I wrote a line recently that made me reflect (even more than I usually do) on my current life path…
“The biggest opponent of religion that I’ve ever read about was Jesus.”
It’s one of those lines that just… came out. Unexpectedly. And as it sat there on the page staring defiantly back at me, I knew that it wasn’t budging. I don’t even know if the delete key would work on it.
The hard thing for me is this: I believe that line. AND I’m also on a very ‘religious’ vocational path towards ministry in the mainline denomination of the Lutheran church. Should things work out, I’ll be wearing a clergy collar, chasuble, etc. in a traditional church. The liturgy in the Lutheran tradition, like many denominations, varies from ‘low church’ (not a lot of bells and whistles, vestments, icons, etc.) to ‘high church’ (much like a Roman Catholic mass). The end I’m gravitating towards is the ‘high church’ end.
So, out of one side of my mouth, I’m saying that Jesus wasn’t ‘religious’ (a big word to unpack, right there). And out of the other side of my mouth, I’m proclaiming my love for ‘religion’ (in the Christian sense, which isn’t authentically Christian, but we’re splitting hairs here). What’s the deal?
Well, this is one of those divine paradoxes. It’s two polar opposite things being held in one hand. This is a quality (aka: contemplation) that we must foster if we’re going to follow Jesus’s message. He was hardly ever binary (’either-or’ thinking). Rather, Jesus was almost always a ‘both-and’ kinda guy).
Here’s how this shows up as far as the Christian ‘religion’ goes. It’s a fascinating concept (if I do say so myself)…
When Jesus was young, he was actually quite religious. There are stories in the Bible (one in particular that I’m thinking about now in Luke 2:41–52) that speak of him as an adolescent sneaking off to hang out in the temple with the elders learning and arguing about scripture. The elders were quite impressed with this kid’s scriptural prowess. Jesus’s parents yelled at him for being there (an odd way for parents to react to their pre-teen son hanging out at the Temple, indeed). But, as he argued back, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”
The story quickly jumps to his public ministry during his 30s. Now, a quick disclaimer: this is not a researched argument, but I believe that prior to this point (perhaps in his teens and twenties) Jesus must have gone through a period where his faith was challenged and deconstructed (and, more importantly, subsequently reconstructed). I say this because, in his 30s, when his ministry started to gain attention, he wasn’t teaching and preaching around or at the Temple. He was doing his work in the desert and more remote areas (with the occasional appearance in various bigger cities). When he referenced scripture, he typically misquoted it. But this wasn’t out of ignorance. Again, Jesus was a scriptural phenom. This was his midrash — in Jesus’s Judaic tradition, it was common to ‘play with’ scripture. To hold it with a loose grip so as to mold and shape it into the creases and crevices of life.
If we fast-forward to early Christianity, we see that it was largely a faith that took place in rural settings and (mostly) around dinner tables. Early Christians faced persecution from the Roman empire, which pushed the faith even further underground.
And then, it happened…
In 312, Emperor Constantine had his ‘epiphany and conversion’ to ‘Christianity’. I put those quotes there because the ‘Christianity’ he adopted didn’t resemble the Christianity touted by the apostles in the Gospels. Rather, Constantine saw Christ as a God who would help him rule over the land (in other words, the Christian God was going to help him kill his enemies). This served as spiritual fuel to Constantine’s thirst for power and he ended up dominating with it. He later made ‘Christianity’ the religion of the state.
HOWEVER, under Constantine, this dinner-table faith took on the trappings of the empire. Giant fortress-like churches were erected and clergy was adorned with statesmen-like vestments. Somehow as if by a fluke, the simple desert tradition of Christianity that was initially about God’s love for humanity through Jesus and the outflowing love for neighbor made its way into the palace, so to speak.
Yes, Christianity got twisted. Big time. It was often used as an excuse for a lot of human horribleness — including the mass killing and plundering of a lot of marginalized people.
THAT BEING SAID… The Gospel of Jesus made its way into the palace. Yes, the humanity surrounding it still stood in its broken boldness. But the Gospel. Was in. All because of a crazed warmonger who opened the gate to it. I see the Gospel as the little peaceful warrior inside the fake Trojan horse of the Chi-Rho (the so-called Christian symbol that Constantine ruled with).
So, when I sit in my church on Sundays and stand as the cross is processed up the middle aisle, yes, I see a religious ceremony taking place. I see religious vestments and liturgical choreography inspired by the violence of the Roman empire. But in the middle of it all, I see the cross — the true symbol of Christ (not the Chi-Rho) that metaphorically proclaims, “It is finished.”
In the traditional liturgy, we have a thin outer shell of legalistic religiosity and empire; but the living heart that beats underneath that dead outer shell is a living and breathing God that only loves and redeems.
Somehow, Jesus made his way into the palace of the empire. And though the empire died long ago, Christ still lives on.
I look at the church (with exception to some, of course) like kids who woke up in the middle of the night and realized they’d been transported into the palace. So what do they do? They parade around in the king’s clothes and walk around like they own the place. In this light, the liturgy takes on an aura of both wonder and even mockery against the serious religiosity and violence of empire (and even religion itself).
In this sense, I’m hopeful for the church and my pastoral vocation. I’ll be happy to parade around in the king’s clothes with a mischevious grin on my face so as to say, “We made it in, friends… We made it in. And we’re tearing this thing down from the inside-out. Let’s wreak some havoc and have some fun as we let people know that the legalistic God they so badly want might appear real in the human imagination but was never a reality to begin with. There are a lot of people who don’t feel welcome at this table. Let’s let them know that they are. (And maybe we should hang on to these clothes because they’re pretty great.)”
This post was previously published on A Sacramental Life and is republished here with permission from the author.
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