St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Easter
May 12, 2019
“ALMIGHTY God, who showest to them that are in error the light of thy truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness; Grant unto all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's Religion, that they may avoid those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same.”
EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS recite a sentiment that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. You’ve heard it said, and perhaps share it as a saying that judges other religions and congratulates your own. The definition of religion is not given, ever, but says, without proof, that Religion is man’s attempt to reach God, while Christianity is God’s attempt to reach man, and that therefore, Christianity is not a religion. Is that true? Let’s examine it.
In any debate or logical discussion it’s important that key words are defined. Encarta defines religion thus: “People’s beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life; A particular institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine; or A set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by.” If that’s the meaning of religion, I am not sure we can cast it away. Webster’s says that “Religion includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man's obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man's accountableness to God; and also true godliness … with the practice of all moral duties.”
My own working idea of religion is a system of beliefs and practices that allow us to perceive and appreciate God and to please Him. What we fight here is another definition, one that is seldom given, saying that all other faith systems are merely human attempts to achieve God’s approval, to earn a higher life for one’s self, and to do it by making sacrifices, living by rules, judging others who do not follow your ideals, and considering one’s self better for it. And for certain, such a picture we find in the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ own day. These holy joes of Israel had taken Judaism, a God-given and complete religious system, and turned it into endless rules and symbolic gestures that said you were among the chosen of God. Jesus had the most trouble with these proponents of His own faith.
Of course, real Christianity is not our own idea, just a human invention that seeks to buy God off and make Him owe us eternity. It’s not endless rules and symbolic acts that justify our own meanness of spirit and poverty of soul that virtue-signals to others how holy we are. We Anglicans are not better than others because we pray out of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, though you may find some Anglicans who seem to think that’s the case. No, but the prayers and worship in there are timeless expressions filled with wisdom, scriptural basis, and grace that we perceive that God likes, when practiced whole-heartedly. If you prayed a prayer not found in that book, God would consider it just as good as any other prayer, if it was just as good.
If our faith did not have a system of teaching, understanding and expression, then it fades into the post-modern cafeteria of personal truths and sentimental ideas of goodness without any idea of what we mean when we use the word good. How can you judge between right or wrong if the Christian moral law does not exist? The law that was removed from us, as St. Paul rightly says, is only the Jewish code and seasons of feasting and fasting. If our Christian idea of feasting and fasting, which do exist, become our highest tenets of faith, then we could be creating out of Christianity a human-based religion. Some people do. But we are not so bound by our faith. We practice it freely. If you take a Lenten discipline, good for you. If you don’t, you may be closer to God than we are, and for better reasons. We get that.
But how does the Bible deal with religion? It supports it. If, as I say, we are defining terms and using a classical definition. St. James’ Epistle clearly says, in modern English, that “the person who continues to study God's perfect teachings that make people free and who remains committed to them will be blessed. People like that don't merely listen and forget; they actually do what God's teachings say. If a person thinks that he is religious but can't control his tongue, he is fooling himself. That person's religion is worthless. Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world.” James 1:25-27 GW James considers charity, moved by faith in our saving God, to be real applied religion.
So also St. Paul, dealing with the support of widows by the early Church, admonishes that they “give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God… Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Tim 5:3-8 NIV
Now, I am not denying that any system of beliefs and of worship acts that excludes a living relationship with God can be a very empty and useless religion, and in fact engender pride and intolerance. But the term religion needs some rescuing today because you are left without any classification for our Christianity and our church life, our faith life, if that word religion is defined as bad. The objection may be that Christianity is worlds apart from the world’s religions. It may be asserted that human traditions have done much to harm people and enslave them. Granted on both counts. Let’s agree that our faith is the true one, and that even Judaism, as it is, falls short of God’s promises to mankind.
My father’s Episcopal priest about 25 years ago was delving into the mystique of reincarnation. He told my dad, who told it to me. I asked what my dad thought of it. He seemed to be considering it, for Father Carl was in favor. That was before his third divorce and self-imposed time in a mental sanitarium. So, I told my father this: You know the crucifix over your church’s altar? Why did Jesus die up there? We can’t save ourselves from our sins by ourselves. We need a Savior, right? Ok, in an entirely separate universe, completely different from ours, maybe people are able to save themselves by countless reincarnations, karma, self-denial, and such. But at no point can those universes touch. It’s one or the other. And my dad was all done with Christian Buddhism.
