Before I really get going with this blog, I want to acknowledge the contribution of Rob Bell to this piece. This article was inspired by a sermon of his ‘Christ in the Common’ (currently available to download free on itunes on the Mars Hill Bible Church podcast, or at www.marshill.org
That sermon, much as many of Rob Bell’s talks and books, gave clarity to an idea that has been growing in my mind for a while, and which I hinted at in my recent post, ‘Christianese? Keep it to church’.This is an idea or concept that when you hear it makes so much sense, and gives you insight to many experiences you’ve had in your life that you’ve never had. I must warn you, this is probably one of the longest posts I’ve written and there’s a few Bible verses in here.
But trust me, bear with me and it will be worth it.
Many times I have said Christianity isn’t a religion.
Following Jesus, orientating your life around His values, His teaching and His example is not a religion, but a way of life. This idea gives that concept even more credence.
In the Old Testament scriptures it was decreed that reilgious life and common or ‘normal’ life, everyday things, were totally different. The temple was the place where God resided, in the normal, common, mundane things of life He wasn’t as present. And the priests had more access, special access to Him. Life was about rules, regulation, the law. This concept lasted up to Jesus’ day and was in practice during His lifetime. The idea was that you used certain language, acted a certain way and adopted a different mentality when in the temple or some other Holy place. These places and the practices carried out there were sacred, spritual, unique and separate from everything else.
The common, ordinary everyday things were not sacred, were not spiritual. The curtain in the temple represented this idea of seperation.
Now, those of you who go to church or have been to church regularly, does that sort of thing sound familiar? Acting a certain way in a Holy place? Using certain language in a Holy place? Only carrying out certain practices in a Holy place? A Holy place somehow being more spiritual or the presence of God somehow more present? Almost like a club, a special place for God, and everywhere else seems different – and is even procalimed as a separate place by some in leadership?
Be honest. I think you know exactly what I mean.
I think when I was younger I used to treat my church like a club I went to, like some society I was part of. A separate entity in itself, totally separate from the rest of the world, where different rules apply and where everything is done differently, according to a different set of rules. Not only that, but to really be a member you had to fit to these rules. Many churches are like that.
I have visited churches where you aren’t welcome unless you agree with their theology and standpoints on certain issues, or if where you get excluded if you have a certain type of background or do something which doesn’t fit the model of a Christian.You may not get chucked out of the church, but you are made to feel second rate or uncomfortable. There are several types of things which some churches raise eyebrows at. Say you go out with or marry a non-Christian. Or maybe if you’ve suffered from some kind of medical problem in your past, or in some cases if you have a criminal background or history of alcoholism, or if you’re divorced. In some cases, if you believe in women in leadership, although that is slightly more extreme.
I have seen or heard examples of all of these things at various points in my life, sometimes involving good friends. I’ve even been told I shouldn’t be hanging out with or speaking to ‘this type of person’ or a specifc person, because they don’t fit with the type of person they want in their church. Now if someone is being inapproriate, or disrespectful or treating people badly or is causing trouble in the church and offending or hurting people, that is totally different.
Asking people to leave for those kind of reasons is understandable. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Its just the fact that some churches are ‘if you don’t fit our rules or ideas of what a Christian should be, then you don’t belong here’
Do we really think that’s what Jesus wanted?
Is that the kind of people and the kind of community Jesus advocated?
If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, is that the kind of community you’d want to be a part of?
No on all counts. Its not a community I’d like to be a part of either.
And there is hope. Because Jesus advocates something totally different, and much better. Nothing like the religious tradition, full of division, legalism and rules that we have now. Not something that increases the divide between the sacred and the outside world and seems more and more full of religion and tradition.
Oh no. Jesus advocates something radically different, and far more exciting.
Now lets just go back to this idea of seperating the sacred and the common. I think what I have described above is exactly that, isn’t it? Its what our society tends to do.
Another phrase for this would be ‘religion’.
