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The book of James contains a challenging message:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

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.

James 1:22-27

James is a counter-cultural book in the same way that Christianity is a counter-cultural religion. It calls us to have a faith that is not only declared but rather that is radically lived.

The most eloquent Christianity is not that which is preached from our pulpits, or proclaimed or prophesied from our platforms. Rather, it is that which is practised by our people. Christianity that shakes up the world is courageous. It is intentional. It is sacrificial. And most of all, it is extremely loving.

When we look at all of society around us, we find that so many are caught up in the values of greed, consumerism, materialism, individualism and racism. These values have deeply scarred our relationships, our lifestyles and our psyche. Sadly, when the world looks at the church, they often see no difference in us.

Often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians – Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. It is said that Gandhi was once asked if he was a Christian, to which he replied, ‘I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’

In more modern times, things seem to be no better. A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the USA among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) anti-gay, 2) judgmental and 3) hypocritical. This is especially disturbing when we consider that Jesus taught us that we will be known as his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35).

If we as church leaders are going to produce counter-cultural, upside-down-kingdom, Christ-like Christianity, we are going to have to do some things differently. As challenging as it sounds, as difficult as it is, we are going to have to become more like Christ. His values need be reflected through our lives in the way we treat people and care for those on the margins.

We need to be a people who are markedly different, practising what Jesus taught. Imagine if all in our church were living out the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), practising it and demonstrating it. This Christianity is infectious and dangerous because it challenges everything the world trusts in.

If we are honest, however, this kind of Christianity is the only hope for the world. It is a sign that a new world filled with justice, peace and righteousness is not only possible, but is already here. It has been breaking through into the present for almost 2000 years as the radical followers of Christ have practised his death and resurrection.

As NT Wright says, ‘When God “saves” people in this life, by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith, and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate “salvation”; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.’

When people look at us, may they find us to be both signs and agents of hope of a kingdom breaking through into this world. Though our lives, may they see, smell, taste, touch, feel and hear what Christ’s kingdom is, and through that, encounter the beauty and splendour of our loving King.

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Nigel Branken
Nigel Branken is one of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals. He lives and works with his wife and children in a troubled part of Johannesburg, South Africa.