“Mr. De Graaf, do you think Jesus hates religion?”
I’d just spoken at a local Christian high school chapel and was now meeting at Panera with 16 kids who had questions about my talk, when this question was asked. In case you’ve been in a coma for the last month or so, there’s a YouTube video by a young rapper Jefferson Bethke entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”, that has been viewed by over 19,000,000 people!
If you have kids or grandchildren the chances are they’ve watched it too, and if not I’d suggest watching it with them and then discussing it. This is what is called a “teachable moment” – an amazing opportunity to help shape their Christian worldview.
So, here’s what I told them.
Is Bethke right?
I don’t think Jesus hated religion. But he was wary of some aspects of it and we should be also.
I told the students at Panera this story. Two years ago I got a call from a sixty year old guy calling from the hospital. I’d met with him every four or five years for almost twenty five years trying to talk to him about Jesus. But he just wasn’t buying it – too busy to bother with God. Now he was dying – cancer – maybe three to six months – could we talk?
An hour later I was sitting with him and his wife. “We’re not really religious people”, his wife said, a little sheepishly. “Good”, I said, “then we won’t have to fix that problem”. “But, I thought you were religious that’s why we called you,” “Well, I am religious but I’m trying not to be.” I went on to explain to them that I’d really like to talk to them about Jesus, not religion or church.
What religion was Jesus?
In James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword, he tells of his Catholic seminary professor who routinely asked his incoming students this question, “What religion was Jesus?”
Some were convinced that Jesus was Jewish and of course, being a descendant of Abraham, that’s true. But, the professor would point out that Jesus disobeyed many of the Sabbath traditions, ate with gentiles and sinners, touched unclean people and caused disturbances at the temple. In fact, his righteous indignation at the hypocrisy of the “traditions of men” or religion, as observed by the religious leaders was open and obvious. Ultimately, he was killed for being such an irreligious Jew and claiming he was God. Still other students would argue that Jesus was Christian. Others thought Jesus was Catholic, the first Catholic.
The professor came to the conclusion that Jesus really wasn’t religious, and I agree – at least not religious as we think of it. He left us with two supreme commands. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” Luke 10:27
I believe any religious practice which truly leads us to loving God and our neighbors more, we ought to fully embrace and observe. When and if it becomes routine, repetitious and legalistic, we ought to stop doing it or change it, with these caveats: There are certain practices Jesus specifically commanded us to do, such as communion, baptism, prayer, giving, obeying God, fasting, etc. which are not optional. We must do them. But, even in those areas, there may be different ways they can be expressed, observed or obeyed, that will inspire us to love God more and care for others better.
I remember a few years back the elders in my church decided to change how we served communion, from passing the bread and juice in trays to having people come forward and receive the elements directly from the elder or pastor. Judging from some people’s reaction you’d have thought we’d just stomped on the Bible. However, for many others this change in our routine jolted them out of their lethargy and the fact that they were given the elements directly by a person rather than simply taking them out of a tray made the sacrament of communion far more personal to them.
There may be other very good religious practices which have developed into religious habits, numbing us to true worship. Jesus himself in Matthew 6 warned us of three very good religious practices, prayer, fasting and giving, that if our motives were wrong could actually be a sin.
Why do we do this?
Most of us “do” Christianity and church like we’ve seen it done and we just go on automatic without ever asking, “Why am I, or are we doing this? What does God think of this? Is this even in the Bible, or have we just drifted into certain practices and behaviors, because that’s how we were raised, or that’s what Christians we observed were doing when we came to faith?”
We need to ask a lot more questions like that and actually encourage our children to do the same. Christianity today has developed many “traditions of men” such as rules for Sunday behavior, worship forms and music, the idea that church attendance, encouraging giving to institutions, rather than taking personal responsibility for the poor.
Some of these traditions have taken on, “thus saith the Lord” status and are unthinkingly assumed by a church or Christian culture, that this is what God wants and this is how good Christians ought to behave and it’s a sin, or sacrilege if we don’t. Jesus himself warned the religious leaders when he said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Mark 7:8
I’m willing to concede that most of our own religious practices, or preferences probably began with the best of intentions and may still be good and beneficial to us. If they lead us to loving God and others more, then we should fully embrace them. If not, we should either reform, or reject them. Christ never asked us to be religious, but only to be his followers, or imitators.
Kevin De Young in his January 13 blog does a great job of addressing what Jesus thought of religion, as well as some religious practices Jesus observed. You ought to read it at: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/?s=jefferson+bethke However, theologically correct answers don’t satisfy young people today. That drives us older Christians nuts but we can either spit into the wind and possibly lose our young people over some non-essentials, or begin where they are.
So, ask your children, “Are there things we do in church, or are there rules Christians have that are confusing or appear hypocritical to you? Is there anything you’ve observed that might cause you to not be a fully committed follower of Jesus?” Then either explain to them why you or other Christians have adopted that practice or admit there could be a problem.
That day in Panera there were nods of agreement and plenty of issues they wanted help with understanding. I had simply put words to what they intuitively felt. It always helps if we can concede the obvious to win the right to be heard on the larger issues. Now I could move on to discuss how they ought to embrace some spiritual practices without trashing religion. Next week, in Part II of this blog, I’ll jump right into it.
How about you?
In preparation for next week, I’d like you to think about this question: Are there some very good religious practices that you’ve elevated to “thus saith the Lord” status in your family or church? (I’ve found it’s easier to get kids talking if you can first relate some practices you’ve thoughtlessly been doing that you may have to reconsider.)