'Religion is a human effort toward transformation that will make us acceptable to God, make us godlike ourselves, or negate our personhood so we can become one with cosmic forces. Dr March asks, "Why should there not be a diversity of religions?" The reason is that religion is about human striving to achieve and create purpose apart from the grace of God through Jesus Christ. The distinctive nature of Christianity is that grace comes through Christ alone, even despite our best efforts to make it otherwise. God doesn't want any religions! God wants a wide, wide diversity of people with varieties of languages and cultures all accepting grace, to be free from striving, and living in relationship with God. How will they know saving grace if they are not told of Jesus? Grace isn't just meant for the afterlife. It is meant for the here and now so that we may see the presence of God's justice and mercy "on earth, just as it is in heaven." ' -- Michael Kruse responding to the book 'The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity' by W. Eugene March.
What strikes me about this quote is that it lays at the heart of my struggles. The book in question isn't just about diversity. It's about pluralism. The author (Dr March) believes that Christianity is just like all other religions. And he compares the different religions to the diversity of birds or flowers. And this is what gets me -- somewhere along the line of history, the church has become 'just another religion'. When did this happen? Read the NT again, particularly the book of Acts and the letters of St Paul, and you will find that the apostles were not starting another religion. Far from it. They were announcing 'good news'. Another religion is not good news. Quite the contrary, in fact. The world of the first century was chockablock full of religions, just like the world today. They didn't need any new ones then and we certainly don't need any new ones now. (And are there really any 'new' religions? See Ecclesiastes 1.9) The early Christians were not teaching a new religion. They were proclaiming a new king. The rightful King of the cosmos. They were telling people near and far that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel's Messiah and the world's true King. It was not about leaving your culture and 'religious expressions' to adopt the religious views of some new thing. It was about trusting, loving, allegiance to the King. If the culture wanted to worship this King, this Lord, the One True God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, pretty much any way was open (with some exceptions, of course). That was the whole point of Romans 14, in fact. The Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were splitting because of the way they worshipped and the way they lived (note that). St Paul was bringing them back together with simple guidelines on fellowship and worship. That is what diversity -- not to say anything about 'tolerance' -- looks like.
This is my struggle. We, as the church, as those who acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as the world's true King, need to reclaim this 'truth', this 'gospel'. We need to tell the whole world that there is another King, named Jesus. The US is not king. The EU is not King. The OU Sooners are not king nor is their coach. More seriously, the government is not king. That is something that strikes me odd in this day and age within the church. It seems that too many of us look to our government for direction more than our true King. And that bothers me. We should be proclaiming with one voice, 'We have no king but Jesus!' But, alas, we don't. Why is that? Is it because, as I have noted above, that we view Christianity as just another religion? YHWH help us if that is the case.
I think a better way of looking at this phenomena is to take an example from the Native Americans here in the US. They are their own sovereign government. They are their own nation within the United States. Christians should be like that. We should act like that, think like that, live like that. We are acting too much like the Israelites when they demanded a natural king like the rest of the nations. (See 1Samuel 8.4-5.) When Jesus announced that 'the kingdom of God was at hand' he was saying that YHWH, the god of the Jews, was becoming king. That the reign of god was coming 'on earth as it is in heaven'. And the amazing thing was that it was happening with and through Jesus of Nazareth! Why don't we live like this? This is not about a 'religious experience' but about honoring the King of the world! It doesn't matter if we believe Jesus is King or not, he IS the King. Period. The question becomes will we obey the King? Will we do as our King asks? If not, then it becomes an act of treason. We are told to give up our way of life and accepting his way as the way of true humanity. This is what Jesus meant when he said,
'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news' (Mark 1.15 NRSV).
Paul put it this way,
'Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.' (Acts 17.29-31 NRSV)
Even Josephus used this idea when he wrote, when confronting a rebel during the Jewish / Roman War, 'Repent and believe in me' In Greek, 'metanoesein kai pistos emoi genesesthai'. (Life of Flavious Josephus; 110). This is not some inner spiritual experience that Josephus was talking about. It was complete change of life and thinking. It was the laying down of one way of being and trusting Josephus in his way. That is what Jesus meant. Jesus meant a lot more than this, but I don't think he meant any less.
