How does a Christian comment on all the religious issues bedevilling the news at the moment?
Christian court rulings. Contamination of halal meat. Even gay marriage, I suppose, though there’s a lot more to that.
It can become very complicated. And controversial.
But one dimension is very simple. Following Jesus Christ is not a religion.
Yes, yes – I know that it’s listed as such and has been referred to as such for centuries. But that doesn’t make knowing and following Jesus of Nazareth a religion. It’s spiritual right enough. Absolutely. But not religious.
What am I on about? Take recent issues about what Christians wear. Or what Muslims eat. Or what Christians eat and what Muslims wear. Those are religious issues. Like the question of women priests. Or getting married in church (whatever your sexuality).
Eating certain things, drinking or not drinking, thinking some days, some people, some clothes are more special – all these relate to a code of behaviour. Some religions have stricter rules than others. And in most there are groups that try to be stricter still. Sort of ‘holier than thou’ attitudes.
Following Jesus isn’t like that. Paul – writing to a group who were being critical of other disciples – was at pains to explain that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Or it shouldn’t be like that.
The problem is that often churches and other religious groups have wanted to keep their followers in line. Maybe for protection. Maybe for control. So they’ve set up rules. And enforced them.
All that Jesus ever said ‘Come to me. Spend time with me. Get to know me. I am the way. In me you find how the world works. How to get life right.’ Not a religion but a relationship.
That requires contact with him. Time spent in prayer, for example. Not necessarily asking for things. Often just listening. Becoming familiar with the spirit of Jesus.
Of course, it’s much easier to have a policy. An agreed statement on what ‘your group’ thinks. Trotting it out on demand is easy. Which is why so much that comes out of equality legislation works like a religion. ‘Thou shalt not do this’. But being correct according to ‘the policy’ is a killer. It destroys relationship. It stops you seeing a person for who they really are and the situation for what it really is.
It takes wisdom to do that. And patience, perseverance, gentleness. Love.
All the things that we are encouraged to ask God for. Things that are characteristic of the Spirit of Jesus.
Interestingly enough, those characteristics in a person actually succeed in achieving the aims of many sets of rules – such as the ten commandments that Moses brought.
But, as the Israelites discovered, you can’t actually get those characteristics through following rules, through religion – however good it is.
So I find it a bit pointless to talk about it.
And prefer to talk about Jesus.
By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church, and lives and works in Worthing.