Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Illusion of Religion
by Rev. Alan J. Meenan, Ph.D.
Text:John 8:30–32, 39–47
Preached: May 4, 2003
Isn’t this beautiful, sunny day wonderful? We Southern Californians are spoiled. We have so many sunny days that every now and again we have a bit of rain and the weather people call it a "storm.” Those of us who are from another region of the country know better. Then, when the rain finishes and the sun comes out, we feel how good it is to be alive. It reminds me of the passage in the Book of Koheleth. Koheleth is the Hebrew title of the book known today as Ecclesiastes. The greatest chapter in Ecclesiastes is the final chapter. The opening verse says, Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them"-before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; It’s a dismal picture that Koheleth paints. After the rain, we're kind of geared up to see the sun. What would it be like if we were buoyed up with hope for sunshine, and the clouds simply rolled in again?
Before painting that dismal picture, Koheleth says, “Remember your Creator.” This occupation God lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. There are too many religions in the world. Some are good. Some are not so good. However, most of them prompt the internal question of who am I and where am I going? By contrast, Christianity is far more concerned with the question of who is Jesus? Could Jesus possibly be not only the revelation of God, but God himself in the flesh? The whole faith revolves around understanding the identity of Jesus Christ. The entire Gospel of Mark for example, is concerned with the question of who Jesus is. Again and again, when Jesus heals people, he says, don’t tell anybody who I am. This prompts the reader to question, “Who is this man?” The answer comes in that scene at the foot of the cross when the Centurian, the foreigner, the non-Jew, looks at Jesus and says, truly this man was the son of God. Then the reader gets it. Of course, Jesus himself was never in any doubt as to who he was. We're simply assured in this passage exactly whom he claimed to be. Look at John 8. Notice that in verse 42, Jesus says, “If God were your father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but God sent me.” His origin and his authority were divine. In verse 51, he says, “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Jesus is making the staggering claim that he has the power over death itself. In verse 54, he says, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.” He claims to be the Son of God. In verse 55, he claims, “Though you do not know him, I know him.” He has this unique relationship with the creator God who brought the heavens and the earth into being. Then the lovely verse 58, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!" Jesus is not using bad grammar. He’s referring to that marvelous story in the Book of Exodus when Moses encountered the bush that was burning, but not consumed. From the bush there came a voice. It was the voice of God. Moses asked, “Who should I say you are? The voice answered, “Tell the world, I am sent you.” Here Jesus is taking that title of divinity. Before Abraham even existed, I am. As Christians we want to proclaim from the housetops that we serve an incomparable Christ. All the power, majesty and glory of the creator God, and the sustainer of all life finds its embodiment in one person: this man of Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth. All the power of God is present in Jesus.
Leyland Wong, a Chinese evangelist who ministered here in the United States quite a number of years ago, worked with the Chinese Foreign Missionary Union. On his letterhead he quoted three verses of scripture. They said it all. The first was simply this: The sun stood still. The second one right underneath it: The iron did float. The third one: This God is our God. In other words, our God is a God of the impossible. Our God is able to make an iron float. Our God is able to stop the sun in its path, over the valley of Adjulon, enabling Joshua to win a great and mighty battle. This God who is able to do these incredible things, is our God. Of course his statement raises the question, “If such a power really exists, why do so many Christians live below par? Why is it that Christianity has not infected society? If there is such power unleashed upon the earth, it should infect society.
I was talking to an Elder church statesman earlier this week. We pondered together, how many of those Enron executives were elders and deacons in Churches? I assured him there were no Presbyterian elders among them, but I subsequently learned that there were. Somehow, we're living without tapping into the incredible power that is at our disposal. Dr. Graham Scroggy, one of the great saints of a bygone day, once declared, “All Christians have eternal life, but not all Christians have abundant life. The trouble with so many of us is that we are on the right side of Easter, but on the wrong side of Pentecost, on the right side of pardon, but the wrong side of power.” The Church so often lives on the glories of a bygone era, the spiritual capitals of the past and past accomplishments. It’s secondhand religion. We seem unaware that in Jesus Christ something staggering has shaken the world. Christianity, properly understood, is not another religion. Jesus Christ never came into the world to establish another religion. He came to establish a relationship with God. The trouble with the people of his own day was that they understood that Christianity was yet another system of belief. They compared it with already established faiths. As a result, they reacted very swiftly. In verse 48, they ask, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan?” One of the worst insults for a Jew was to be called a Samaritan. They accused him of being a foe, an enemy of Israel, a law- breaker, a heretic. We read in verse 59 that they took up stones in order to kill him, because he was a threat to the system. They saw in Jesus Christ the possibility of a new system.
This is not a matter of religion, but of relationship. Jesus had the most trouble with religious people. I hate to tell you that, but Jesus had the most trouble with religious people. Of course, I’m talking about religious people who lived 2,000 years ago. I’m not talking about us. Any similarities that there might be are purely accidental and coincidental. It’s interesting though; these people were living on an illusory birthright. In verse 33, they said, “We are Abraham’s descendants.” They were born into the family of faith. There are some people even within the Christian church, who believe they are born into the family of faith. In fact, they claim salvation on the basis of biology. These were religious adherents. In verses 52 and 53, they are safeguarding the teachings and traditions of the Church. In their hearts though, there was a darkness and a wickedness. So, there is a qualitative distinction between religion and relationship.
