People hate things that are fake. Politicians that lie. Products that make big promises but don’t deliver on them. Scammers on the telephone. But if they hate fakes, why are they so often fake themselves? Why do they pretend to be happy when they aren’t? Why do they pretend to be good when they’d really rather just look after ourselves? Why do they pretend to be so religious when their hearts are far from God? What are they so afraid of? Who do they think they are fooling?

Our message today is about genuine religion. And by religion I mean the outward expression of our inner faith in God. It’s not something we just show by the things we do at church but also by the attitudes we have and choices we make according to the values we learn at church. So what does genuine religion look like? What makes it different from religion that is fake?

Today we are looking at Romans chapter 2. And after a week off it would be a good chance this morning to recap on our three messages so far from Romans chapter 1.

In Romans chapter 1 verses 1 to 7 we looked at the apostle Paul’s message. His gospel. His good news to the world that he wanted to take with him to Spain and he wanted the Christians in Rome to help him take it there. So he spelled out his message in this letter to the Romans, to the people in the church at Rome. Paul’s message was about Jesus Christ. Paul’s message was that Jesus Christ is the Son of David, the promised Messiah, and the Son of God, the coming King. His message is that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In verses 16 and 17 we saw that this message about Jesus is the power of God. We look for signs of an all knowing and all loving God in many different places. But we see most clearly that God knows us and cares about in the life and death and new life of Jesus. The gospel is the power of God because by faith in Jesus we are saved, put right with God. So the righteous don’t live by special prayers or by extravagant sacrifices. The righteous live by faith.

And in the rest of Romans chapter 1, in verses 18 to 39, we looked at the wrath of God. The passionate burning of his holy love that will not tolerate our sin, but will expose it in order to destroy it. Although they ought to know better, people refuse to acknowledge God and they worship created things instead of the creator. Their hearts long for unworthy things and they indulge themselves in all kinds of evil and cruelty. And in his wrath God lets them. They act inhumanely and as a result they become inhuman. Senseless, faithless, heartless and ruthless.

Romans chapter 1 ends with a long list of the sort of things that people get up to. The sorts of things that bad people do that good, religious people shake their heads at. “I tell you,” they’ll say, pointing the finger at other people, “this is what is wrong with the world today.”

In Romans chapter 2 Paul starts pointing the finger back at good, religious people.

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you do the same things.

The problem is, of course, that the sins of bad people are obvious. That’s what makes them so bad. But good, religious people are good at hiding their faults and are often blind to their faults as well. This is just my opinion, but I think it’s a symptom of being good. We want to be good. We want other people to think we are good. Being better than other people makes us feel good, because it reassures us that we are on the right track. If we want to be good there is no other independent measure of our success than comparing ourselves to the people around us. We don’t want to be bad and so we can be tempted to turn a blind eye to what is bad about us. We can be tempted to exaggerate what is bad in others. And we can be tempted to make others feel worse about themselves in order to make ourselves feel better.

When we give in to these temptations we make the two mistakes mentioned in verse 1. We pass judgment on others while we do the very same things. It is the sin of hypocrisy, pretending to be good by hiding what is bad in ourselves and by magnifying what is bad in others. It is a sin just as bad as any mentioned back in Romans chapter 1, the sins of passion, of violence, of greed, of cruelty, and in some ways worse, because it is capable of doing all those things, but hiding the evidence to maintain a reputation of moral goodness.

After all, it comes as no surprise when the local drug dealer cheats on his wife. But when a leader of the church tries to get away with it by silencing any witnesses, it shakes the faith of the whole community. It undoes any good that they have ever done. Or even worse, when leaders of the church take advantage of the trust that has been put in them to do the same evil and cruel things that others do it is a betrayal of the faith of the whole community.

Now so far I’ve been talking about good people and bad people. I’ve been talking about religious and non-religious people. I’ve been doing that so that you can apply these things to your own life. Maybe think about yourself in a new light. Maybe reflect on your own attitudes and motives and choices and actions.

