Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
You may have noticed, if you do Facebook or other social media, a little slogan that has enjoyed some popularity recently: “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.” Have you seen that? This is a reference, of course, to Christian faith, and the relationship in question here is one’s relationship with Jesus. The point of the slogan, I think, is to refocus our attention, to say, “Look, all these things we do and say that are labeled as ‘religious,’ and that often lead to bickering and sometimes even actual violence … they’re really not all that important. What’s important is to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to follow where he leads, and to live how he wants us to live.”
Is there not some obvious truth being spoken here? For Christians, for Christ-followers, is not a relationship with Christ pretty much the main thing? Can anything else really be important at all, by comparison? Do our complicated doctrines and rituals not very often get in the way, and cause friction in our relationships?
A man was once contemplating killing himself by jumping off a bridge. A stranger came up to him and said, “Friend, are you sure you want to do that? You believe in God, don’t you?”
The suicidal man replied, “Sure I do.”
“Great! So do I,” said the would-be Good Samaritan. “Look, we’ve got something in common. So, does that mean you’re a Christian?”
“Why yes, actually, I am.”
“Wonderful! So am I. Now we’ve got even more to talk about. So, tell me, what are you? Presbyterian? Methodist? Baptist?”
“Well, I’m a Baptist, I guess.”
“Fantastic! So am I! Now I have to ask, Are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?”
The suicidal man took a breath and said, “I haven’t actually thought about it for a while, but, I guess, back when I did, I was kind of an Arminian.”
At this point, the would-be rescuer pushed the first man off the bridge into the river and shouted, “Die, you scumbag heretic!”
Apparently, this guy had allowed his religion to distract him from his relationship with Jesus. And, in fact, this seems to be the very point Jesus is making in this exchange that Mark’s gospel records for us between Jesus and some Pharisees. The Pharisees want to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before they sat down to eat. It isn’t that they’re concerned about germs—they didn’t know about germs—but they’re concerned about the religious ritual that required hand-washing before eating and they’re offended that the disciples of Jesus don’t observe that ritual. In response, Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” and then adds his own comment to the Pharisees, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” It sounds like Jesus is putting the Pharisees in the place of the Calvinist Baptist who pushed his Arminian friend off the bridge, those who allow “religion” to interfere with “relationship.”
But before we decide to honor our relationship with Jesus by pushing “religion” off the bridge, however, it might be helpful to take a look at the real root meaning of the word “religion.” Its Latin origins are a little bit obscure, but many scholars make a good case that in its literal sense, it means “binding together.” You may be familiar with the word “ligature,” which, I believe, is part of the vocabulary of orthodontists as they construct braces that “bind together” a person’s teeth. The ‘l-i-g’ at the beginning of “ligature” and the ‘l-i-g’ in the middle of “religion” may likely come from the same Latin root. So, if we understand religion properly, we know that it’s not the enemy of our relationship with Christ, but a way of cultivating and enhancing that relationship. It’s not an end itself—and this, I would suggest, is Jesus’ real point in this passage from Mark—religion is not an end itself, but it is an essential means toward that end. Without the “binding together” action of religion and religious practices, it’s difficult to actually have and sustain the relationship. If we’re trying to use the interstate highway system to get to a certain place, we might say, “It’s not about the car, it’s about the trip,” and we would be right. But, without the car, the trip would not be possible. An Olympic athlete might say, “It’s not about the training workout, it’s about the gold medal,” and she would be correct. But there’s no path to a gold medal that doesn’t go through a whole bunch of training workouts. “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.” True enough. But the religion is necessary to make the relationship happen.
Jesus invites us to judge our religious practices by their fruits. Jesus invites us to see our religious practices—Sunday Eucharist, the Daily Office (for Anglicans, this means Morning and Evening Prayer), our daily private prayers and devotions, the reading and study of scripture, and whatever else we do that anybody might call “religion”—Jesus invites us to see these things as means to an end, the end of producing authentic virtue, the end of changing the way we act and speak to more closely reflect the way Jesus would act and speak, to produce in our lives what St Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit” as he names them in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If our religion is producing these fruits in our lives, it is doing its job. If it does not, if it is producing, in fact, the opposite of these fruits—a list that Jesus says includes things like evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness —then it is the sort of religion that Jesus rightly takes the Pharisees to task for. As Jesus says, it is what comes out of a person that defiles that person.
It’s increasingly popular for some non-Christians (including some former Christians) these days to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It’s rather chic, in fact, in some circles. One hopes that Christians are spiritual. We are spiritual beings and we need to take care of ourselves spiritually. But Christians are, by nature and by definition, unavoidably religious. It’s nothing to apologize for or seek to get over. It’s the religion, after all, that makes the relationship possible.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.