“It May Be That Religion is Bad For You. Really, I mean it. Seriously.“
Getting to the Heart of Luke
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
August 4, 2019
A little boy is playing in front of a large pane of glass. He is maybe 4 years old and he is sitting on the ground. He is laughing and is occupied with something on the floor that we can’t really see. His mom is standing just outside of the shot and his dad, we assume, is filming. The pane of glass is level with the ground, and there doesn’t seem to be much out there. We can only see a little bit. Just some dirt and then some tall grass, maybe a couple of feet off the ground. As the boy plays the grass rustles just a little, hardly enough to draw the eye, but then you notice more movement and realize there is definitely something there. And just as you realize there is something there, the head of a lioness emerges from the grass and she makes a b-line straight for the little boy.
As the lioness lunges the boy stands up and recoils, but he laughs as he does so, as do the parents. The glass is there, of course, so there’s no harm done. As I watched this little viral video this past week, I thought about lions and almost every time I think about lions I think about Jesus. I think about him because in C.S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles, Jesus is represented by what? A lion. The lion’s name is Aslan. Long before the children who have entered Narnia have met him, they’ve heard about him. And the most famous comment about Aslan comes from Mr. Beaver. The children have asked if Aslan is safe. His reply has stuck with anyone who has heard it, I believe, “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
I think of that a lot. He isn’t safe. You should not conceive of your relationship with Jesus as something that brings you safety. The truth is the closer we get to Jesus, and the more we conform our lives to his will, the harder things can get for us. I want to say something here about Jesus that I think we don’t consider enough. What does Jesus want from us? Let me tell you, he wants transformation. If you simply sit down and read a Gospel, any of the 4, with as few preconceptions as possible, this is where you will be led. He wants transformation. From the idea of repentance to the notion of being born again, to the call to die to ourselves and live to Christ, the Gospels are infused with the idea of transformation.
And transformation is scary, or at least it should be. Let’s be clear about what we are talking about here. Change is about doing something new, and it is often the word we use when we think about following Jesus. I need to change this or that. But change is not what he’s interested in. Transformation is not doing something different, it is being something different. He wants us to be a new creation. Something entirely different. Transformation has consequences and if we consider our lives to be a process, a pilgrimage if you will, of transformation then we should be not a little bit scared. And if we understand that Jesus is not safe to us in this way, he is not safe if we like the status quo and like all doing and thinking all the things we already do and think, then we can understand why the leaders of the synagogue didn’t like him.
To us, this message can be shocking, but it wouldn’t have been shocking to the synagogue leaders that Saturday morning so long ago. Jesus was there for Sabbath worship, just like every other observant Jew, and then something happened. A woman staggered into the synagogue. She was hunched over and could barely walk. She would have been quite a sight. Luke tells us she had been afflicted for 18 years. Can you imagine that? 18 years of shuffling about. 18 years of sticking out like a sore thumb? That was her. But she was there to worship, or perhaps she had heard about Jesus. Who knows. But Jesus saw her, and he healed her. And that’s where the fun starts.
The synagogue leaders were angry. It was the Sabbath after all, and healing was work. I don’t know if any of us know this anymore, but resting on the Sabbath is one of the 10 commandments, so it was kind of a big deal. This Jesus had just flaunted that. Jesus, of course, slapped their complaints aside by exposing their hypocrisy. He plays on the verbs loose and bound. This woman has been bound for 18 years. Don’t you loose your bound animals on the sabbath so they can drink? If so, shouldn’t she be loosed too? And to top it all off, they were hypocrites. They were religious leaders after all.
Most of the times that Jesus heals someone in the Gospels, he does so with a larger purpose. It is not just to heal the person, but to make a point, and that point often has to do with the failures of religion. Jesus rarely gets angry in the Gospels but when he does it is with the religious leaders. He has more harsh words for them than he does the occupying Roman pagans. They make him irate. He calls them hypocrites numerous times, he also calls them a brood of vipers. He doesn’t care for them. Stories like the one above are precisely why.
And stories like the one above are why we need to be mindful of religion. Religion is not a particularly good thing. If we look back at roughly two thousand years that have transpired since Easter Sunday, then we see lots of failures of religion. Why? Well, if we transpose C.S. Lewis’ image of Jesus as a lion onto that little viral video I saw then it is as simple as this. Jesus is the lion, we are the child and religion is the glass. In the real world, it keeps us alive, but in the metaphorical sense, religion often protects us from the life long process of transformation. In short, religion keeps us safe from someone, Jesus, who is not safe.
Religion serves to reinforce the status quo. Religion narrows the moral parameters of belief to the point where the lives of most of its adherents are not threatened, and it turns the beauty, holiness, and mystery of God into a formula. It does this to protect the power of whatever institution is administering the religion and people assent to it because it allows us to feel good about ourselves without the messiness of transformation. Jesus does not want us to be religious. He wants us to be transformed. He wants us to be something new.
One of the failures of the Church today is the failure to embody this. Now, as much as ever, the world is in need of transformation. For our part, as people who love a particular institution, we need to be self-aware enough to understand when what we do is getting in the way, and when our practices are facilitating the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. When we think that Jesus merely serves as a justification for what we already think and believe we are no better than those religious leaders who sought to shame him that sabbath morning so long ago, but when we remember who Jesus is and who we are called to be, we will find that all that we do, from our worship to our work, to our lives in whole, are under the constant renovation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants to transform your life as much or more as he transformed the life of that woman who could barely walk. He wants to transform you. Every time you worship, every time you pray, every time you open the Bible, every time you step out your door, every morning when you awake and every night when you go to sleep. In every moment of every day, you should understand this truth. In Jesus Christ you are a new creation, the old life has gone and the new life has come. Don’t be afraid, in your life, to remove the glass. Amen.