In our culture religion is separate from our ‘normal’ lives, churches (or any religious meeting place) are Holy places where everyone behaves a certain way. Even non-Christians when they visit have a certain reverence and respect. For example, telling people not to swear in church – as if God isn’t anywhere else and its okay to swear outside because He won’t ‘hear’ you. Even Christians do that sometimes when visiting big churches on tours (trust me). Force of habit in some ways.
Religions are separate from ‘normal life’ and places of worship are separate from ‘normal life’. The curtain is well and truly up, seperating God and sacred things from the outside world. Religion is private, separate from everything else. Including, unfortunately, Christianity, which is so religious its untrue.
So lets see what Jesus says to all.
Well first we only have to look at His ministry. Does He stay in only the religious, sacred places with the religious people? Does He preach only in places of worship – in Israel’s case, the synagouges?
He preaches and teaches largely on hillsides,fields, by the river, in boats, by a well, at parties, to ordinary people in their ordinary everyday lives. He did preach in synagouges too, but not the majority of the time. He performs the first communion in a persons home, without liturgy or ceremony.
Now check out this, from Luke 6 v 1-4 where Jesus’ standpoint becomes pretty clear:
“One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath [Jewish day of rest]?”
Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what [King]David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”"
Jesus is saying a lot here.
He is removing the distinction between the sacred and the common, and saying the common can be the sacred, and sacred can be the common. They are one and the same. David ate what only the sacred people were meant to eat, because he was hungry, and gave some to his companions. David and his companions were hungry, exactly as the disciples were.
So the sacred becomes the ordinary, and vice versa. David brought what was sacred out into the open, to the ordinary.
Jesus is breaking down the barriers of legalism, of seperation between sacred and common, the rule that says that God must be restricted to the temples and that things must always be different in there from everywhere else.
Here’s another example of this, from Matthew 26 v6-12:
“While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper [which says a lot about what Jesus wants of us in itself], a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial”"
Washing your feet was a mundane everyday, common thing, not sacred at all. The disciples wanted to take the perfume to the temple and sell it – in a religious, sacred place – but Jesus told them very clearly that what she had done was a sacred act.
Again, bringing the sacred into the ordinary, and making the ordinary sacred.
Nearly done with the Bible passages now. Jesus just keeps on coming with this idea, see Matthew 25 v 35-40:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.The righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King [Jesus, speaking in third person] will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
This is crucial.
Jesus is saying here that whenever you serve someone least in our world – poor, homeless, needy – or a criminal, a drunk or someone we don’t like, our enemies – we have actually been serving Him.
We have, in serving someone at the bottom of the tree, actually been performing the sacred act of serving Jesus -the highest of high, the one called the ‘Great High Priest’.
The sacred again becomes the ordinary, and the ordinary the sacred.
There is no division. None
There is one other point which I think is crucial here, and I have alluded to it already.
The temple curtain.
This was a very important symbol of seperation between the sacred and the common, keeping God and the sacred within the temple, certainly metaphorically and symbolically speaking. It was very thick and difficult to tear, made of strong high quality material.
Only the very righteous, holy people, the priests, were allowed to go beyond it into the presence of God, and even then not very often.
What happens to the temple curtain when Jesus dies? It tears apart.
Now how much more symbolic and obvious can you get?
The barrier, the dividing line, the symbol of separation between God, the sacred and the common, the ordinary and the unclean is torn down…forever.
Its pretty clear what Jesus is saying here, and it all this has significant implications for how we do church, and for how we preach and teach.
You see, Jesus is clearly implying in all these passages that He doesn’t want us to become internalized, exclusive, or like some members only club. He doesn’t want us to act Christian or talk Christian only when we are at church. He doesn’t want us to use a different language when we’re in church -though of course some terminology is unavoidable.
He is making clear He doesn’t want church to be something which is inaccessible to those who haven’t been before or don’t know much about church, or to become a little ‘in club’ where only people who go regularly get it, and which bears no relation to our lives outside of it.
