THE ASH WEDNESDAY shadow on the wall, cast by my own solidity blocking light, generates deep penitence and at the same time a yearning for the “new and right spirit” that God gives. We do not search out our sinfulness in order to indulge in feeling bad but to set ourselves on the path of return. Like the lovable character in the movie E. T., who pointed a glowing finger toward his planet as he uttered his plaintive cry, “Home,” we were created with a deep sense of where we belong. Often alienated, sometimes far away, we find the warmth of the God in whose image we have been made touches us; and our hearts respond with desire for homecoming. Always we find a place set for us at the welcoming banquet table.
– Elizabeth J. Canham
The images, pictures or metaphors we use show us our underlying assumptions (often hidden from us) which drive our religion. Okay, some of us don’t like to use the word “religion”, but that’s essentially what we are practicing, if our complaints about God revolve around unhappy observance of rituals (ranging everything from personal devotions to the Mass). It’s “religion” if our gripes are about getting our belief systems picture perfect, or how we don’t seem to be getting it right (including everything from our strict interpretation of certain passages of scripture to our frustrating attempts to makes sense of “God”.) It’s “religion” when our frustrations with ourselves tend towards the poles of guilt or shame (this happens when we keep on trying and trying but don’t seem to get “it” – whatever “it” is)
We had Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonheoffer over for pizza in the last Church History class. I found their unpacking on “religion” quite helpful.
Karl Barth highlights . important distinctions with emphasis on revelation, faith and God.
“. . .religion is the contradiction of revelation. That which pleases God is not human religiosity but faith in response to divine revelation; revelation that proceeds only and directly from the triune God”
Bonhoeffer sheds more light . . . not the religious act but the way of Jesus.
“It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life, . . . [we] are to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling Isaiah 53.”
One of the author’s that I surprisingly came across since embarking on my less conventional journey in my Christian walk is Robert Farrar Capon. He has a way with phrasing. I think his relevance is most potent to English speaking Christians or even seekers of truth who stuck with seeing Christianity as “religion”.
“For some time now, we’ve been treated to a good deal of heavy breathing and earnest thumbsucking about the plight of the Christian religion and the problems of the institutional church. Almost all of it is wildly off the mark. While it is true that our present dishevelment may well be one of the larger crises (or opportunities) the church has bumped into over its long career, our real difficulty is something else: we have an almost continuous track record of hitting the Christian nail squarely on the thumb. All our noisy hammering to the contrary, the problem is not that we need to get back to the truth of our religion or to get on to some better version of the ecclesiastical institution; rather we need nothing so much as to stop acting as if we’re either a religion or an institution at all.
To begin with, Christianity is not a religion; it’s the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however – the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over, period.
All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices – all the chicken sacrifices, all the fasts, all the mysticism, all the moral exhortations, all the threats – have been canceled by God for lack of saving interest. More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death and resurrection of a Galilean nobody.
Admittedly, Christians may use the forms of religion – but only because the church is the sign to the world of God’s accomplishment of what religion tried (and failed) to do, not because any of the church’s devices can actually get the job done. The church, therefore, must always be on its guard against giving the impression that its rites, ceremonies, and requirements have any religious efficacy in and of themselves. All such things are simply sacraments – real presences under particular signs – of the indiscriminate gift of grace that God in Christ has given everybody.”
– Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History. 1996. p. 1-2
“What role have I left for religion? None. And I have left none because the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ leaves none. Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshipping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see Hebrews), and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever succeed (see Romans). The second is that everything that religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in His death and resurrection. Therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys throughout two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the Gospel proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly”. It is here in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free Grace.” (The Parables of Grace, Eerdmans, Michigan: 2000 p.100)
I could almost see the hands raised, the frowns on the eyebrows, the movement of discomfort on the chairs. “But, Sivin, What about holiness? What about spiritual formation? What about . . . (all the usual stuff we associate with being a Christian)?
Well, starting points are most important, and for me, starting doesn’t mean stopping there. But for many they start and then stop with “religion”. No wonder, following Jesus becomes such a chore. Wait . . . maybe we aren’t necessarily following Jesus when we get our “religion” right or claim to possess the “right religion.”?
Hold on. I’m not saying that obedience and faithfulness is not part of the journey. But the starting point, oh the starting point. Then nothing can really stop us can it? The law and judgment we encounter smacks us in the face all the time. After we are awakened form our slumber or lostness (cf. Luke 15), when the Gospel of grace grabs us afresh, then all this talk on obedience and faithfulness is linked to the origins and orientation around grace and faith. It all sounds like reworking on the sentence structures, but perhaps, the language of faith needs a reordering so we can be truly free?
Our response is always the second step. Second steps are steps where “We do not search out our sinfulness in order to indulge in feeling bad but to set ourselves on the path of return.” The path of return is part of the way of Jesus.
Walking with Jesus is bound to include some chore-like elements, routines, the mundane. When we discover the message of the dream of God, our hearts are ignited with a cause worth living for, and aligning ourselves to. But deep down, the season of Lent reminds me again and again, a season when we we hear the call to come “home” to all that’s important. Our “versions” of Christianity that we try to live out gets rearranged in it’s proper order. It is not about “religion” but about “Christ”. The chores and causes no matter how helpful (sometimes can be harmful depending) fall second or third, it all focused Christ as the center. That is where we belong, that center – the person is whose we belong to. The behaving and believing is still integrated without being thrown out. In fact, both becomes even more focused, fruitful and faithful because it’s an overflow out of the abundance of revelation, grace and faith.
Just in case we forgot, the ashes on our foreheads – a sign pointing to death, reminding us of our mortality, is a sign ultimately reminds us of our baptism where we received (at least in my heritage) the sign of the cross on our foreheads- the sign of new life, the sign of belonging to Christ and his body, the sign of enrolment to the reign of God and the future that has invaded our present.
“Receive the sign of the cross, you belong to Christ!”