Sunday, March 25, 2007

Faith v. Religion

[This message was shared during worship celebrations at Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, on March 24 and 25, 2007.]

John 12:1-8
Less than a week before He will be crucified, Jesus is at dinner in the Bethany home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Just a short time before, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. It was this incident, proving Jesus’ dominion over death, that caused His enemies to hatch their conspiracy to kill Him. They couldn’t stand the thought of losing control of Israel’s religious life to this Savior of wildly unpredictable love and grace.

During the dinner, Mary of Bethany does something strange and extravagant. She breaks open an ointment imported from India, the cost of which is the equivalent of a year’s worth of wages. She pours the ointment on Jesus’ feet. In one way, the gesture is like that of a servant, similar to what Jesus Himself would do on the night of His arrest when He washed the feet of His disciples. In yet another way, Mary’s action is like that of a family member anointing a body for burial, the only other time it was deemed appropriate to touch another person’s feet. Mary seems to sense that in heading for Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Jesus is also heading toward certain death.John says the aroma filled the place. What a contrast it would have been to the stench of death that had, just a short time before, filled the tomb in which the body of her brother, Lazarus, had been lain days before Jesus called him back to life.

Mary’s gesture is wildly inappropriate. In those days, in that culture, no woman spoke with a man in public. No woman let her hair down for others to see. And no one but a slave washed the feet of travelers. Judas is appalled! “What a waste!” he says. “This nard could have been sold and the proceeds could have gone to the poor.”

Of course, within days, Judas will betray Jesus for one-tenth of the value of Mary’s nard! Like many religious traditionalists, Judas has a dark core of sin he tries to hide by pointing to the faults, real and imagined, of others. He wants to make everybody as miserable as he is by demanding that they conform to his ideas of religious propriety. When his darkness is bared for the world to see a few days later, Judas' religiosity keeps him from having faith in a gracious God Who forgives and so, embarrassed, he takes his own life. At the dinner in Bethany, Jesus tells Judas to back off: Mary, He says, is only honoring Him and preparing His body for burial when she could.

David Stark, director of a ministry at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, identifies four ways in which faith, represented by Mary of Bethany, is contrasted with religion, represented by Judas, in this incident. I think that Stark is absolutely on the money here and I want to share these four contrasts between faith and religion with you.

First, Stark says, we see that “religion focuses on outward deeds for appearance sake...”; but faith focuses on our internal relationship with Christ. He tells about a time when actor Hal Holbrook did a workshop for pastors and laypeople on reading the Bible in compelling ways during public worship. One participant asked Holbrook to show them what he meant. So, the actor read Psalm 23. When he finished, the place erupted in applause. The man who’d requested the example then asked if he could try. Holbrook handed the man the Bible and he too, read the Psalm. People were now moved to tears by the same 23rd. Psalm. “I’m confused,” someone said to Holbrook. "Why did you get a standing ovation, but this man from the audience without the same skills you have as an actor moved us to weep?” “It’s very simple,” Holbrook replied. “I used my talent and skill as an actor. This gentleman obviously knows the Shepherd the Psalm talks about in a first-hand way.”

This congregation isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I believe that one reason for that is that some people walk through our doors looking for religion, a set of rituals and time-worn habits. But other people come here looking for Jesus, looking for a faith relationship with the Savior-God Who died and rose for us. People see Jesus through our imperfections and our surrender to Him in ways they never could if we were a smells-and-bells outfit.

There's nothing wrong with a smells-and-bells approach to worship, as long as it's done out of a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. But such an approach is a hollow show if it's just a weekly religious exercise!

More than a year ago, a Roman Catholic priest was here with me for a time of Bible study. He’d never been in our building before and I wondered how he would react to our sanctuary. He stood in the back of this unadorned place, looking around. First, he saw the piano, guitars, and speakers. He looked at the screen. Then, the cross. Then, the altar on wheels and the chairs. At last, his eyes moved up to the arches and decking. He remained quiet for an excruciatingly long time. Then, softly but enthusiastically, he told me, “What an inviting space! A person could really worship God in here.”

I later told a member of Friendship about his comments and she said, “I think he’s right. You can feel Jesus in here because the people who worship here really love Jesus.”

Of all the compliments I’ve ever received about Friendship, the one I cherish most came from our dear friend Chris, who said, “When I worship at Friendship, I see Jesus!”

