Monday, May 17, 2010

The Problem with Religion

Scripture appointed for the 5th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

If religion has a public relations problem, it may be the perception that religion takes the raw produce of spirituality and processes it into institutional cooking. Takes, that is, the sparkling dance of human spirit and divine Spirit and puts it in a box, trying either to preserve it or to tame it.

What the soul dislikes and protests is the turning-hard and unyielding of what is by its nature soft and fluid. The Church’s doctrine, worship, and leadership can trap the soul like a bee in amber, like a fern planked in the shale of a fossil.

And when this happens, as seems too likely and too frequent, the Church’s concept of its work and mission may be to serve itself rather than the world. Its point of fascination may become more a looking for God’s presence in the Church than a recognizing of God’s presence in the world.

These risks are inherent in the very root of the word. “Religare” in Latin is “to bind back”, as in staking a sapling to grow straight. A close English word, new to me, is religate (the emphasis is on its second syllable), meaning to tie—to sew up—a vein that is bleeding.

Why mention that? Because human needs play a large role in shaping religious practice and experience. “Religare” is just what’s needed when we’re being blown about by life, or when we’re bleeding out, feeling drained dry.

So the first definition of religion in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is: “a state of life bound by religious vows, the condition of belonging to a religious order.”

Bound, order, belonging, vow… these are powerful words that may evoke mixed feelings as you hear them. Consider just one of them: bound.

A swaddled infant may feel secure, a sick person may take to his bed—but we want neither of these bindings to be permanent. Respect boundaries because, like good fences, they can make for good neighbors—but misuse binding laws to regulate the crossing of boundaries and, as we see in Arizona, you threaten the basis of a free society. Bind a sapling to a stake to help it grow straight, but when it comes into its own, cut that cord and pull that stake. Celebrate the binding-together of two people in holy matrimony as they become one—but what’s to be celebrated when one oppresses the other, or when one neglects the other?

In religion, as in all forms of culture, customs bind people to keep doing certain things in certain ways. There may be good reasons for this repetition. What is familiar may help us feel comforted, centered, put back together again. What is done faithfully may confirm our confidence and help unite us to God. And there are bad reasons for repetition in our practice of religion. Unexamined habit, prejudice, superstition, and ignorance explain some customs that bind people in their religion.

The story of Peter’s vision takes us to a time when the first Christians expected that what they were doing in following Jesus as Lord would make their age-old religion freer, more powerful, better at fulfilling the law and the prophets. They were eager to help God renew their religion, but they did not expect God to create a new religion: the council of apostles in Jerusalem, nearly all the original team hand-picked by Jesus, were quite certain that God expected them to keep observing the basic customs and requirements of the old law belonging to the old religion.

It appears that Peter was slowly parting company with them. Last Sunday, we heard the story of his raising Tabitha from her deathbed. Tucked into that story is the detail that in Greek her name was Dorcas. What sounds like a footnote is big news: Peter has just ministered the healing grace of God to a Greek lady, there in the port city of Joppa, where ships from many countries docked. This report might have made the apostles nervous on two counts: by tradition, he wasn’t supposed to be alone with a woman not related to him, and he wasn’t supposed to be associating with Gentiles.

“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” the apostles press him, responding to yet another report of Peter’s missionary work. Peter was pushing the Jesus movement outside the Jewish religion, and the apostles didn’t yet know that this could be God’s doing.

Peter explains his actions by describing a vision he had, there in Joppa. This took real chutzpah, standing before the apostolic council that he belonged to, saying to them, “I think you’re too rigid, and here’s why: I had a vision.”

What he saw was like an inverted parachute being lowered from heaven, containing all sorts of birds, animals, and reptiles which were not lawful to eat, according to the laws of the old religion. Someone’s voice calls to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!”

Is that Jesus’s voice? Peter calls him “Lord”. But on the heels of this vision, Peter says that the Spirit of God spoke to him, and in the New Testament sometimes the Holy Spirit is called “Lord”. Either way, the apostles’ eyebrows are up to their hairline as they hear all this, for Peter is insisting that God has directed him to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside the old religion, and when Peter obeyed, the Spirit of God was poured out on those Greeks just as it had been given to the apostles.

Now, if one visionary experience isn’t enough for us today, we get two. In our second reading we hear the famous story of the revelation to John the Seer on the island of Patmos. He sees a new heaven and a new earth, and the holy city of God coming down from heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

How often is it that you and I hear about new paradigms, and the imperative to think outside the box? Social networking has reached even our older generations (who knows, it may even reach me some day). Conferences are held and columns written about the impact of social networking on the Church’s life and mission.

We have set loose, this spring, a new Website for St. John’s, a thing of real beauty as well as a bearer of information and inspiration. We’re showing it after worship, this Sunday and the next two, on the big screen in the library.

“See, I am making all things new,” says the voice from God’s throne in John’s vision.

Don’t these two vision stories make you wonder how the Christian religion could get so bound-up in doctrine, tradition, and social attitude? Doesn’t the Spirit of God constantly move where it wills? Aren’t we required to learn, not just how the Spirit moved in times long past, but how that Spirit moves right now?

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That’s Jesus speaking to his home team, the same ones who years later would grill Peter for stepping out of bounds by loving too freely, too broadly, too indiscriminately.

“The Spirit told me not to make a distinction between them and us,” Peter responds.

Peter gets it, comprehends how radical this new commandment is, and forever will be. Peter, who cringed by the seashore when, three times, the risen Jesus Christ asked him, “Do you love me?” And three times Jesus instructed him, “Then show it by feeding my lambs, by tending my flock, by feeding my sheep.”

Peter no longer needs to cringe.

He recognizes the sovereignty of God’s love and bears the freedom and the burden of being bound to the Spirit whose mission field is the world.
This Spirit who teaches not to make distinctions between “them and us” needs to be heard and followed as this nation finds just ways to reform immigration law.

This Spirit who would unite them and us calls political parties to reach across the aisle and the sad history that divide them.

In this tragic decade of terrorism and counter-terrorism, this Spirit is calling all people to learn to walk in the way of understanding.