Sept. 8, 2016
Dear Hyde Park family,
Last week, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op-ed piece titled, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?” Several of you shared it with me, and it circulated in my social media news feed for a few days. Its premise is fairly straightforward: all of the world’s major religions, which began as anti-establishment spiritual movements, have each developed into establishment institutions, “ingrown, risk-averse bureaucracies, obsessed with money and power.” They have become far departures from the kind of compassionate, socially transformative visions of their founders.
Despite this harsh assessment, Kristoff lends a considerate ear to those of us in the church. Though he describes himself as “not a particularly religious Christian,” he wants to believe in the power of religious conviction to do good in the world, and he is “inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.”
Kristoff quotes popular Christian author Brian McClaren, who frames this evolution (or devolution, perhaps) in terms of belief vs. behavior. “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”
Fair enough. The gospel of John and the epistle of James have been arguing that same debate between faithful belief and faithful action since the canonization of the Bible.
What I am more interested in is the question in the title itself. What religion would Jesus choose? Would he choose all of them, as a sort of patchwork compilation of the strengths of each one? Would he transcend them all as a false choice, saying that denominations were never part of his vision for the kingdom of God? Or would he actually choose one?
My sense is that Jesus would answer that question the same way he answered most questions in the Gospels. With a question. After all, that was his favorite response, much to the annoyance of his interrogators. Why do you call me good? … Whose image is on the coin? … What does the law say? … How many loaves do you have?
So here’s the response I can hear Jesus offering to the question of what religion he would choose:
Why is that question important to you?
And then, I can hear our responses. Well, that’s easy, Jesus. Because if you chose our religion, our denomination, or our local church, then it would prove that we were doing things right. That we were the ones walking the straight and narrow. That we were the true keepers of historic, authentic, creedal Christianity. And then all of our doubts would turn into certainty. That would lead to conviction, which would embolden our cause. And then we would work to transform every aspect of society and culture to fit into that vision, so that our political, economic, social, and military systems all fit together into a kind of integrative system, in which every person in the world ultimately believes in you, and believes in us, and therefore believes the same things that we believe. That’s why that’s important to us!
Then you have already answered your question, Jesus would say.
And then we’d be just as perplexed as the Pharisees, as stymied as the Sanhedrin, and as dumbfounded as the disciples. We would be standing there, just like they did with their coin, and their loaves, and their pointed fingers, simply scratching our heads about what exactly he was trying to tell us.
And then, after some serious self-reflection, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we could finally see what Jesus is really asking us. What you are really asking me, Jesus would tell us, is whether or not I can be on your side, fitting into your box, centered on your agenda. And simply by virtue of asking that question, you have answered it for yourselves. You have taken my words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and used them to define your tribes, as in who can be in and who can be out. Instead, these words are meant to define your souls, as in what should be in them and what should be out of them.
And so the deeper question is not, “To what faith would Jesus belong?” The question is, “Is our faith centered in Jesus?”
That question begins our new sermon series on the core values of our church. Each of these next six Sundays will dig deeply into the six statements that constitute the character, aspirations, and identity of this congregation:
Along the way, we will connect those six values to a great maxim that is often attributed to John Wesley, but whose origins are likely much more ancient, even back to St. Augustine: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. As a result of this series, you will have a better idea of what makes Hyde Park United Methodist so distinct among the smorgasbord of faith communities available today. You will be able to recalibrate your life into a deeper commitment to Christ, and you will be able to share with friends and family what makes this church such a unique expression of the Christian faith.
Naturally, we’d like to think that Jesus would not think twice about being a part of this church if he were still a human among us. But maybe this is the more important question:
If Jesus were to look at your life and mine, would he find himself in the center?
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist