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Is Jesus “Religious”?

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” – Mark 13:1-2

All my life I just assumed that Jesus is a religious figure, the founder of Christianity. And why wouldn’t I? We Christians are definitely part of a religion, and our practice of Christianity absolutely falls under the definition of religious.

This is the weird part, though: When I sit down and actually read the Bible, I don’t see Jesus behaving in a religious way. Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees, who were some of the most devout, religious people around. He visited synagogues and broke all the rules from the pulpit. He even had the nerve to disrupt the operation of the Temple, the holiest place in the Jewish world.

The first followers of Jesus didn’t act very religious, either. The Christians who were Jews were thrown out of the synagogues for having such a warped theology. The non-Jewish Christians were viewed by their fellow gentiles as atheists for refusing to pay homage to the emperor and the pantheon of local, national and imperial deities. The early church looked a lot like their Master – turning the religious world upside down and scaring the daylights out of the civil authorities.

And this is where it gets complicated. For Jesus and the first disciples, there wasn’t a neat distinction between the religious and the political. In the ancient world, all of life – religion, politics, economy – everything was mixed together. The Jewish Temple wasn’t just a house of worship; it was also a center of economic activity. Imagine the New York Stock Exchange housed in the National Cathedral. It was like that.

In our culture today, it’s different. We’ve separated out explicit faith in God (or gods) from the day-to-day activity of our lives. Religion becomes an optional add-on to life, a life-enrichment activity like water aerobics or a baseball league. In short, religion becomes innocuous, an auxiliary to the real business of life.

Based on my reading of the Gospels, I believe that Jesus would be even less interested in our 21st-century religion than he was in the rule-following piety of the Pharisees or the imperious injustice of the Sadducees. As off base as they were, at least there was some practical import to their doctrine; what they believed had an impact on the way society operated!

Golden Calf in Metro - Washington PostI have a tough time imagining our modern-day houses of worship as the site for Jesus’ prophetic witness. I think he’d want to be where the action is – in the lecture halls of universities; on Wall Street in corporate boardrooms; on the internet; maybe even in the halls of government! The last place I can imagine him showing up to make an impact would be at worship on Sunday morning. Our services just aren’t relevant to the flow of history anymore.

Then again, Jesus always does defy my expectations. Maybe he would show up on Sunday, to call us back into the path of discipleship with him. But one thing is for sure – he would not play into our spiritualized religious narratives. He would not deliver a sermon on the importance of inviting him into our hearts. If anything, he’d ask us to let him out of our hearts and into our lives!

What would it look like to walk out of the sanctuary with Jesus? Where would he take us? What kind of trouble would we get into? In our culture where religion is often disconnected from action for real transformation, what does it look like to become like Jesus and the early church, who were turning the world upside down?

  • James Breiling

    And if we let Jesus “… out of our hearts and into our lives …(,) how would we be thinking and what would we be doing? The best answer is in the teachings and conduct (behavior) of Jesus. A lot would be different. Just one example. Prayer. We would, like Jesus, take prayer our of church and other meetings and into a private place, and we would be praying the Lord’s Prayer rather than asking for God’s (or Jesus’s) intervention for what we believe is right or best (for an excellent example of why not to ask for what we want, see Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” — available in text and video on the internet).

    From the Sermon on the Mount.
    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

    “‘Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name,
    10 your kingdom come,
    your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
    11 Give us today our daily bread.
    12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
    13 And lead us not into temptation,[j]
    but deliver us from the evil one.[k]’

    14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

  • Joe Snyder

    Thanks for your good words, Micah. This fits right in to where our Bible Study is in the middle of Acts, as we walk with the early church. I’m leaving for Guatemala in couple of days (could use prayers) but have forwarded to the group for consideration. Keep the faith.
    Yours supportively,

  • Marcelle

    Micah, I agree with you that most meetings and churches today discourage rather than encourage people to hear the prophetic voice of Christ. But I do believe that Christ shows up at our worship services and that he calls us into communities of faith, that he was spiritual as well as religious. I had so much to say in response to your post, that I wrote about it on my blog,