The point is this: the 'good news' that Jesus and the apostles (as well as the rest of the early Christians) proclaimed was that people everywhere lay aside their way of thinking and being human and trusting Jesus in his way of being human. This isn't just about religion. It's about the whole human life. Why should we trust and believe the way of Jesus is better, more human, than ours? Just look at us! We're a mess! If we read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) we would see the subversive way to be truly human. At the time of Jesus there were at least three (3) ways to be Israel: Separatism (withdraw from society and live a separate holy life), Compromise (keep your convictions to yourself and make friends with the opposing groups), and the Zealotry (say your prayers and sharpen your swords and prepare for a holy war). Jesus came on the scene with a completely different way. And this is the scary part (for him and us) -- if Jesus and his way of being human is the right way, then the others can't be. And we know what happens when we say our way is the correct way and everyone else's isn't . . . crucifixion. When we start challenging our world and their agendas as to what true humanity looks like, we should expect no less than misunderstanding and abuse. But that just brings us back to the whole mindset of being a part of YHWH's kingdom -- 'turn the other cheek', 'go the extra mile', 'love your enemies', 'lose your life to find it'. I won't quote all of what we call the 'Sermon on the Mount' here but I would encourage us to go read it (Matthew 5-7) with this in mind: Those statements are not some new rule book. They are a mind set. They are a way of life. The way to be truly human.
The fact of the matter is Jesus of Nazareth is the worlds true King. YHWH proved this when Jesus was raised from the dead. The 'good news' that was preached and taught and believed by the early Christians was that the world now must follow it's rightful king. It has nothing to do with a new religion. It has to do with a fact of history. Should we do away with the religion of Christianity? Perhaps. But I am saying we need to redefine what that means. It is a place where people come to worship the worlds true King.
But, Jesus is more than just a king. He is the very embodiment of YHWH, the creator god. In some of our most earliest documents from the first century, we find this:
'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers?all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.' (Colossians 1.15-20 NRSV)
So, while Christianity may be a religion, it is most certainly not just a religion. The good news is much more holistic than that. It impacts every category of human existence. Furthermore, it impacts every category of the created world. It is the means by which the creator god, YHWH, implements his new creation in the world. And the great part is that we can all be a part of this vocation! We all have parts to play! It's is much like a musical score or a play or a movie.
Yeah. That's it. A movie. Suppose we were looking through and antique store and among all the stuff we discovered an old movie script. As we read through it, we come to the conclusion that we need to make this into a movie! It was wonderful! Beyond anything we had every seen or imagined. Immediately we go out and get us a director -- some one who won't change the script but follow it to the letter. Next, we start looking for actors. We start holding auditions. However, we soon discover that we don't have any of the 'stuff' to make a movie -- props, location, extras, lights, special effects, etc. So, we open up our auditions to include all of the other 'stuff' too. We start looking for construction workers, electricians, travel agents, etc. And the cool part is that we don't look for these people in the normal areas. No, we start looking for them in the most unlikely of places. The small towns that no one thinks of when making a movie. Of course, along the way, we upset the 'establishment' and how 'they' think movies should be made. But that's okay. Even 'they' are more than welcome to join us in this adventure.
I could go on and on. But I hope you get the picture. That story was what I see when I read the New Testament. I see Jesus 'discovering' a different 'script' in the Old Testament. He then set out to make that movie and was going about looking for people, all the wrong people, to help him make it. To be a part of what YHWH was doing. it was time for that movie to be made. As you think about this, surely you can see that this means so much more than giving up private sins and 'getting religion'. It was a call to a whole new way of life. To a whole new way of being human. The greatest thing about this is that the auditions are still open. At any time, at any place, we can join the cast of the greatest movie ever.
May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.