Jesus came to open up the way of God to human beings. He came to right the wrong relationship, not to establish a new religion. Even if we declared Christianity to be a religion, it is certainly a lot older than 2,000 years. It goes back through the entire Old Testament back to creation itself. Jesus had lots of strong words to say to these religious people. Look at verse 42. He told them that they did not possess the Spirit of God. In verse 34, he told them they were in bondage to sin. In verse 38, he told them that they had been obedient to the Father, but the problem was they had the wrong Dad. Their father was Satan. In verse 43 he says, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.” They could not recognize the truth about Jesus Christ. They couldn’t hear. They couldn’t see. It was like someone deaf listening to a Beethoven symphony, or someone who is color blind trying to enjoy Picasso or Monet. They simply didn’t get it. They weren’t able to recognize the truth about Jesus Christ. So Jesus categorically declares in verse 47 that they were not God’s people. Further he declares in verse 51, that in the end it meant death.
I want you to understand and grasp today, in these teachings of Jesus, that it is clear that salvation cannot be claimed on the basis of biology, nationality or even piety. There is no such thing as a Christian nation. No people or nation of the world can claim to be the people of God. Salvation does not come through nationality, biology or piety. What then constitutes the difference between religiosity and the faith that really saves us? How can we live on the right side of Easter and the right side of Pentecost? There may be an important distinction in verses 30 and 31. In verse 31, there is a reference to people believing Jesus and in verse 30, there is a reference to believing in Jesus. The little Greek word eis, meaning "in" is added in verse 30. Believing with the mind is all one needs to become religious. Believing with the mind and the heart and committing your life to Him is faith.
There was an old story about an ornithologist who went searching for one elusive bird. In the hills of Colorado, he spotted the bird, and he was so enthralled by it, that he walked off the edge of a cliff. On the way down, he grabbed hold of the branch of a tree. Hanging a hundred feet below the canyon-top, and a thousand feet from the bottom, he cries out for help. A voice answers saying, “I am here.” This bird watcher says, “I am so grateful. Who are you?” The voice replies, “I am God and I am here to help.” "That’s just as well,” said the man. “I've been hanging on here for dear life. I can’t hang on much longer.” God says, “But before I help you, I want to know if you believe in me.” "Oh yes,” he said, “I do. I go to Church most of the time. I occasionally pick up the Bible. When I have nothing else to do, I even have a little read. And I put a few bucks in the offering plate. Yes, I believe in you.” God replied, “No, I want to know if you really believe in me.” "Oh,” he said, “I really believe in you. Believe me, I believe in you. I am 100% committed to you.” "Wonderful,” said God. “Let go of the branch. If you really believe in me, let go of the branch.” There was silence. Then the man shouted out at the top of his lungs, “Is there anybody else out there?”
There is a distinction between believing, and really letting go, being totally committed. The language that the scripture uses of love, trust and obedience is the language of relationship. The language of religion is ritual, dogma and beauty. Jesus doesn’t use that language. He uses the language of love and relationship. He depicts the elements of real faith in John 8:31. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciple.” I believe it is one of the hallmarks of greatness to be dominated, compelled and ruled by a central passion. For the Christian, it is the love of Christ that compels us. What we need and what the world desperately needs are not more religious people. We need people who are passionate about Jesus Christ. In verse 30, we read that His words moved them to believe. However, in verse 31, we learn that true adherence is a way of life, in which the teacher’s word, becomes the disciples rule. Does that describe your walk with God? Can that describe your walk with Jesus Christ? "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciple… Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Free from what? Free from being religious. Free from trying to be good enough to make it. Freedom from trying to keep the balance between doing good and doing bad, hoping that the good will somehow outweigh the bad. Freedom from a system of rules and regulations! Freedom to be in a love relationship with Jesus Christ! Truth will set you free, and Biblically, I understand truth in two ways. I understand it in terms of what Jesus said: his teaching. “Continue you in my Word. Which is truth. The truth of my Word will set you free.” But, there is another part of truth. One perceives it in that incredible dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate asked the question, “What is truth? What an idiotic question! What is truth? Didn’t he see that this person standing before him was, in fact, the very embodiment of truth when He said, “I am the way. I am the truth and I am the life.” That is why Jesus never answered the question. The answer was right there, staring Pilate in the face.
If we, as disciples, are to know truth, we’ve got to know truth in two ways. I hope that the logic of this is compelling. First we’ve got to know truth in terms of hearing the truth and being obedient to the truth. These are the words of Jesus Christ. But secondly, and even more sublimely, to know the truth we must somehow be united with the person who is the very embodiment of truth. In that context, Jesus invites us to walk with God, to possess the Spirit, to take upon ourselves the very life of Jesus Christ. It makes sense of the Apostle Paul’s statement, “I live and yet I don’t live. It’s not me living; it is Christ living in me. The life that I live, I live by the grace of the son of God who gave his life for me." The Apostle Paul had experienced twofold truth. Salvation does not come by birthright. Even if you have been born and raised in a Church, salvation does not come by birthright. Salvation also does not come by religious influence. Isn’t it strange that a religious cleric would suggest such a thing? Yet even religious adherence rests on a false claim for salvation. Salvation only comes by a life transforming reliance upon Jesus Christ. In our society, be it religious or irreligious, in the spiritual climate of these days, may we have the grace to understand and become real disciples.