In Acts Chapter 17, we find the Apostle Paul is in Greece.
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
In all their devotion, in their religious fervour and practice they were missing something. Paul goes on to explain to them that there is one God, the creator of all, the definer of all. He states:
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it, is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
It’s not about religion. It’s about Jesus, the “proof” given to everyone, and a relationship with Him.
People miss this point. It is relationship that makes the difference. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, and many people in our times think it’s about rules. Look at Matthew 23:23:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Jesus was making it clear it isn’t about legalism, it is again about relationship. He isn’t saying not to do good, but to do it for the right reasons. It is about a relationship based on justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It is not about check lists or a legalistic tick box exercise. Think back to what Jesus said was the greatest commandment of the law: “To love the Lord your God, with all your heart, mind, and strength,” and “to love your neighbour as yourself.” Yes, strive to do what is right, but don’t neglect the important things of relationship. It isn’t about religious laws, it is a faithful spirit and a heart based on loving.
But that isn’t the only aspect of “religion,” that leads us astray. Over the years I have had several students that in their explanations of the acts of Jesus or various prophets, commented that they did “Magic.”
Religion is often laced with this idea of magic. Look at Second Kings 5:
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Notice it wasn’t some elaborate ceremony with incantations, incense, or swinging a chicken over his head that was needed. It wasn’t about show. Magic shows belong in Las Vegas, not in our hearts of love and relationship. The instructions were simple, go be washed.
Jesus didn’t make a show either. He addressed needs. He healed the sick, He fed the hungry. Acts of compassion, not magic. Yet so often people can’t see beyond the miracles to see the true purpose behind them.
In John Chapter 6, Jesus feeds the 5000, and then leaves them. He isn’t just putting on a magic show for the applause. He is showing compassion.
But now we see another problem with a “religious” approach. Religious approaches often centre not on relationship, but “what can I get out of it?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Notice, they are back to the Scribes and Pharisees outlook: “What works?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
It is not in doing difficult tasks, or brave deeds. It is about love and relationship. Matthew 11 says:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We are back to what we noted before, it is about Jesus and a relationship with Him.
The final aspect that shows that it isn’t about religion, is putting trust in the wrong place. Here I am talking about focusing of leaders and titles, rather than on a relationship with God. Those with religious titles, be it pastor, reverend, priest, or even prophet, are still flawed human beings.
In Numbers 22 we find the story of Balaam. Balaam was a prophet. He conversed with God, the passage tells us so. What happens is the king of Moab is frightened by the approach of the people of Israel. He offers to pay Balaam to curse them. God clearly tells him, “No, these are my people.” But Balaam ignores God’s instructions and stands against the people of God. It is what happens next that is the important bit here. Balaam’s donkey resists going to confront the Israelites. In the end, Balaam beats the donkey, and the animal begins to speak. It isn’t Balaam’s corruption, that is my focus, but the instrument that God uses. He uses a humble donkey to teach His ultimate lesson. Trust me, that puts being and minister and theologian into perspective! Let’s sum up then. It’s not about religion. It’s not about the shrines and buildings. It’s not about laws and rules. It’s not about “magic” or what you can get out of it. It isn’t about titles and position. It is about a relationship with Jesus, and with one another.
Padre (preached 9 May 2021)