There have been a number of studies about why young people are leaving the church or just staying away from church. As it turns out, Jesus is very attractive to many of them. Religion, well, not so much.
For example, there’s a YouTube video making its rounds on Facebook called, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.”
As the title suggests, the video starts with a very common theme: Some people who say that they believe in Jesus don’t act like it. Eventually, the man who produced the video—Jefferson Bethke (or Bball1989)—will have to admit that he is actually a member of the club he is criticizing. Let me be the first to welcome him.
But Jefferson’s more fundamental point is worth serious consideration and calls for an honest response. His point is this. Just because you are religious does not mean that you are following Jesus.
|Rembrandt’s Driving the Money Changers from the Temple|
Jefferson is right to point out that Jesus only uses harsh words for the religious leaders of his day. Much of what Jesus had to say about the religious organization of the Temple was critical.
Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson concludes from this that Jesus came to abolish religion. Even though Jefferson says he loves the church at one point in his monologue, it’s pretty clear that he has nothing positive to say about organized religion, and that he means something like church when he says that Jesus came to abolish religion.
Jefferson is confusing two things: a kind of religious attitude on the one hand and faith communities on the other hand. Jesus did come, among other things, to abolish a certain religious posture. But he also came to establish a certain kind of faith community.
As we will see, today’s Gospel (John 1:43-51) helps us understand how to follow Jesus as an individual, but that we cannot do it alone. We have to do it as part of a faith community. Following Jesus is a group project. But first, let’s get clear about that religious attitude that Jesus came to abolish.
Some individuals and some faith communities assume an attitude that we’ve been calling religious. But to be clear that we are talking about an attitude and not an organization, let’s call it something else. I’m going to borrow a term from the liberal commentator Bill Maher and call that attitude religulous. The term “religulous” combines religion and ridiculous.
What I mean by being religulous looks something like this:
Unwavering certainty about what is right and what is wrong in all situations.
Confidence bordering on smugness that you always choose the right thing in life.
An air of superiority over those with whom you disagree.
And last but not least, the conviction that the excellence of your moral performance is the key to your salvation.
It is true that Jesus was not interested in being religulous. But some people make the mistake of assuming that the problem with the religious leaders of his day was their devotion to the moral law. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Following Jesus involves following the moral law. But the key is to follow the law in the right way. You have to pursue the law for the right reasons. Religulous people pursue the law to save themselves and perhaps to be better than other people.
There is another way. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute, but first let’s turn to the Apostle Nathaniel’s initial encounter with Jesus. That story will help us understand how to follow Jesus by obeying the law.
Nathaniel teaches us that to follow Jesus means to follow him inside and out.
|Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (Fig Tree Detail)|
Listen to John’s Gospel:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (John 1:47-48)
Nathaniel and Jesus had never met before this. And yet Jesus knows two important things about him.
Sitting under the fig tree indicates at least to some readers that Nathaniel is studying the Law and that it is bearing fruit in his life. He seeks to live righteously. Jesus acknowledges that Nathaniel’s conduct is blameless.
But Jesus does not stop there. He also sees that Nathaniel is “without deceit,” or as another translation puts it, “without guile.” Jesus discerns the very core of Nathaniel’s character. His heart is in the right place.
His conduct is righteous, and he has a right heart. He does the right thing for the right reasons.
Let’s turn to Matthew’s Gospel for a moment to hear what Jesus has to say about the Law, and that will help us understand more clearly what it means to obey the law and to follow Jesus inside and out.
For starters, let’s remember that Jesus did not come to do away with the moral law.
This is what he says: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:17-18)
Think back for a moment to the idea of being religulous. Jesus is doing nothing of the sort. His aim is neither to win God’s approval nor to gain moral superiority over slobs like us.
Jesus fulfills the law in order to grow in love for God and to grow in love for his neighbor. In fact, that is exactly what he teaches later in his ministry when he gives us what we call the Summary of the Law:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)
We take the Summary of the Law for granted today, but it was radical in Jesus’ day. Faithful Jews led their lives by following the Torah: the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch. It contains 613 laws.
Rabbis helped people obey these laws by doing what rabbis today call building a fence around the Torah. In other words, they multiply the laws. They formulate lesser rules to follow so that, by following them, you can be certain that you are not breaking one of the 613 laws.
The prohibition against dancing in some Baptist congregations (found only rarely these days) is an example of building a fence around the Torah. Physical intimacy is proper only in the context of marriage.
Dancing, on this view, is a kind of gateway activity to physical intimacy. To dance might lead you to be more familiar than you should. So, no dancing.
Jesus saw that multiplying the Law defeats the purpose of the Law. The Pharisees heaped so many additional rules on people that people found it impossible to follow them and so felt themselves distant from God. At the same time, religious leaders like the Pharisees sometimes succumbed to the temptation to feel morally superior to normal folks. The point of following the law is exactly the opposite: to grow in love of God and neighbor.
|William Bouguereau’s Compassion|
Rather than multiplying the law, Jesus summarized the law. He did not eliminate any of the laws or say that law is not important. Instead, Jesus said that obeying the law alone is not sufficient.
How we obey the law is also crucial. We must obey the law in such a way that it leads us to love God and neighbor more.
It is entirely possible to obey the Law and resent God for thwarting our desires or think that he owes us one because of our moral achievements. Analogously, we can condescend to others whom we perceive as morally inferior when we obey the Law and they stumble or simply struggle.
Following Jesus means to make sure that we obey the law for the sake of love.
Jesus certainly came to do away with religulous attitudes, but today’s Gospel shows us clearly that this actually means forming faith communities, not doing away with them.
Following Jesus is personal, but it is not private. Following Jesus is a group project. Just look at this Gospel. Jesus is gathering around himself twelve apostles. The number twelve represents the wholeness of the twelve tribes of Israel: the people of God.
The church is the people of God, the people gathered together to follow Jesus. And we follow him precisely by being a community that loves. We love God. We love our neighbor.
We are not a resort for morally perfect saints. We are a hospital for broken but redeemed sinners.
Do we get this wrong sometime? Of course we do. And it grieves me that people like Jefferson have been hurt and alienated from the motley crew that is the church.
But our failures do not mean that we should close up shop. On the contrary, they remind us who we are.
We are the ones who desperately need mercy. And precisely because we know that we have received it, we are just the ones best prepared to show it to the world.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on January 15, 2012.