Was Jesus Spiritual But Not Religious?
This sermon was given at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Coralville, IA. on Sunday, May 4, 2014, by Pastor John McKinstry. The sermon was without notes and was accompanied by projected images, but the following manuscript was prepared before the sermon was delivered and is provided here for those visiting the congregation’s website.
This Gospel lesson was read earlier in the worship service by a member of the congregation:
Gospel Reading Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.[b] 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[c] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[d] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah[e] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
A bishop in Limburg Germany (nicknamed “Bishop Bling”) spent $43 million on his new residence/office complex while cutting church staff positions and the Pope recently accepted his resignation. So as not to pick on Roman Catholics, let me cite a Southern Baptist preacher in North Carolina who did not help his case when he defended his purchase of a 16,000 square foot $1.6 Million estate by saying “it’s not really that great of a house.” Of course, it isn’t always clergy who are poor examples of religious persons–Ken Lay was an active Christian Layman when he committed billions of dollars of fraud at ERON. These disappointing reports are the sort of thing that many people cite when they explain that they are spiritual but not religious. Media reports tend to reinforce stereotypes and focus on religious extremes rather than accurately portray religion. Recent estimates identify 20-40% of Americans as being SBNR – that’s more than the membership of all mainline Protestants in America, so maybe we should take notice. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was born out of a church unity movement that was part of what is called “The Great Awakening” which began about the year 1800. We still call ourselves “A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” instead of merely a denomination. The spiritual awakening which produced us, like the SBNR movement, was about getting beyond the trappings and creeds of religion to actual spirituality. Linda Mercadante has spent the last 5 years interviewing people who call themselves SBNR and reports that they respect science but reject scientism and secularism which reduce us to mere physical beings or cogs in a vast machine. At the same time they reject religion that is rigid and fundamentalist conservative, and what Linda calls comatose religion which is so dazed and confused by its own decline that it has lost its identity.
One of the things I find fascinating about this morning’s story from Luke’s Gospel is that it comes from a time before Christianity was an actual organized religion, yet it describes accurately what we are experiencing here in worship today. Two disciples of Jesus who have gone into Jerusalem for the Jewish Passover celebration have had their hopes for true spirituality, freedom from foreign domination, and an end to economic oppression destroyed by the crucifixion of their teacher and friend, Jesus. As they walk the seven-mile trek to Emmaus they discuss these events and the Scriptures with a stranger and say those poignant words, “We had hoped.” People grieving the death of an elementary-age child, packing up their things at an ICU waiting room, facing a progressing illness, not getting a promotion or job often use that painful phrase: “We had hoped.” There is a story about Earnest Hemingway-that someone challenged him to write a short story and he wrote one in 6 words “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” Every one of us here has spoken those heavy, painful words “we had hoped” at one time or another. Deep disappointment always has theological implications. If God cares, why didn’t God intervene and bring us success or healing instead of disappointment? I have never found an intellectually satisfying answer for that question, but I know in my heart that God walks with us in our journey during those times of disappointment, joins us in our weakness and pain and chooses to be known by us.
Like those disheartened disciples on the road, we gather and discuss the events of our lives, and study and argue with the Scriptures–bringing God and our ancestors in the faith into the conversation. Often we pour out our pain and disappointments. There is a living presence, the risen Christ and Holy Spirit, in our midst who helps us see the wisdom gained over millennia that is present in our Scriptures. For instance, when Paul prayed to God about some painful physical weakness and asked that it be taken from him, the answer he got was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”When we begin a sentence with the words, “We had hoped” we have the gift of being able to converse with each other and, through the Scriptures and other literature and tradition, others who have gone before us in faith. Instead of a God who violently crushes our oppressors, we meet on the road and in the Bible a God who willingly takes on the role of victim and scapegoat so that God’s power may be seen in weakness. Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, we know the story of our lives but need help in understanding the meaning of those events in a larger context.
The disciples offer an act of hospitality to the stranger-“Will you stay and dine with us?” and in becoming hosts they find the tables turned and become guests of the Holy instead. We practice our songs and readings, get dressed and show up, welcome and greet as if we are hosting, but again we discover we are ourselves welcome guests and God the host here in this space. No one is a stranger here-everyone belongs. When we break bread and share the bread and cup we recognize that the risen Christ is present with us. Having experienced the presence of the risen Christ we, like the disciples who were energized to walk back to Jerusalem, go out into our lives to speak and act out the good news.
Not all religions are the same. Jesus criticized the religion of his time and some religious authorities of his day had him killed, so many people, such as Thomas Jefferson, who are spiritual but not conventionally religious have been drawn to Jesus. I wouldn’t say that Jesus was spiritual and not religious because he was an observant Jew, but he certainly emphasized authentic spirituality over religion. After that walk to Emmaus, Christianity became a religion and the church became an institution, but Jesus himself was all about creating whole and mature relationships between God and people. Just as Cleopas and the other disciple on the road that day are revealed to be fallible, blind, and lacking in faith, so also we are fallible and lack the fullness of faith and comprehension, but God is still recognized and conversed with, is welcomed as a guest and then hosts among us. We would not be meeting here if we did not still experience the presence of the risen Christ among us. We count relationships as being more important than beliefs, and our relationships with the God we know in and through Jesus Christ as being central to our lives. We are not one of those religious groups that says ours is the only way to relate to God. We ordain women and welcome straight and GLBTQ persons as our brothers and sisters. We welcome all honest seekers, some of whom are professing Christians, to our fellowship. Some of us joke that we hardly qualify as organized religion because we have so much freedom. We prefer to call ourselves a movement rather than a denomination.
At some time in our lives every one of us has been broken-hearted and deeply disappointed and spoken those words, “We had hoped...” and my experience has been that God’s answer to us is not requiring belief in the resurrection, or requiring church membership but rather to seek us out and walk that road with us so that by the grace of God we know and experience God’s heart is broken, too