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?