Tag Archives: baptism

Religion/Ritual bad, Relationship good? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 2]

26 Mar

Is religion automatically bad?  Some Christians are very anti-religion because they feel it goes against the concept of relationship.  But does it? 

Read James 1:26-27, and you’ll see James suggest that religion is not only a viable way to view our connection with God, but that God approves of religion that has a heart for social justice and righteousness. 

Before we study this further, it could be helpful to define the term that James uses. What is religion? The word “religion” is defined as:  appropriate beliefs and devout practice of obligations relating to supernatural persons and powers.”[1] That definition is somewhat different from what we normally think of when we view religion negatively. We think of a ritualistic approach to worshiping God, an approach that is called “dead” or “rote” or “empty.”

Have people ever said to you, “you are very religious”?  In our society, the people who say that usually don’t mean “you are practicing empty rituals”.  They usually mean that you are pious, and maybe even that you have a close relationship with God, or that they wish they could live that way, and that is a good thing.

When we hear someone say to us, “you are very religious,” we might inwardly (or also outwardly) bristle at this suggestion because we evangelicals have made such a big deal of emphasizing that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.  We can react quickly back, “I do not have a religion, I have a relationship!”  But I would suggest that we hold our tongue.  The people we are talking to might have very little idea of what we are taking about: a religion vs. relationship.  They almost certainly didn’t mean to suggest that we are practicing an empty, dead ritualistic approach to God. 

Instead they probably observed our relationship with God, assumed that it is religion because that is how they conceive of Christianity, and thus they were actually complementing us.  So a proper response on our part, when someone says, “you are very religious” would be to say, “Thank you.”  That kind of gracious response is much more likely to open the door to a conversation about faith in Christ, than if we were to respond curtly, “UH…NO!  I do not have a religion.  I have a relationship.” 

Instead, allow yourself to live with their viewpoint, and take their words as a complement, say “Thank you,” and pursue a line of discussion that is gracious and generous and kind, talking about how Jesus has been so meaningful and life-changing and that you have a real friendship with him. 

The other side of the coin is that a ritualistic approach to Christianity is not necessarily wrong.  That is what James is referring to back in James 1.  As Christians we actually do have a religion.  A religion is simply a word that refers to the set of practices that we engage in.  Think about what you do when you gather for worship with your church family. You sit in a room, practicing gathered corporate worship together.  Jesus even commissioned his disciples to regularly practice rituals like gathering for prayer, teaching, communion and baptism.

Many people in protestant evangelical churches might respond, “But we are not at all like the liturgical churches and all their rituals.” 

That is the impression that we have of ourselves.  That we are completely different, and we are right, and they are wrong.  I totally disagree.  Let me explain.  Yes, our liturgy is different than their liturgy. 

I remember when I was on sabbatical and went to the Orthodox church, and it felt like I was a on a different Christian planet. Nearly every surfaced is covered with religious art called icons, and their worship service could be described as highly ritualistic.  But you know what?  Every church that I visited on sabbatical had their own liturgy.  We do too. 

Liturgy is a term that pops up in the Bible here and there, and it simply means “the work or service of the people.”  This is why we call our gatherings “services”.  Used in relation to worship services, “liturgy” carries the idea of what Christian people do, the work we do, of worshiping God.  When it comes to liturgy, there is no one right way.  High liturgy, which features lots of rituals, can minister deeply to people, enhancing their relationship to God.  No doubt, Faith Church is much more on the side of what is called low church, involving less ritual.  But we still have plenty of ritual too.  We don’t print it in a bulletin, but when I preached this sermon, I asked everyone present to describe the order of service we typically use, and they were able to list it out. That order describes our liturgy, our ritual.

But here’s the important thing to remember about our ritual, our liturgy: it is designed to enhance relationship with God!  So both are true, Christianity is a religion, and a relationship. 


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 530.

God’s road construction project [Second Sunday of Advent, Part 4]

13 Dec

Road construction, as we said in part 1 of this series on the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, is usually a nuisance.  Today we learn that God wants to do a major road construction project.  Will it be a nuisance?  Do we need it?  Let’s move to the third reading, Luke 3:1-6, and find out. Who do we meet there? Zechariah’s son, John, now an adult.  Remember Zechariah the priest from the second reading?  Review his story here.  He had a son, John, and now that son is grown up, and we find out that his son is quite a character.   Let’s take a look at how John fits with the readings so far this week.

We start with verses 1-3 which is simply a historical placement of John’s ministry in the First Century Roman Empire, and we read in verse 2 a familiar phrase, “the word of God came to John.”  That phrase is used frequently in the Old Testament describing the prophetic ministry of many people whom God spoke through.  Luke is clearly saying that this John, the son of Zechariah, was a prophet.  He tells us that John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, exactly like his dad, Zechariah, in his psalm Luke 1 which we studied in part 3, said John would.

Luke goes on in verses 4-6 quoting one of those Old Testament prophets, Isaiah 40:3-5, showing John as fulfillment of the prophetic words in Isaiah 40.  We’ve already seen how John was the first messenger prophesied in Malachi 3, and now we hear a bit more about the first messenger’s prophetic task. 

Remember how the first messenger prepares the way for the second messenger?  In Isaiah 40, that ministry of preparing the way is illustrated with amazing images. It is a massive earth-moving project used to depict personal repentance. 

Look at the images in Luke 3:4-5: “Make straight paths, Valleys filled in, Mountains and hills made low, Crooked roads straightened, Rough ways smoothed.”  That is some serious demolition work done by this first messenger. But that’s what you do to prepare the way for the king.  You don’t want the king’s vehicle to be driving down a road with potholes and crazy curves and dangerous debris.

When we lived in Jamaica, we experienced some of the roughest roads ever. But what was interesting was that the road from the airport into the city was really nice.  They took care of that road.  They wanted visiting dignitaries to think that Jamaica had nice roads. 

How does this relate to people?  The first messenger wasn’t a road construction worker with dynamite and a jack hammer, a paver and roller.  Nope, John preached to people a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

The messenger’s ministry was one of helping people smooth out the rough patches of their lives. He encouraged them to get ready spiritually for the coming of the king. That is what the Season of Advent in all about.  And that is what the first messenger was doing to help people get ready for the arrival of the second messenger, the Lord.

Why? As we read in Luke 3:6, so that all mankind will see God’s salvation.  God wants all people to repent and come to him and be saved.  It doesn’t mean that all will.  It is still a free choice.  But God is saying that he desires all to repent.  What that means is our theme continues.  Though the word isn’t used,God wants all people to experience righteousness.

In part 5 of the series, we’ll look at our fourth and final reading, examining how the theme of repentance and righteousness matters to our lives and our world.