If we were into religion, our building and worship practices would be to Judas’ liking; since we’re into a living faith relationship with Christ, I think that we’re more like Mary of Bethany!

David Stark also says that in our lesson, we see that religion never breaks out of old boundaries and rules, but faith does extravagant things because of its love for Jesus. Mary did what Judas could never imagine doing. Faith gives away more love and devotion than it can really afford!

A few weeks ago, I told you about a man I know who periodically slips some money into the locker of a co-worker going through a tough time. He can’t afford to do that. But he would say, “I’ll give up a few soda pops. Bottom line: I can’t afford not to help my friend.” Faith says, “I can’t afford to not be extravagant in sharing Christ’s love for others. After all, He spent His life on a cross to save me from sin and death!”

Shortly after Easter, we’ll be convening a four-session class called ‘Witnesses for Christ.’ This is the most important thing we have ever done at Friendship. The Church Council hopes that every adult and junior and senior high member of Friendship will participate. “I don’t have the time,” you might say. Especially when there will also be some outside reading and assignments. Maybe you don’t have the time. Spend it anyway. Be extravagant. Spend time you don’t have and effort you can’t afford in order to become a more joyful, confident witness for the Savior Who died and rose for you!

Our Bible lesson also shows us that religion loves ruts of standards and habits; but faith jumps at the unexpected chances to live for Christ that everyday life brings. When Mary awoke on the day on which our lesson takes place, she may have had no idea that Jesus would show up. After all, there were no telephones, no email. She probably had no intention of breaking open the container of expensive ointment. Once she broke the glass of the sealed bottle, she would have to use every drop of the ointment; there was no way to re-seal it. Yet, she did break it open. She did so because Jesus was there in her home at a particular moment, a moment that would pass and then be gone. His death seemed imminent to her. She did for Him what she could while she could!

Faith is always on the lookout for ways to demonstrate the love of Christ when it can. I’ve told the story before of what happened when evangelist and social activist Tony Campolo went to Hawaii for a seminar. One evening before a presentation, he and a colleague walked into a diner that turned out to be the gathering place of prostitutes before and after they went out onto the streets. Campolo began to engage these women in conversation. When it was clear that he wasn’t interested in buying what they were selling, they asked questions about him and his work. He explained that he was a Christian and a pastor.

As they talked, Campolo learned that it was the birthday of one of the prostitutes. No one would send her a card or give her a cake and she would spend the evening in her humiliating trade. Campolo found out that this woman and the other prostitutes all would return to the diner at 3:00 in the morning. So, he and his friend went to a bakery to buy a cake. They bought streamers and hung them in the diner. When the prostitutes returned, they were stunned, especially the one whose birthday it was. "What kind of Christians are you?" she asked. Campolo answered: “The kind of God Who throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning.” What extravagant expression of Christ’s love will you allow your faith to manifest this week?

The fourth thing our lesson shows us is that religion always looks to others with criticism and judgment; faith moves toward others with love. Mary responded to Jesus’ love with an act of outrageous devotion. Judas condemned her for not looking and acting like all the other good folks down at Jerusalem Lutheran Church.

As some of your know, our daughter Sarah called me from Florida the other night. She was excited. "I was witnessing for Christ with a co-worker," she told me. This co-worker, who’s coarse and difficult and sometimes whiny, had turned a lot of people off. Sarah decided to try to befriend her.

Doing that has been tough. But the other evening, the young woman began to ask Sarah about why she was so friendly to her. Sarah was given the chance to speak with her about how Jesus died and rose for all people. This girl asked Sarah all sorts of questions. “It was so exciting, Dad!” she told me. “I was able to really witness for Christ!”

Here, Sarah’s story dovetails a bit with that of Tony Campolo. She learned that her co-worker’s birthday was the next day. So, before heading for work, Sarah went to the closest grocery story and bought a big birthday cake, along with some candles. It was an unnecessary thing for her to do, extravagant given the small income she and her husband are now bringing in. But it made Sarah feel good. It always feels good to follow faith’s call to move to others with love.

Mary had faith. Judas had religion.
  • Mary turned her heart toward Christ; Judas was worried whether others thought he looked religious.
  • Mary moved outside the boundaries of propriety to love Christ; Judas kept his religion within rigid lines.
  • Mary jumped at unexpected chances to live her faith; Judas wanted everything to be done according to some traditional form.
  • Mary moved out in love; Judas lashed out in judgment.
Which will it be for you: religion or faith in Jesus Christ?

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