Now if you still don’t like the word ‘religion’ then it isn’t my religious duty to correct your use of language, but it’s meaningless and perhaps misleading to condemn the word.
I meet all kinds of people who object to religions altogether. They say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious. I don’t believe in organized religion.” Frankly, I often reply to that one that, if you can find me an organized religion, then I am happy to disbelieve in it right along with you. I don’t know any organized religions myself. We are all fairly flawed, and yet Christianity, in my view, is the only system that takes that into account. Like the free market economies, there is little regulation, and lots of room for criticism, but it’s the only thing going that allows free people to do the best for their lives and families.
Christianity is not an oppressor, but a liberator. We are free to come to Jesus, to take His life as our pattern, His teachings to heart. His commandments are few, but very important. In fact, He says that if we don’t obey Him, we surely don’t love Him. And it’s love that makes the difference – that creates that saving relationship.
It’s Mother’s Day today and a celebration of that first human relationship any of us ever had. Even if our mothers had left the day we were born, we all spent nine months gestating in her and she gave us life. That’s no small thing.
Jesus said that, "A woman has pain when her time to give birth comes. But after the child is born, she doesn't remember the pain anymore because she's happy that a child has been brought into the world.” Jn 16:21 Childbirth is exceedingly hard and dangerous, but the fruit of it is new life. For that we are thankful to our mother and to God who made us both.
Good mothers nurture and humanize their babies. With their faces, their voices, their expressions appropriate to every moment, they are feeding their eager children with imprinted facial communication that this is joy, this is sorrow, this is expectation, this is yucky. And that is Daddy. Every one of us was imprinted by our mothers and given the first visual and auditory vocabulary lessons in knowing we exist and have our own feelings, needs, and reasons to be alive. Thank you, mothers everywhere.
No one teaches mothers to do that. Some things are innate. Some things are natural. We’ll speak more on that next Sunday. But a mother that is good enough to raise a child healthy, secure, polite and sufficiently obedient, with good judgment of his or her own, deserves our everlasting thanks and love. Honor your father and your mother. If, as a religious belief, that was given by God to us forever, to be followed today even as the Jews were to follow it, then it’s a good thing to do.
We don’t reinvent motherhood. Some are trying to, but will fail. People with bad mothers, or absent mothers, may try to substitute for her, but motherhood is a principle created by God and woven into the fabric of life. Christians may call Christ’s mother Mary their mother, and if that means we are His brothers and sisters by adoption and grace, that is well. We also call the Church our mother, with Christ being our head, thus our father, in that respect. The Church is our mother in that, from its teachings of the ways of God, the life of Jesus, the creed and all that it stands for, its sacramental graces, its patterns that flow with seasons and shape our lives, it gives us spiritual birth and then nurtures us. It’s the God place, the God society, our God encounter. Bishop Morse often said that, if we don’t personally know Christ in our own lives, then we meet a stranger at the communion rail.
If the church is a mere accident of our choosing, having visited all the churches in town and finding this one more entertaining, having better music and programs for our children, a gathering once a week to see friends and sing pretty much the same tunes, well, it may not be a religion, per se. It certainly is not our mother. We may have switched roles, becoming the church expert, the church critic, an epicurean of worship who comes and takes what dainties he wants and leaves the rest. Frankly I’m not a fan of that guy’s religion.
We are strangers and pilgrims in a battle against fleshly lusts and we walk our love of Christ out in a wicked world so that, seeing us, they may behold the reality of God. We don’t have liberty in order to hide our wayward hearts, but honestly confess our shortcomings and openly proclaim our Savior. We are not better than others because we are Christians, but as Christians we bear the light of Christ into a world as dark as we once were. Sure, some churches have less ceremony than we do, some far more of it. What of it? If they honor Christ and not themselves, it is acceptable to Him. Who are we to judge another’s servant?
Religion is not the problem. Relationship, and moreover, love is our goal. To love God with all we are, love others as ourselves, and love our fellow Christians, whether they use the term religion or not, as much as Christ loves us: this is the faith we seek and what we value above all things.