Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jesus versus Religion

         Years ago, I attended a meeting for pastors about reaching our neighborhoods.  The leader did something unusual.  She took us to a mall and dropped us off. She said we should approach 10 random people and ask them if they went to church, and if not, why not.  This was in Pasadena, where there are over 100 Christian churches.  It wasn’t in Montrose or on the campus of Rice, so I expected to meet at least someone who went to church.  I didn’t.  People said, “Churches just want your money.  I believe in God, but I don’t need those people to tell me about him.  Churches are full of hypocrites.”  That’s a word that gets used a lot in reference to Christians these days.  In a book called Unchristian, we learn that 85% of young adults outside the church think that most Christians are hypocrites.  47% of young adults inside the church think the same thing.  I wonder how many of the people who use that word know where it came from. 

            Hypocrite is a Greek word.  It originally referred to actors in a play, who would wear masks so that people in the huge theaters could see the emotion they were trying to convey.  Jesus began using that word to describe religious people.  We’re in a series now about the way Jesus changed the world, and how He is still the most influential person on the planet, 2000 years after He walked the earth.  One way He changed the world was in the way we think about religion.  Before Jesus, it was assumed that religion was purely external.  Just do certain good deeds, avoid certain vices, perform certain rituals, and you would be good with God. After Jesus, most people believe that there needs to be some internal transformation, or else those external rituals are meaningless.
            Another way Jesus changed religion is in the way we view God.  The world Jesus was born into was dominated by polytheism, particularly the Greek pantheon of gods.  Most of us remember the stories of Greek mythology we learned in school.  The interesting thing about those gods: They were powerful, but they weren’t good.  Imagine taking a bunch of drunk teenagers at Spring Break, giving them absolute power and immortality, and you’d have the Greek pantheon.  Other cultures were also polytheistic. Their gods weren’t particularly virtuous, either.  Some of them were downright terrifying.  Only the Jews believed that there was one God, and He was good.  The Greeks didn’t believe religion could make you good; if you wanted to become moral, you spoke to the philosophers, not the priests.  You spoke to the priests if you wanted good luck.  Jesus taught that knowing God was the only way to truly become good.  Today, ethical monotheism, or the belief that there is one God, that He is good, and that those who know Him best should behave morally, is the dominant belief system of our culture.  That came from Jesus. 

            But I want to focus the rest of my time on a third way Jesus changed our thinking about religion.  He changed the way we look at those who are outsiders to our faith.  This, more than anything else, is what made people hate Him enough to crucify Him.  This, more than anything else in my opinion, is what still separates Jesus from all religion, even much of what calls itself Christianity today. This Sunday, we will take a look at Luke 13:10-17, one of many stories in the Gospels that shows the stark difference between Jesus and organized religion in terms of how they treated outsiders.  We'll look at the three biggest differences, and ask which one we are more like.  

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