How often have you heard the phrase “it’s a relationship, not a religion”? How about “I’m spiritual but not religious”? Maybe some of you have said it or posted it on your Facebook. I have heard those phrases a lot, and I’ve used those phrases a lot.
Confession time: I’ve come to the conclusion that that phrase is lame and not helpful.
Yet, even now when I hear that phrase it is tough for me to respond in the moment. Like a classic introvert, I cannot gather the right words in the moment to rebut this phrase. I get what the individual wants to say, but it’s dangerous to their faith. It’s dangerous because Christianity is a religion in addition to a relationship. Let me explain.
Peter declared in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus replied, affirming what he said. Jesus then went on saying, “Upon this rock I will build individualistic relationships.”
Oh wait, that’s not how it goes? Hmm, let me get my New Testament out. Oh, it says “upon this rock I will build my church.” Well this is an interesting moment. Jesus is saying here upon this rock (the rock is the affirmation of Peter for Protestant readers of Scripture, or Peter himself for my Roman Catholic friends) the church will be built.
(*Puts on nerd glasses*) Church in this sentence is the Greek word ekklesia. Ekklesia is a gathering or assembly. So what Jesus is communicating is that upon this bedrock foundation a gathering of saints and a group of redeemed would be formed (*takes off nerd glasses*). In other words, Jesus wanted a community not just a relationship.
Jesus instituted a religion, an assembly of believers. The Book of Acts follows this pattern as well. Take a look at the imperfect early church, they were a group of Christ followers in community. A new religion was formed in spite of mistakes and infighting.
Christianity is both spiritual and religious. It is both deeply personal and dynamically communal. The church is a work in progress, it was so from the beginning. Imperfections are bound to arise wherever humans congregate, including followers of Jesus. But the glorious truth is that God works in his church, daily molding them into the image of Christ. We connect to God and others in the institution of religion and relationship. It is foolish to separate the one from the other, because it will take the Church (the community of saints) to help form a Christian.
You see, my dear friend, God redeems not just individuals who say the sinner’s prayer. No, he is redeeming a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [they] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are God’s people; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (I Peter 2:9-10). The Lord is looking to redeem a people, not just a person. As Michael Horton would put it, “he does not simply want a few outstanding trumpet players who ‘wow’ their adoring fans, but an orchestra where the attraction lies in the harmony.”
A robust relationship must take place within the context of a community. So my encouragement is join a community of faithful followers of Jesus, and be part of the community of the redeemed. We need you.
As I sat in the rows of an Anglican Church on Ash Wednesday, I was struck by an idea- those who are in Christ are marked and sealed as a community of the cross. Those in churches who observe Lent and Ash Wednesday receive ash on the forehead as a sign of repentance and our mortality. As I wrote last week,
We are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall all one day return (Gen 3:19). Nevertheless, in the bad news of our condition, we are given a glimpse of hope. The ash placed on the forehead is in the form of a cross, and it is the reminder of the good news that, though we might be crushed by our enemies (as the psalmists often reminds us), we can look to the “founder and perfecter of the faith” for ultimate preservation.
For those who are in Christ, we are sealed as a community of the cross. The ash on our foreheads points us to the reminder that we are shaped by the cross of Christ. Others in the congregation also are marked in the same manner, which leads to the recognition that we are all in life together. We are rooted in Christ and in the community of the Church. We are a people who are shaped by the cross- the reality that Christ was crucified, is risen, and will come again.
Indeed, we are but dust and to dust we shall return. While we have contemplated the ultimate destiny of all humanity on Ash Wednesday, let us also find comfort for being in Christ. For those who are in Christ, returning to dust is but an end to the beginning of the story. As I was reminded in a post by Jordan Ballor at Acton, death will put an end to sinning (Luther once said that while we are here on earth all we can do is sin!). We shall find rest as well, as eternal life transcends the false assumptions of one big harp-playing concert. Life after life after death will be glorious. So take heart, for God shall raise you up in glory from the mortal dust of our bodies!
But for now we wait, and serve the King of Kings, for Christ shall come again. Amen.
“We are not our own; let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own; let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.
– John Calvin
I am not my own.
If I trust in Jesus, that He has justified me before a holy God, then I am included in the family of faith. This declaration does not just stop there, instead I am being sanctified (made into the image of Christ) and will be glorified on resurrection day. In other words, I am a work in progress.
Since I am not my own, I am included in the Body of Christ. Paul used this metaphor to demonstrate that I am found in a community of other Christ-followers. We make up the global Church and are from different ages, ethnic groups and eras. We have different gifts and all can benefit from their sharing. Yes, we have different views on matters like what communion means (is it the spiritual body of Christ or just a symbol?), how we should baptize people (to dunk adults or sprinkle infants?), and how we read Revelation (past, present or future reality?). In all of these things, I am convinced that we need each other, for we are not our own. We belong to Christ.
I am certain that remarkable things could occur if people who call themselves Christians held onto this truth and fully grasped the dramatic nature of this reality. Imagine what would occur if those who are Arminian and those who are Reformed understood that they are united in Christ and learned to truly love each other. Indeed, those who are Roman Catholic are united with Eastern Orthodox and they too considered that they are siblings. To go further, those who wear nice clothing to worship services are united to those in board shorts. Those who prefer hymns and those who prefer loud worship music are joined together. We are one body in Christ, a testimony to reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, male and female, worker and employer. Call me a dreamer, but I believe that all can be united in Christ– I am convinced of this reality.
Only, let us just begin to live that life in love. In Christ.