This is huge.
Teaching and preaching takes on a whole new dimension. It cannot be any longer about keeping people in. It should never have been. Or keeping people out for that matter.
No, preaching and teaching needs to be a method by which people are trained, equipped, and empowered to live out the truths of Jesus in a very practical way in the world we live in. To interpret the Bible and communicate it relevantly, and to show what it means practically in the world and culture we live in. To send people out more equipped to live as followers of Jesus in this world. Not just to talk about Jesus, but to enable people to live out their faith more relevantly in their everyday lives, to put the teaching into context for the world we live in, to give us understanding to take with us into the world.
The role of church is to have a community where people can learn these things in a safe context, but one where they can be challenged and encouraged to find their true identity.
A place where people can share their struggles and experiences of living like Jesus in the world with others in the same situation, and to get support and accountability.
A place where people who know nothing about Jesus can go and understand exactly what we’re talking about, and understand fully what Jesus is about, and where all are welcome as they are, to discover the way of Jesus.
Come as you are culture needs to be the norm, not the exception.
Yes, we keep traditions like communion – this is symbolic and reminds us of what Jesus has done, challenges us, convicts us and inspires us. It helps us to take Jesus seriously – and we’ve been commanded to do it by Jesus Himself. We celebrate Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. We keep the church calendar, to keep us orientated around a different story.
But there have to be serious questions asked.
What is the role of litergy in this? It sounds traditional, it sounds religious and often it only serves to confuse unbelievers with its language, to separate us from the world and to make us more religious, more legalistic and stuck in the realms of tradition. It is in danger of becoming something ‘for church’ only and which doesn’t connect us at all with reality.
I’m not calling for an end to liturgy – it can help people connect with God, very clearly, and can be very powerful and moving – but in the light of this the questions need to be asked.
Why do we keep liturgies, and what can we do with them to make them more accessible? Are they just a religious tradition, are they necessary for us to connect with God and do they help us to live out our faith practically in the world we live in? Or do they make us more religious, more distant from the world we live in, and make us irrelivant? And if people do experience God through them, then how can we use them yet not alienate people or make people feel like they are stuck in a religion from the past or that is irrelivant to their lives now?
One thing is very clear though. As clear as day.
Jesus doesn’t want his followers to be members of a religion.
End of. He doesn’t want us to separate the spiritual and the sacred from our everyday lives.
He doesn’t want us to distinguish use phrases like ‘in church’ and ‘in the world’ to separate them as if they are different. Life is about following Jesus, all of life can be sacred, God is involved in every single part of our lives.
Rob Bell made a good point in his sermon, when he asked the question of why we commission people who are leading churches or becoming missionaries, but not commission people starting a new job in a non-Christian environment, where they will equally be serving God and missionaries?
Jesus says there is no difference between the two, and so should we.
Christianity is not meant to be a religion.In any sense. Jesus wants an end to that.
Following Him is not meant to be a religion. Not at all, never should have been and never should be.
Jesus is a way of life, not a religion to be a part of. Church in the same way is not an institution, tradition or exclusive group.
Its not a club to be joined or a posse to be a part of. Its a community of followers of Jesus, meeting together to learn how to live an everyday life for Jesus and serving and blessing each other, supporting each other in that life, and helping people engage with reality as followers of Jesus. Open and ready to welcome new people who are exploring this new way of life, whatever their background or history. Living, serving and acting in love, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness and with justice, in harmony and at peace with each other.
It makes so much more sense doesn’t it?
Getting rid of religion and making our faith, purely and simply, a way of life that is relevant and important in everything we do.
And church as a community of these people learning this way together and supporting and serving each other as they try to do this, a place where we learn more about how to do this life, and and end to legalism, rules and religion causing problems and restrictions.
A faith and a community much more how Jesus imagined for us and practiced with His followers.
Church in the best and truest – and non-religious – sense.