Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Religion vs. Relationship

Almost a week ago, I ended a post (see January 4, 2018) with this question:

So what was God's original intention, if not for us to be good people? What is the good news of Jesus all about, if not rewarding us with heaven?

One of the biggest, most serious problems afflicting the church is that we work very hard to make Christianity into a religion. In fact we have succeeded to such an extent that nearly every authority would grant that Christianity is one of the top four or five of the world's major religions. 

Does that seem odd? 

The trouble is, Jesus never started a religion. He was part of a perfectly good preexisting religion, namely Judaism, that had all the pieces a religion needs. And even at that time, two thousand years ago, the world did NOT need another religion. 

Read the gospels carefully and you'll discover that Jesus was far more interested in fostering relationship -- namely, relationship between God and people, but even going beyond that, between people and other people. Playing off the traditional religious structures of Judaism, someone asked Jesus what the two greatest commandments were. (The Jews of Jesus' day spent unimaginable hours debating the commandments and their relative importance.) Jesus' answer goes right to the heart of what he was all about: First, love God with everything you are. Second, love your neighbor like you love yourself. Both of these commandments are relationship-building. That was Jesus' priority. 

If, as the Bible claims, Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God (see Colossians 1), then it stands to reason that God's intention for humanity would be reflected in Jesus' priorities, teachings, and actions. So if Jesus never set out a moral framework -- remember, Judaism already had a perfectly good one -- but he did focus on relationship with God and relationship with other people, then that should somehow reflect God's original intention for humanity. 

My thinking on this went through a significant transformation a number of years ago when I started reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Ethics. I got as far as the first page and got stopped by a pretty simple idea. Here's the simple idea that sprained my brain pretty badly: 

God created humans for relationship with himself, and only through knowing God would we have any appropriate sense of right and wrong. If we try to know right and wrong apart from knowing God, we are repeating the mistake of the Garden of Eden all over again. 

So on the first page of Ethics, Bonhoeffer basically says there's no such thing as Christian ethics. 

It's all about knowing God.

In fact, Bonhoeffer talked near the end of his life (as he was imprisoned by the German Gestapo, smuggling letters out to his family and friends) about what a "religionless Christianity" might look like. And he contrasted what a religious man, say like John the Baptist, might look like compared to a non-religious man like Jesus. Wow. 

Re-re-re-read the gospels all over again, and you'll find this theme of Jesus being all about knowing God dominates something fierce. At the outset of his "high priestly prayer" as it's sometimes called in John 17, where Jesus not only lays out his own understanding of his mission and prays for those who follow him, he defines eternal life. He says, "And this is eternal life -- that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Get it? Eternal life is not strumming a harp on a cloud for a million billion jillion years. It's knowing God in an intimate relationship. It's not something that happens after you die, it's a relationship that starts now. And God is not some indefinable abstract being, he is the one revealed in Jesus. 

Getting to know Jesus is God's priority for you. And getting to know God through Jesus is the best investment you can make. That will change everything, if you really put your heart into it -- it will change how you see God, of course, but it will also change how you relate to other people ("love your neighbor as yourself") and how you live in community with others and how you feel about your own moral successes and failures. And guess what, that relationship with God through Jesus Christ will shape your behavior as well, just like any life-giving love shapes the way you behave. It's as natural as breathing. 

But do all of us -- especially yourself -- a favor and don't start with trying to obey a moral code of some kind, thinking that's how you get close to God. It doesn't work. Start with getting to know Jesus through the stories that his first followers wrote down about him. Read the gospels. It's about a relationship. 

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