Monday, May 17, 2004

Out with Religion, In with Jesus

John 5:1-18(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 16, 2004)

Our Bible lesson for this morning shows Jesus picking a fight to make some important points for our lives.

As it begins, we find Him walking on one of the big porticoes of the Jerusalem temple. It’s by the Sheep Gate, the entry into the city through which lambs brought there for sacrificial slaughter are herded. There is a natural pool at a place called Bethesda, a name that means House of Mercy.

There is a reason for its name. The water occasionally bubbles and churns. Many think that at the moment when it is most agitated, the very first lame, diseased, or blind person who can crawl into it or be thrown into it will be healed. Because of that pool and the legend that surrounds it, masses of people huddle around it at all hours of the day, hoping against hope that at the moment the pool churns they can be the first to receive its mercy.

Like other good Jews of His time, Jesus had come to Jerusalem at least three times a year for the proscribed religious festivals since He was a boy. He has probably walked this very place, surrounded by the lame, blind, and paralyzed, many times. He may have even seen one particular invalid, a paralyzed man who’d been looking for his chance for healing in the pool for thirty-eight years. Our Bible lesson in fact, tells us that Jesus knew that this man has “been there for a long time.” Jesus may have noticed the man and passed Him by before. But the fact is that Jesus chooses this moment and this sabbath day of rest to approach the paralyzed man.

He asks the man, “Do you want to be healed?” Talk about an easily answered question! But the man, perhaps understandably, doesn’t answer Jesus directly. He begins to whine about years of being elbowed aside just when he needed to be thrown into the water. Jesus ignores the man’s flood of words and simply commands him to stand up and pick up the mat on which he’s been living all these years. The man does so. He doesn’t stop to thank Jesus. Instead, He walks away as the watching crowd surrounds Jesus. In the house of mercy, the man seems to simply take this miraculous gift for granted.

Soon we see another reaction to this miraculous sign of Jesus’ love and power. Unaware perhaps of who the man is, they ask him what he’s doing. It’s the sabbath day, a day for rest and here he is doing work, lugging his mat around. “You can’t do that,” he’s told, “it’s against our religious traditions!” Instead of honoring Jesus, from whom he’d departed in such a hurry, telling what an amazing blessing Jesus had given him, the man says, “It’s not my fault I’m carrying this mat. The man who made it possible for me to walk told me to do it.”

But Jesus has done exactly what He set out to do. He has picked a fight with people for whom religion was more important than knowing and following God. He has demonstrated His power to bring the healing and help of heaven even to an unworthy ingrate, a man whose selfishness and penchant for taking blessings for granted remind me of myself, frankly. But Jesus has also made this very important point: If we’re going to have the life He wants to give, we need to be willing to give up on our habits, our traditions and instead, follow Him!

If you and I are going to follow Jesus all the way into eternity, there are some things that need to change. The religious folks who railed against Jesus that day were unwilling to change. Even the once-paralyzed man was unwilling to change. Jesus found him later and warned him that unless he turned from sin, something worse than paralysis would befall him: he would be separated from God forever. But after hearing that warning, the man runs to the religious authorities to rat on Jesus and thereby act the part of “a good religious man.” Jesus shows us here that there are some things that need to be changed all through our lives with Christ.

First: We must change our attitudes. Faith in Jesus Christ isn’t really a religion. Faith in Jesus is the heart and soul of a new relationship with God. When we turn from our sin and allow Christ to be the ruler of our lives, He changes us. He makes it possible for us to grow in our relationship with Him and to begin to live as human beings were designed to live: in love for God and love for others.

I was presiding at an outdoor worship at a park once. A man came before the service was to begin and sat down for a second in the front row and then left. I asked him why he was leaving. “There’s no cross here. How can we have worship when there’s no cross?” It was all I could do to bust a gut. For centuries, the Church worshiped without a cross where they gathered. In fact, throughout the early years of the church, the cross wasn’t their central symbol; it was a fish. But the man left in a huff, convinced that all our prayers and praises sung to God were meaningless because we hadn’t erected two hunks of wood in the shape of a cross. He valued a symbol of our faith more than he valued intimacy with Jesus. Others value the rules and norms and rituals of faith more than they value Jesus. Some value certain ways of singing and doing liturgy more than they value Jesus. These are all the ways of religion. They cannot give us the freedom from sin or the freedom to live as God's children that only comes to those with faith in Jesus!

Really committing ourselves heart and soul to Jesus Christ is a far more difficult way to live than is the religious way. In religion, people try to shove the God we meet in Jesus Christ into a little box from which they pull Him on Sunday mornings or when they really want something from Him.

