 cardboard Christianity.
You may be shuddering to yourself right now, recognizing in your own personality some of these traits. And that's good! But James not only describes the problem, he also gives us the cure for the problem. Our 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 that our consciences accuse us of. 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! 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? We're not condemned anymore! We're free from the deadly power of sin, death and the devil! We're going to spend eternity with Jesus 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 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 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. The fruits of faith are what identify a Christian. Jesus said, "Even so, 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're not going to come check our church records to see if you're on the membership list. They're going to look at your life.
So let the fruits of your faith run free! Consider what Jesus has done for you. If you think about that for very long, you'll find yourself with a naturally active faith life. James gives another concrete example; 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; being careful not to get too cozy with the sinful trends and lifestyles around us; these are the natural fruits that appear on the tree of our faith. Sometimes we don't even think about them. We just do them. We're real Christians, inspired by our Savior's love!
The doors of our church building may not seem particularly significant to you. They're plain-looking doors, just like you'll find on many other buildings around here. But those church doors mark a point that is very significant in your faith-life, determining 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 one which hears and believes the Word that is preached, and continues in it, day by day! In Jesus' name, AMEN.
ONE THING IS NEEDFUL
Lutheran Sermons for the Church Year by Pastor Paul Naumann