But in Romans chapter 1 and 2 Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles. A Jew is a member of the people chosen by the true and living God. A Jew is normally identified by what they do and by what they don’t do. They circumcise their baby boys. They don’t work on the Sabbath and they don’t eat unclean foods, the meat of animals like pigs and horses and rabbits. To the Jews God gave his ten commandments. He gave them the promised land of Israel to live in. He sent to them his prophets and he promised to save them through his Messiah.

The commandments were clear: love God first, love your neighbour as yourself. It wasn’t just a bunch of rules. It was a relationship of mutual obligation. Like the relationship between parents and children. Parents should care for their children. Children should respect their parents. In the same way, he was their God and they were his people. He would save them and they would obey him. It was never about just following a bunch of rules to pass some test to get into heaven. It was about being loved by God and expressing that love in love for him in return and in love for others.

That’s what a Jew is: a member of that chosen people marked out from all others by receiving God’s law, by being circumcised and observing the Sabbath and refraining from unclean meat. And everyone else are Gentiles. The differences between both groups of people were meant to be clear and obvious. No one was meant to wake up one day and ask themselves, “Am I a Jew?” You either were or you weren’t and there’s not meant to be any doubt between them.

The list of sins in Romans chapter 1 has a deliberate Gentile feel about them. Idolatry. Worshiping created things rather than the creator. Abandoning natural relations for unnatural ones. These are the obvious sins that Jews would think are typical of godless non-Jews. They aren’t God’s chosen people. They don’t have his commandments. They don’t know any better. They just do what they like. Aren’t we good for being chosen by God?

But in Romans chapter 2 Paul is turning the spotlight on his own people, the Jews. Who have been chosen by God. Who have God’s commandments. Who should know better, but don’t behave any better than non Jews.

Paul lays it on thick in verses 17 to 22. It’s a long passage, but it’s worth reading again.

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

The trouble is that they do not practice what they preach. They have God’s commandments. They know his law. They should know better. But they don’t do better. Instead, as the prophet Isaiah said,

God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.

Having the law did not raise them up to heaven. Instead having the law and breaking it dragged God’s name down into the mud. And so their possession of the law, the very thing that defined them as God’s people, circumcising their boys, keeping the Sabbath, avoiding unclean food, marking them out as different from all other human beings, did them no good.

Paul concluded,

God does not show favouritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

God doesn’t play favourites. It doesn’t matter if you are an Australian or an African or an Eskimo. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, a Jew or a Buddhist. The law which you might use as the standard to condemn others will be the standard that will be used against you. And those who think they are better because of some special relationship they have with God will be judged first, because they should have known better.

A real Jew isn’t one who has been circumcised on the outside, meaning a surgical operation done by a rabbi on a baby boy. But a real Jew is the person who has been circumcised on the inside, who has had the hardness of the heart cut away by the Spirit to create someone humble and obedient.

And a real  Christian isn’t one who has been baptised on the outside, meaning a washing of the body with water. A real Christian isn’t someone who has a New Testament and says grace in Jesus’ name and can recite the Lord’s Prayer. But a real Christian is the person who has been baptised on the inside, who has had their sins forgiven and their hearts filled by the Spirit of faith and hope and love. They don’t just say grace, but they believe in grace, that God treats us better than we deserve and they show grace to others. They don’t just recite the Lord’s prayer but they live it, content with their daily bread, forgiving others as they too want to be forgiven.

This is genuine religion. It is the practical, outward expression of a deep love for God, founded on real faith in his Son Jesus Christ. As Paul says in verse 7,

they persist in doing good. They seek glory, honour and immortality and will receive eternal life.

They don’t just preach love, they live it. They don’t just say that stealing is wrong, but they are content with what they have. They don’t practice a religion of condemnation and fear, but one of humility and compassion. Not in a way that tolerates sin, but in a way that tolerates people who sin in a different way than they do.

We hate fakes. So let’s not be fake. Fake religion is just another way of making ourselves feel better at the expense of others. People practice fake religion because they are afraid of God, because they are afraid of what other people think, and because they are afraid of admitting the truth about themselves.

It takes real courage to practice genuine religion that flows from that deep love for God that rests on faith in his Son Jesus, because it starts with telling ourselves the truth and telling that truth to God in prayer. But as my mother used to say, the sooner it was done the better. Let’s start now. Let’s pray.