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The Death of Religion?

Today's sermon is based on all three of the Lectionary readings for this Sunday.

these can be found at:


Once again the three lessons set down for this week follow a theme, that develops like golden thread running through all three of them.

The Old Testament lesson, is one of those ones that really makes you wonder why you say “thanks be to God” after it. Because it is harsh, and nasty, and dark, and it just sounds angry! Because it is!

The people of Israel are still in the temple, they are still holding their festivals and going about their religious observances, but they are trampling the needy, they are ripping people off. They have forgotten the "horizontal arrow", the fact that our lives are not just about a relationship with God but a relationship with others.

This lesson shows us the attitude of God towards dead orthodoxy. Did they have: Doctrine? yes. Liturgy? yes. Love for neighbours? No.

And then in the Epistle lesson, Paul is stating what his mission is. It is all about proclaiming Jesus, and his love, among the gentiles. It is the Gospel of which he is a servant, and Jesus Christ is the one we proclaim.

Then in the gospel lesson we get an object lesson in what happens when we forget the mission (Jesus) and focus on the distractions: We call this majoring on the minors. When we spend so much time on things that are not central to the mission, we lose sight of where we are supposed to be. And we cease to be the church. The church has a mission. If we don’t have a mission, we are not being the church. Simple. We are being a country club or a secret society.

In his book “center church” Timothy Keller says there are three ways of interacting with God.

Irreligion: you don’t interact with God at all.

Religion: you present your good ness to God and on the basis of all you have done you demand acceptance from him.

Gospel. You are acceptable only because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You understand that any service, attendance, offering, miraculous conversion are not things that God owes you for, but are responses to this Gospel truth.

Of the three you would think Irreligion would be the worst but this is not what we see in the life and encounters of Jesus.

He goes out of his way to speak to those who are irreligious. He proclaims to them the coming of the kingdom of God.

The biggest denouncements he saves for the religious. Those who refuse to believe that they need salvation, who think that they are so good, and that God owes them so much, that they have the right to judge and make demands of others.

Christianity, understood properly, as I have said before, is not a religion.

If we accept the root of the word religion to be the Latin “religare”, as Augustine and many modern writers do, then it means “to bind fast”.

Christianity, done properly, is the encounter with God on the basis of the Gospel.

And the Gospel doesn’t bind us to anything! Not to any behaviours, not to any observances, or festivals, or minimum attendance standards, or monetary obligations. In fact, the Gospel FREES us from bondage!

You are acceptable to God because of the work of Jesus. That is the message of the Gospel. It is freedom from looking inside yourself for any salvation or any goodness at all really, and looking to Jesus.

And that is a message of freedom that still changes lives. And that is something that as a Lutheran church we bang on about time and time again and will do until the last trumpet sounds and we go home.

And we have to!

Because we fall back into religion over and over. Religion is the default human position: Religion says that I am acceptable to God on the basis of my past conversion, or my years of service, or my good attendance, or the piety of my devotional life and we present that to God and we say: “Now you owe me”. Now I have to be acceptable to you because of those things.

That is what Martha did. Mary wasn’t doing the things Martha did, and Martha got jealous. This is where religion leads, to despair that you have not done enough, or pride that you have done more than others. Either way it is all about you, and what you can do, what you can sacrifice. And when our religion is all about us, we have, like the people in the Old Testament lesson, forgotten about the mission.

We see in the Old Testament lesson God’s attitude to what we might call “dead orthodoxy”. Now dead orthodoxy is the tendency to make sure we are doing everything right, that we use the right traditional liturgy or hymns or forms or even doctrine, but there is no love involved any more. There is no gospel mission imperative.

Instead we present our churches to God and say: “Now you owe us”. And he doesn’t! He really doesn’t.

The latest census tells us that people are walking away from the Christian churches in droves. They can spot dead orthodoxy and can’t stomach it either.

But also interestingly we are told that the numbers of regular worshippers hasn’t changed much. People who really understand the gospel are drawn to it, and places that preach and present the truth and purity of the gospel continue to attract people because the Gospel still changes lives and always will.

And this is why we insist on it over and over!

That is why the mission statement of St Marks: “Together sharing Christ’s love” is so important.

Because the default human position is one of religion. And if we fall back from the gospel to religion then we end up “together sharing Christ’s church”! And people don’t want it, and we are surprised! But God, you owe us!

But that’s not the mission, is it: Sharing Christ’s church. It is being a little Martha-like, it is so easy to be thrown off course from what the real mission is, and forget that our mission is not “together sharing Christ’s church”, it is together sharing Christ’s love!

The census details show us that God’s promises, just like in the Old Testament lesson, are true.

Churches that have consistently gone away from the truth of the gospel and back to religion, back to dead orthodoxy, will fail and fall and they should fail and they should fall! Because they don’t help anyone. They cloud what Christianity should be.

But what many in the media who hate Christianity forget, where they get it wrong, is this:

The answer to bad Christianity is good Christianity, not NO Christianity.

It is Gospel renewal, the widespread rededication of our churches to the truth and power of the gospel message, that is still changing lives, and that we need to come back to time and time again.

What does this look like, “Together sharing Christ’s love”?

It is being a welcoming church, a church that cares about every guest who walks through our doors. It is about being a loving church that cares about our town and our community and deeply understands that everyone with whom we come into contact needs Jesus Christ and his love in their lives.

It is about being a generous church and hurting about the fact that there are people living out on the streets of our town, cold and hungry and not safe. And they too need Jesus, but they also need food and clothing and a safe, warm place to sleep.

I am praying deeply for Gospel Renewal in our Ministry area, that we as individuals and churches would rededicate ourselves to the importance of the centrality of the mission of Jesus Christ, and live from that centre, joyously, in freedom and love for God’s world.

The world needs the Jesus that we have. Now, more than ever.


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