‘IS RELIGION OBSCURING OUR VIEW OF THE SPIRITUAL?’

Many Christians, when talking about their personal faith: express frustration at their lack of progress, and ask:  ‘Why do I feel stuck; and not getting anywhere in particular?’
 
Very often, those searching for answers: begin to see that religion can loom so large, as to be a hindrance to matters of the Spirit; and to the development of their faith.
 
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘religion’ as:
 
1)- Belief in a superhuman controlling power: especially in a personal God, entitled to obedience and worship. 
 
2)- The expression of this belief in worship. 
 
3)- A particular system of faith and worship. 
 
It defines ‘Spirituality’ as being: ‘of or concerning the spirit, as opposed to matter’:  and  ‘concerned with sacred or religious things; holy, divine, inspired’: to which: the ‘Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary’ adds: ‘the state or quality of being spiritual’.
 
A ‘system of faith and worship’ can, all too easily, conflict with ‘The state or quality of being spiritual’: and so prevent desired progress in the Christian faith.
 
Although electricity is essential to our way of life: we cannot define what it actually is. All that we can do: is to define its generation, transmission and application.
 
Although, in Christian terms, ‘Spirit’ is life itself: we cannot define what it actually is. Again: all that we can do is to define its generation, transmission and application.
 
Obviously: ‘Spirit’ cannot be generated by us: because it is wholly of God: but, there is a sense in which God’s ‘Spirit’ is generated: by himself, within some parts of his creation.
 
This happens whenever people turn to him, in hope, and trust, and the Lord responds. ‘Turning to him’, operates as a catalyst: converting his good intentions, into actions.
 
Some part of God’s own nature: being available to us through Jesus Christ; also needs a catalyst. The Lord’s gift must not only be received, but also applied, and put to use. 
 
Here: we begin to touch upon a matter that disturbs many people: ‘How can the ‘holy’ things of God be contained within the ‘unholy’ lives of sinful human beings?’  Those asking, usually try to answer this problematical question for themselves.
 
In so doing, they tend to create two, closely related answers; which not only compound the problem, and do them no good at all; but also mislead them yet further.
 
They begin by dividing ‘Spirit’ into two parts: that with a capital ‘S’, belonging to God alone; and the other, with a small ‘s’ belonging to frail humanity. Next, they insist that God is ‘up’ (in heaven) and that man is ‘down’ (on earth). Therefore; in this life; the two forms of spiritual existence never actually meet.
 
They see any ‘actual meeting’ as a postponed event: a post-death spiritual experience, lying well beyond our physical being, here, on earth.
 
They believe that; although God’s Spirit, and the human spirit; never actually meet in this life: there is a sort of long-distance linkage between God and mankind. The linkage takes various forms: such as the Lord expressing care and concern, through answered prayer; and though divine intervention, in certain circumstances.
 
The argument goes on to state that the link establishes relationship with God: who then opens something like a spiritual investment account for them, in heaven. When they are ‘good’, a bit of interest is added to it: and when they are ‘bad’ a bit is withdrawn from it: but the account is always open: ready for the day when they can claim it.
 
This may sound a bit of a parody: but, when I was small; I was taught almost exactly that in Sunday School; and it took several years for me to unlearn it, and begin to grasp hold of the truth. Today, many church attending people still think along such lines.
 
The position just described: is roughly where the people of the Old Testament stood, for many generations. God was ‘up’, and they were ‘down’. They, too, had a long-distance link, expressed in various ways; through prophets; through prayer, and through divine intervention. They, too, had something like a heavenly bank account.
 
The Old Testament people developed a truly formidable system of religion; that had a two-fold purpose: to keep the link between God and man open; and to explain what God meant when he said this, that, or the other thing: especially the 10 Commandments.
 
‘You shall not kill’. Surely God did not mean that we should not kill our enemies.  ‘Honour your father and mother’. Supposing a man beats his children, badly and regularly. Are they supposed to honour him? 
 
Finely detailed human explanations: added 603 sub-commandments to the Lord’s original Ten.  In total: 248 of them said: ‘You shall’, and 365 said: ‘You shall not’.
 
