Thursday, May 30, 2013

Did Jesus Come to Start a New Religion?

The question that has presented itself to me this week is this: Did Jesus come to start a new religion that would be named after him?

I don't ask the question because I think it is particularly vexing. I ask it because it helps to expose something important about how we not only think of Christianity, but how we be Christians in the world.

Let me say a bit more.

I observe (during twenty plus years now of pastoral ministry in the local church) that the tendency for many Christians is a pattern of over-zealous concern for the pure doctrines (doctrines I might add that weren't set until about the 4th century. Pure?). What that shows me is that many have come to think of the Christian faith as a set of propositions to which we assent intellectually. Others have written much more eloquently about this, but the basic idea is that the definition of a Christian is someone who believes a list of statements about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Bible, as well as a host of other things, and if you don't (or can't) then you're not a real Christian. (Have you ever wondered exactly when the idea of heresy developed?)

How we think about Christianity has to change if we are to experience Jesus, the Risen One, in a vital, life-giving way.

I also observe that the way we think about Christianity leads us to be in the world as Christians in unhealthy ways that ultimately undermines our essential mission: To make disciples of Jesus and to be Jesus' witnesses to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28 and Acts 1). What the being looks like to me is a whole lot of infighting and division, what one scholar calls "intrafaith" dialogue.  In my view, it's a dialogue that actually isn't.  It's more of a family shouting match where people really neither listen to each other nor get much done that Jesus would applaud.

How we be Christian in the world will most definitely determine our effectiveness in being the agents for making the prayer Jesus taught us to pray real in our world: "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6)

And so, what's the point here?

In light of what we know about Jesus in the Gospels, doesn't it seem a bit ridiculous to think that Jesus came to start a new religion? Can't you just hear it? Jesus huddles his disciples up and says to them, "Hey guys. Here's the real plan. We're going to start a new religion to replace Judaism and eventually all the other religions of the world, whether by the pen, the sword, the pulpit, or the apocalypse. Oh, and we're going to name the new religion after me."

So, what did Jesus come to start if he didn't come to start a religion?

Jesus came to announce that something - indeed - new has begun. He came to announce a new kingdom. His terminology may seem anachronistic to us. However, that's more because of what we have done with it. The kingdom for many Christians has become synonymous for heaven, a time and place after we die, when this world is over and all is said and done - either for us individually or in a great puff of fire and smoke in a Left-Behind-like apocalypse.

Something shifts when we think of the new Kingdom in terms of presently making the will of God known on earth, now. I mean, why wait? If we can make the shift - in the way we think and the way we be - it changes almost everything. When we do, then the new kingdom suddenly becomes horizontal, not just vertical. It suddenly shifts to the present tense, rather than only the future tense. It suddenly becomes tangible, and not just spiritual.

So, what is the bottom line?

Jesus came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion. A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion. The good news is about God's faithful solidarity with all humanity in all things. It is about God's compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another - before death, on earth. It is a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as people learning a new way of life, to be citizens of a new kingdom.