Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Altar of Religion

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time with Messianic (Christian) Jews, and with the Christians who associated them. In 2014, I shared with you about my friend Chris:
One of our friends, a devout Christian, decided that in order to be truly fulfilled in his faith, he had to adopt all the Jewish practices of Jesus our Messiah. So, Gentile though he was, he began wearing yarmulkes, phylacteries, and prayer shawls. He kept the Sabbath from sundown on Friday til dusk on Saturday. He observed all the Jewish feasts and festivals. In fact, he probably followed the letter of the law more closely than the most orthodox of Jewish believers.
When Passover came, he wanted to share this earliest of Jewish traditions with his eight-year-old son. So he did as Hebrew law prescribed. He raised a pet lamb from the time of its birth until Passover. It was his plan to slaughter the lamb with his son, put the blood on the doorposts and lintel of his house, and then make a meal out of it.

Like my friend Chris, the Galatian Christians exchanged the freedom of Christ for a slavery again to the old law. In the book of Galatians, Paul addresses a church that is trying to make the new message of Christ fit into their old Jewish practices. They were more about following the right rules and keeping up appearances than they were about a relationship with the living Christ.

The Colossian Christians also struggled with a conflict between old and new ways of thinking. In the book of Colossians, Paul writes to a church struggling to force their new faith into the mold of their old Gnostic mindset. Gnosticism was an ancient philosophy that said that spiritual things were ultimately good, and that physical things were sinful. Therefore, like Jews did, Gnostics followed all sorts of dietary laws and other prohibitions. Their lives were full of dos and don’ts, or rules and regulations. In short, the Galatians and Colossians had different belief systems that they mixed with their Christianity, but both groups were very religious.

There’s a big difference between religion and relationship. Religion is a set of theological ideas about God that result in lists of directions, instructions, and procedures for governing daily life in the “correct way.” For an example of religion, see all 613 commandments and laws in the Old Testament. But relationship is having such close and personal interaction with God that you are completely one with your Creator who loves you. See the difference?

Religion is full of protocols for doing things correctly, to keep you from doing things incorrectly. For example, a lot of people insist on singing the Doxology after the offering, because that’s just the “right” way. As I write this in my office, my youth group is above me, painting the youth room blue—and some dear religious person is going to have a problem with that because “everybody knows church walls should be painted white!” According to some, right religion is about not smoking, drinking, or cussing. But is that how we define our relationship with God? Paul writes, “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).”[i]

Paul says that these religious concerns are no concern at all. What matters is Christ. God doesn’t want us to be religious—He wants us to have relationship with our Creator. The problem is that we sacrifice relationship on the altar of religion. We put true spirituality to death, in favor of stale regulation and ritual. Paul continues, “Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).” So we need to quit being religious, and instead spend time with Jesus, letting His spirit permeate our own.

In his book, “God Without Religion,” Andrew Farley writes about Marie Antoinette, who left her home in Austria to marry the Dauphin of France. In a tent with the French countess, she undergoes her transformation.
Marie is…stripped down. Her Austrian clothes are replaced with the finest in French fashion. “The bride must not keep anything from her prior court,” the countess says.
…Marie is now French royalty, and there’s no place for former things in her life. Her upcoming marriage requires her to break free from all things Austria.
And there’s no returning.
Like Marie Antoinette, it’s through marriage that we make a clean break from the old way of religion. Prior to meeting Jesus, we were told that religion is a good thing and that we should do our best to abide by its rules. But we’ve now been married to Jesus Christ. Like Marie, we’ve become royalty (1 Pet. 2:9). That means our former affection for religion has no place in God’s kingdom…
Imagine if Marie Antoinette had asked the French court for permission to wear her old Austrian clothes alongside her new French fashions. Imagine if she’d asked to incorporate her Austrian practices alongside the new ways of France. You can bet the French would have frowned on that idea.[ii]

Today, I’m curious—what are the old religious things that you’re still hanging onto? How are you still trying to please your parents or grandparents, your former pastors from fifty years ago or your current pastor today? How much are you still trying to earn God’s love by your good behavior? How have you sacrificed relationship with God on the altar of religion? Is it possible that these very things you’re holding onto are the very things that are keeping you from real relationship with God? Today I’m going to suggest something radical for Christians—that we start being a little less religious. Because it’s only when we abandon religion that we can be set free.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NRSV

[ii] Farley, Andrew. God Without Religion: Can It Really Be This Simple? Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI. Pp. 40-41. 2011.

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