Through adding hundreds of religious stipulations to God’s spiritual instructions: the ancient Jews placed a heavy burden on the nation’s shoulders; and caused great fear: for to fail in one part, was considered to be a failure in all parts; with no let-out clauses.
 
Put at its most basic, and simplest: the bible story tells of mankind coming into being in the ‘Garden of Eden’, and living there in close relationship with God. It goes on to tell of mankind falling into sin; and breaking that relationship: and of being turned out into the world; but given a second chance.
 
The second chance: eventually guided by the commandments; was designed to mend the broken relationship; no matter how gradually: and to establish its ongoing nature.
 
Had mankind allowed it to work; and restore relationship: there would, perhaps, have been no need for Christ to come into the world.
 
Instead, mankind disregarded the ‘Rules of Life’: continued to sin; and clung to a self-created, greatly overburdened system of religion; in the hope that it would save them – but it didn’t, because it couldn’t.
 
When God sent Christ into the world: and said: ‘Trust me: this way will work’ busy mankind began to put its own interpretation on the Lord’s intentions.
 
Christ established the Church as a living organism. Very soon, it changed itself to an organization. It, too, gradually developed a truly formidable system of religion: piling new law upon new law, in ways that Christ never intended.
 
When, in the New Testament, Jesus said: ‘I did not come into the world to do away with the Law, but to fulfil it’: he was not referring to the 603 man-made amendments: but to the original 10 God-given ‘Rules of Life’.
 
Biblical concordances show that ‘religion’ relates to just 4 texts: whereas ‘spirituality’ relates to over 400 of them, which indicates something of the great, and important, difference between the one, and the other.
 
Apart from attending prayers at the synagogue: Jesus Christ appears not to have conformed to a set religious pattern. Therefore, he became wonderfully effective in his spiritual ministries and teaching.
 
Occasionally, he appeared to break the commandments; but any apparent transgressions were against the man-made amendments; and not against the great principles by which he lived.
 
In the ‘Woman with an issue of blood’ event: Jesus became technically unclean, through her touch, but did nothing about getting cleansed via Jewish religious law and ritual; because he knew that he remained perfectly clean, spiritually.
 
Through a Roman Centurion’s great, spiritual faith: Jesus healed his servant. He did not ask whether the Centurion worshipped false gods: and did not advocate following Jewish religious practice. Instead, he said the equivalent of: ‘Wow! Look at you’.
 
Christ appears to have gone against the eighth commandment, through saving the life of the ‘Woman taken in Adultery’ – but he didn’t actually do so. Instead: he highlighted the hypocrisy of the men who were about to stone her to death: and so shamed them; that they refrained from killing her.
 
At John 4: 46-54, Jesus told a ‘royal official’ that his sick child would be healed. The text says that the man ‘took Jesus at his word’, and that the child was healed. The official appears not to have made any call upon religious practice: but, instead, placed full trust in the spirituality of Christ, and the promise that he had made.
 
Christ, talking with ‘The Woman at the Well’, cut against Jewish religious practice. Not only that: instead of rebuking her: he offered a spiritual challenge, which she readily accepted. She went back home to her people: and offered them the same spiritual challenge, which they, too, accepted.
 
Christ’s ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ teaching (at Matt. 4: 15-17) implies that: what was foretold by Isaiah the prophet; and was not to be found in religious practice; would come about in peoples’ lives; as soon as they were spiritually open enough to receive it.
 
At John 14: 6 Jesus says: ‘No one comes to the Father, except by me’. Not through religious practice, no matter how carefully undertaken; but through direct recourse to Christ; in his spiritual capacity as Saviour and Lord.
 
Much more could be said; but there is no need to go further. For present purposes; there is no greater challenge to who we are; and where we are at; than an honest appraisal of the question already asked.
 
’Does religious practice obscure my vision of spiritual things? Does it hinder my growth and progress, in the faith to which Christ has called me?’
 
No one can answer for us. Each of us: must seek the truth of the matter; and answer for ourselves. According to the Bible: one day, God will search us with similar questions.
 
When that day comes: will the manner in which we have lived out our calling; and the ways in which we have served the Lord; be a full and sufficient answer to his questions?            
                                                                                                                                                   Amen.