Sunday, June 16, 2019
Religion is about rules. Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship. What an absurd statement! When you look at the census form, where it says “religion,” Christianity is right there as one of the choices. Doesn’t Christianity have rules?
What does Jesus say about this?
When asked what commandment (a/k/a “rule’) was the greatest, Jesus went straight to the rule book – the Law of Moses found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the first five books of the Bible.
A Pharisee lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment is greatest” (22:36)? Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This was not originally from Jesus. He got this from Moses. He doesn’t say anything about relationship. This is a rule. According to Jesus it is the rule, and if we want to follow him we are commanded to obey it.
Then, he adds a second rule which he says is like the first. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, this is not a Jesus original. He’s quoting the Law of Moses here, Leviticus 19:18. God says there, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” That’s the rule. Why? God is Lord, Master, and God says so. That’s all the reason we get.
A lot Christians kind of ignore much of Leviticus because the instruction is a set of guidelines for sacrificing animals in worship. We don’t do that. Because Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, we don’t kill animals and sacrifice them to show our devotion to God. So, Leviticus is disregarded only to be read by the zealous Christians doing one of those read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans, and they read it quickly so they get to more interesting stories in Joshua and Judges. When Jesus was asked what matters most, he quoted Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He gave rules, rules that were already in place: love God and love neighbor.
So is Christianity a religion of rule, specifically these two rules? So many Christians base their faith on their relationship with Jesus. Is it a relationship? Is it both?
The final core commitment of the Growing Young approach to church ministry is where we will find resolution to this tension. Our church is committed to the Growing Young idea. We’ve spent the last month looking at the core commitments of churches that are growing young.
1. Shared Leadership
3. Take Jesus Seriously
4. A Community of Warm Relationships
5. Prioritize Young People Everywhere
6. Be Good Neighbors
Growing young churches involve young people in leadership. They empathize with the struggles young people face. They prioritize the teachings of Jesus, about Jesus, and the relationship we have with God in Jesus. They foster an environment in which people can develop deep, true relationships both with peers and intergenerationally. They prioritize ministries to young people in all areas of church life. And finally, today’s core commitment: Growing Young Church are good neighbors to the community. This means we strive to help people in our community thrive. We hope many unchurched people will come to our church. We hope many unbelievers will encounter our ministry and through that encounter decide to put their trust in Jesus. Whether they do or not, we want to be a force for God’s good in our community and in the world.
In many ways we are already doing this. Earlier this year, we built a ramp for a family living about a mile from here. We do ramp projects like that almost every year. The middle school a block from here uses our parking lot when they need overflow parking, like this past Thursday when they had 8th grade promotion. We are also the school designated site in the event that an emergency would cause them to evacuate students. Numerous churches in our community use our facility for funerals and banquets. We do charge for some, not all but some, of these building uses, but those who pay are glad to do so. They say our fees are among the most reasonable in Chapel Hill and they love using our space. Our helping hand ministry is there for people in financial emergencies.
These are just a few of the ways we try to be good neighbors. Young people and unchurched people pay attention to the words we speak about Jesus when they see us doing good in the world. Helping kids in Ethiopia get an education and job skills; sending backpacks loaded with needed school supplies and gifts to extremely poor families in Appalachia; hosting big events like Vacation Bible School and the Chinese New Year celebration and inviting the community; inviting the community to our Christmas Eve and Easter services; hosting the mobile dental clinic so low income families can get free dental care: in all these ways we strive to obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
We can improve the way we do many of the things I’ve mentioned. We might add ministries, but even if we just did a better job of maximizing what we already do, it would magnify our effectiveness in showing our town what God’s love is like. All these good works are examples of us trying to obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
When love happens in a way that makes peoples’ lives easier, relationships start to happen. So there it is. Obeying the command is following the rule, but it leads to relationship and in the first place we try to be obedient because of the relationship we have with Jesus. So, Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Right?
It doesn’t really matter to me how it’s defined. I categorize our faith as the Christian religion. I participate in this religion through ritual like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, a holy book (the Bible), and regular worship. I try to show religious devotion to God.
In this religion, which I believe is the path to God, I have found that because my sins are forgiven, I have been adopted as a child of God. God is my Heavenly father, therefor I have relationship with Him. My relationship with God is more important than any other relationship or loyalty in my life. I am my best self as a husband, dad, brother, son, friend, and pastor because of who I am in Christ.
Because of who Jesus is, I want to follow Him. I want to understand and obey when he says, these commands are the most important. The words he speaks in Matthew 22 come in a series of confrontations that Jesus had with religious leaders in Jerusalem in the week between Palm Sunday and his crucifixion on Good Friday.
Different powerbrokers in the government and in the temple felt threatened by Jesus. They tried to control people’s lives and to an extent they succeeded. Then Jesus came along and severely criticized them. Sadducees, Herodians, and Pharisees were kind of like political parties vying for the soul of the nation. They exercised influence through control of the temple and synagogues and through their knowledge of the Law of Moses. Jesus knew the law better than they did. He saw these leaders manipulating people with guilt and threats of expulsion from houses of worship and he wouldn’t have it.
Jesus helped people find their way to God. Through healing, driving our demons, and teaching about the law in new ways, he drew his listeners close to God whereas the leaders who contended against him came between people and God. If we are to be good neighbors, if we as the body of Christ are to help people come to know Jesus, we have to love our community as Jesus loved those who came to him.
When he quoted the Deuteronomy command to love God, he wasn’t talking about a feeling. This was not love as an emotion or impulse. He meant love as a decision. To love God meant – and still means – to give oneself to God with one’s entire person.
Do we do that? How much of you does God get? How much of me does God get? Loving God in this way – the way commanded by Jesus – is a lifelong pursuit. It’s difficult to give oneself entirely to anything: a profession, a romantic relationship, a pastime. He’s passionate about golf. Maybe. To be “passionate” about something is to love so much it hurts. Does he love golf so much it hurts? Do we love God so much it hurts? Are we giving absolutely all of ourselves to God? That’s what Jesus says is the most important of commandments. There’s no option to follow him and have Christianity be a small part of our lives. Loving God the way Jesus says we must is all-consuming.
It is also directly tied to the second great command: love others. Love your neighbor as yourself. Again, the verb Jesus used to describe love indicates love is a responsibility. When we follow Jesus, we have to give ourselves fully to the care of our neighbors. We do this as a community and as individuals. Jesus illustrated the point with his Good Samaritan parable. Anyone you or I come across is our neighbor, one we are commanded by God to love. Loving in this way gets us to “the essence of the way God created humans to live.” We give ourselves to God and others to fulfill God’s purpose for us as the crown of creation.[i] We were made to be in relationships of self-giving love with God and with people. It’s why we exist.
When we come together as a group of Jesus-followers and together commit to love our community in this way, we will show our neighbors Jesus. Seeing Him, some will see their own need for Him and turn to Him in faith. We’ll be a “Growing Young Church.” More importantly, we will be a faithful church and each one of us will meet Jesus in this gathering. We will see Him in this place.
Pray for our church. Ask God to help us grow young and help us increase our love for each other, for him, and for the world right outside our doors.