This morning, I wonder how many of you could answer the following question if you were on television playing for one million dollars. You’ve already used all of your lifelines. You can no longer poll the rest of the congregation or use your friends at AT&T to telephone a friend.
Which of the following is not a religion?
a. Running Marathons
b. Investing in the Stock Market
c. The Atkins Diet
d. The Christian Faith
Again, you can only choose one. All life lines have been exhausted. Which is not a religion? If you said, “d. the Christian faith,” and that was your final answer, you just won one million dollars!
The wonderful truth about our faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what some may tell you, the church is not in the religion business.
While I was pastoring a church back in 1993, a deacon asked me where I saw myself in twenty years. I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.
He laughed out loud.
“What’s so funny?”
“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere, or playing a college professor in a TV commercial. I don’t think you are going to be a pastor.”
“Why do you say that?”
He said, “For one thing, pastors are generally religious people. And you, my friend, are not very religious!”
What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not in the religion business. The truth is, the last thing a Christian pastor should be, is religious.
Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion. This comes from Robert Capon.
Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.
William Willimon has said:
Religion is the human attempt to get a handle on the key to life, to plug in to power, to find the program that leads to happiness, meaning, self-esteem, or whatever it is that gives a person life.
And the strange thing is: that key, power or program may have absolutely nothing to do with God. Before my knee surgery, Lori used to say that I ran religiously. She has said that I read Runner’s World magazine like I read the Bible. I read it religiously every month, trying my best to run faster, achieve good health and look better so I can enjoy the good life!
We have all observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the Wall-Street Journal religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows the Atkin’s diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”
The truth is many of us are doing all we can do, working out, eating right, studying, going to work, following a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! We do it for ourselves, but we also for that something which is beyond ourselves: low blood pressure and cholesterol, smaller hips, a house on the river, for that something which will grant us fulfillment and satisfaction. So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.
However, for some of us, religion is all about God. There are those of us who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. Religion is viewed as something that people work at in order to have a correct relationship with God. If we can say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then we can be right with God. If we can conduct our lives based on high moral and ethical standards, we can place ourselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.
Willimon says that the bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion. No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right. For years I had been following the advice of Runner’s World magazine by eating salmon every chance I can got for those omega three fatty acids for my heart. I used to eat the stuff all the time. Lori once said she thought I was going to turn into a salmon. Well, in an issue not that long ago, I learned that if the salmon is not caught wild, straight from the ocean, it will probably give you cancer. Turns out, the farmers who raise the fish feed it these food pellets which are laced with cancer-causing chemicals. No matter how hard we try, we can never get it right.
They used to say that eating bacon and eggs every morning will make you fat and kill you. Now, they say it is that bagel which is going to make you fat. They used to tell us we could get thin by snacking on rice cakes, now they tell us its best to snack on pork rinds. We can’t win! Religion is always a one-way ticket to failure.
Take the religion of golf. You master your irons and start slicing with your woods. You drive long and straight with your driver, hit your iron and land on the green in two, and then you three-putt. That is part of the reason golf is so addicting. It is a one-way ticket to failure. You make a bad shot and it makes you mad. You make a good shot and it makes you mad, because you wonder why you can’t hit it like that every time!
The truth is: at religion, the harder we try, the greater we fail. We can eat all of the right foods and exercise every day of the week and still need knee surgery.
We can place all of our time and energy into our careers, going to work early and leaving work late, and still be unappreciated and miserable.
And when you finally arrive at the place where you think you have it right with God. You finally believe you have got it right in the ethics and morality department, guess what? It usually leads to pride and arrogance. I had a church member tell me one day, “I am the most humble person in this church!”
Sure you are.
The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to religion. Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies. Think about it: I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly have to be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.
No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my sin is still going to get the best of me before I can get back to my car. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”
In contrast to the posture of the priest who is always standing, notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting. “When Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. In this great gift of God’s self, God put religion out of business. And now, Jesus is sitting down.
Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God. We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ. This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing this set of principles or that set of ideals, that biblical interpretation or this style of worship. It is about believing and following the Christ.
That is why we call it the gospel. It is good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged. Praise God, in Jesus Christ, this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God the church has gone out of the religion business! If it hadn’t, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!
This is why extremist or fundamentalist religion is wrong and dangerous, whether it is fundamentalist Muslim religion or fundamentalist Christian religion. Religious extremists believe that their salvation and the salvation of the world is dependent on the laws they believe, the laws they teach and the laws they obey. That Is how they can justify shooting people in a marketplace, in a school, or in a church, or blowing up a plane, a restaurant, a theater, an abortion clinic or a building with a daycare center. And this is how they can justify creating a fuss if others do not believe as they believe. They believe it is their God-ordained, religious duty to force their beliefs on others to keep themselves right with God.
The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, creating a fuss, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. The work of religion is out of business. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us.
Think about that. Because I know that are some of you who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. You have never professed faith in Christ through baptism because you are waiting until you somehow get it right yourselves. You’re busy running back and forth to altars of good heath, right conduct and correct thinking. I invite you to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invited you to take a good look at Jesus this morning.
There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]
[i] Inspired from a sermon written by William Willimon.