They also think that unless you do certain things in a certain way, God won’t show up. Don’t carry mats on Sunday, they may say. That way, they think, by “being good,” jumping through the right hoops, God will be forced to favor you. Religious traditionalists suffer from the delusion that by following proscribed rules, God will be forced to bless them. They never bargain for how much God wants to bless them. Jesus is the living, crucified, and risen proof of that!

These religious folks are really atheists in the sense that they’ve made themselves gods and turned the God of the universe into a kewpie doll they can control. They don't really trust God; they trust and worship themselves.

When we look at Jesus’ earthly life, we see that He kept those traditions that allowed Him to love God the Father and to love His neighbor. Otherwise, He bagged tradition. To follow Jesus, we need to change our religious attitudes into Jesus attitudes.

We also need to make another change in our lives. We need to be people of action, sharing God’s love always. Once Jesus enters our lives, He stirs us to new ways of living. Sometimes, Jesus may call us to take dangerous actions to follow Him. He certainly did a dangerous thing when He flouted religious authority to heal the lame man!

Roland Hayes was the son of ex-slaves, born in Tennessee in 1887. In Chattanooga, where his mother had taken Roland and his siblings following the death of their father, the family sang in the church choir. One day, the choir director played recordings by two of the most famous singers of the time, Enrique Caruso and Nellie Melba. When Roland Hayes heard the recordings, he was so moved that he later said, “I believe that God has called me to sing a message of peace and brotherhood around the world.”

Many years later, in spite of the odds against a black person in the early twentieth century ever achieving anything, Roland Hayes was on the brink of becoming a celebrated concert singer. In 1924, he was booked to sing at a great hall in Berlin. Success there would set off a chain reaction of engagements throughout Europe. En route to the concert though, Hayes was called to the United States consul’s office in Prague. He was told that he would need to cancel his concert in Berlin. The French had just taken over the Rhineland from Germany and were using American blacks as an occupying army. The consul was certain that no black-skinned man would ever be accepted or be safe in Berlin at the time.

But Roland Hayes prayed about it and decided that he could not cancel the concert. Ringing in his ears was the advice his mother had always given him: “Roland, you can do it if you believe you can and if you give your life to God.”

On the night of the concert, Hayes and his black accompanist entered the Beethoven Concert Hall from the behind the stage, so as not to be seen. As the curtain went up, Hayes prayed, “God, make me a horn for the Omnipotent to sound through.” But when the audience caught sight of Roland Hayes, the hall filled with hissing, catcalls, and insults. People were trying to shout him off the stage. His accompanist suggested that he and Roland Hayes should leave. Standing, with his hands folded, Hayes prayed again, “God, what shall I do?”

And then he had an idea. He whispered to the pianist, “Let’s begin with Beethoven’s This is My Peace.” The audience listened attentively as Hayes finished that song, sang several more classical pieces, and then ended with spirituals and plantation songs. At least for that night, Hayes did sing a message of peace and brotherhood, just as he’s dreamed of as a boy. He went on to become one of the most successful concert singers of the twenties, thirties, and forties. Later in his life, he was on the faculty at The Ohio State University.

We need to be ready to take a chance for Christ all the time. This past week, I ran into Cynthia Petrie, formerly a member of the West Clermont school board. She and I and a number of others in the community had been asked to act as judges for the senior exit action projects at both Glen Este and Amelia high schools. If you know Cynthia, you know that she’s a person of deep faith in Christ. We were talking about the things that can scare us in this life and as we parted, she said with a smile, “When you know where you’re headed, nothing in this life should really scare you.”

A person with an attitude like that can face anything in life and can accomplish a lot because he or she simply aren't afraid of failure. Failure is temporary. Setbacks are temporary. So are illness, poverty, and even death. The follower of Jesus Christ can dare to love God and love neighbor extravagantly and recklessly, knowing that our past is forgiven and our future is secure. We belong to God forever! We live each day knowing that whatever the world may say, we have God’s acceptance and power for love living in us!

Jesus tells us quite directly in today’s Bible lesson that He and God the Father are one. Jesus is God in the flesh. That being so, it simply makes sense to follow Jesus and to pay heed when He calls us to turn away from religion as usual, to change our attitudes and let Him be the absolute God and Lord of our lives. And it makes sense, that we become people of action, who put hands and feet, toil and commitment in our confession that Jesus is our God.

Let’s be people of changed attitudes and changed actions. Let’s be people through Whom the love and power of Christ shines always! Let’s leave religion behind and let Jesus be our leader!

[The story of Roland Hayes' concert in Berlin in 1924 is told compellingly in Robert Schuller's wonderful book, The Be-Happy Attitudes. I learned more about Hayes from a Google search on the web.]

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