Less ritual; more reality

So much of my life has been taken up with religious ritual that there hasn’t been much room left for actually living and experiencing the reality of what Jesus taught.

I was reminded of this when reading Matthew 5:23-24, when Jesus said, “If you’re offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.“

Well, over the years I’ve “offered a lot of gifts at the altar.” I’ve prayed a lot and studied the Bible until my knees hurt and my eyes blurred. I’ve given a lot of offerings in money to my church too, sat for thousands of hours in church services and ceremonies, taken pages and pages of sermon notes, and sung multiple hymns. I’ve done my time, gone through the motions. I’ve left a lot of gifts at the altar of religious ritual.  

But one day it hit me that all my religious rituals were only a thin veneer covering a rather nasty inner self. I remember the occasion vividly. I had just preached what I thought was a scorcher of a sermon and I glowed in the aftermath of a job well done. It was in the car on the way home, however, that I blew up at one of my children. I can’t remember what it was about, but I do remember the contrast between how religious I felt after my sermon and the reality of how quickly and horribly I turned nasty and very unreligious with my child. 

It was too late to leave my gift in front of the altar and be reconciled to my child, because my sermon had already been done. But what I could have done was stop the car at the first available safe spot on the road and apologized to my child for snapping at him. In other words, don’t let too many miles go by without admitting I was wrong. I wish I’d done that. I didn’t, so the rest of the journey was awful. I stewed with guilt, and he stewed with “What on earth was that all about?” 

The obvious gap between my religious rituals and the reality of my actions really hurt our relationship. I can see why he left off attending church with us in his late teenage, because if all that ritual we’d gone through as a family couldn’t stir me to make a simple apology when needed to keep our relationship as father and child intact, then what was the point of it all?

No wonder he left church and home. It was heartbreaking, because he really struggled without the warmth of family. I see now why Jesus said what he did. A simple “drop everything” on my part until my son and I were “reconciled,” and what a difference it would have made to our relationship for the last twenty years. What we’ve both missed out on instead is so sad.  

I’ve heard it said by many teenagers who left church and home that they left because of the hypocrisy they saw in the church, and especially in their church-attending parents. Hypocrisy is a tough word to take, because Jesus used it often in describing the most religious people of his day too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites,” he yelled in Matthew 23:27. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside you are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

I don’t like reading James 1:26 either, that says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” There’s that gap again, between all that religious ritual we do and the reality of our actions. 

So what’s the cure? Well, fortunately, James also comes to the rescue in the cure too, because in James 3:17 he says, “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.”

What a gift from God that is. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It comes from God. He’s the source of it. And it has nothing to do with religious ritual either. He’s interested in us experiencing the reality of his gifts, not us giving gifts to him. In other words, “Less ritual from us, and more reality from him.”   

Christians don’t always agree, but does it matter? 

If I was to ask, “Is taking bread bread and wine in memory of Jesus’ death a requirement for all Christians?” – how would you answer? And if I was to ask, “Is baptism in water a requirement for all Christians?” – how would you answer that one too? 

Those are the two “biggies” in Christian circles too, communion and baptism, the two most common “sacraments” that for many are an “absolute must,” but for some in the Christian Community they are aids, or symbols, not requirements. And those who believe they aren’t requirements have scriptures to back up their belief too, just as those who believe the sacraments are requirements have scriptures to back up their belief.

There are dozens of other differences among Christians too, also backed up with scriptures, in answer to questions like: “Can Christians go to war and kill people?”; “Is heaven our final destination or living in resurrected bodies on the earth?”; and “Will God save everyone in the end, or will some people spend eternity in hell?” 

And for the sake of Christian unity “Should we all follow a prescribed Worship Calendar based on evolving human tradition?” – to which many would say “yes,” because it focuses their hearts and minds on the greatness and love of Jesus, but others would vehemently say “No,” because it smacks too much of legalism and a noose squeezing the breath of the Holy Spirit out of them. No wonder Christianity is scarred by “worship wars,” and now endless debates about whether it’s right or wrong to allow same-sex marriage among Christians, or the ordination of women and practicing homosexuals into the clergy.  

And reading through Romans 14 and Paul’s other letters, especially his letters to the Corinthians, there were huge differences of belief and opinion among Christians back then too. So how did Paul deal with them?

Well, he got right down to the purpose of the church and how God set it up with “pastors and teachers, etc.” in Ephesians 4:11, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” verse 12, “until,” verse 13, “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

So Paul concentrates our attention on becoming mature, which he defines for us as becoming like Jesus in all his fullness. And that’s the same for all of us; it’s sharing exactly the same purpose in life of having it engrained in our heads that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you (or we) have been given fullness in Christ,” Colossians 2:9-10. In our own bodies, therefore, we can be as full of God as Jesus is. And that’s God’s great goal for us, repeated in 2 Corinthians 3:18, that we are “being transformed into Jesus’ likeness with an ever-increasing glory.” 

So that’s what we concentrate on if we hope to become mature Christians. But what does that involve us doing? Paul’s answer in Ephesians 4:15 is “speaking the truth in love,” and that’s how “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” 

In other words, we talk together about our differences as Christians, and “speak truthfully” to each other, verse 25, “for we are all members of one body.” We still may not agree but if talking out our differences is the best solution, according to Paul, and it’s done “in love” (verse 15), then we all get to experience what it’s like being filled with the fullness of Jesus himself. And isn’t that what matters? 

It’s proof too that we are “putting on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” verse 23. In other words, it’s proof we are maturing: it’s in our simple willingness to talk things over with each other in love, and “not give the devil a foothold,” verse 27.

In my own experience it’s been wonderful being in a small group of Christians willing to do just that, talk things out in a spirit of love. It gets heated at times when we don’t or can’t agree, but we don’t stop being friends and it doesn’t stop us listening to each other, or coming back for more. And sometimes a bit of truth sneaks through, or strikes home, that we hadn’t thought of before.

I’ve learnt, therefore, that disagreement is not something to fear or try to stamp out. I’ve also learnt that disagreement doesn’t even matter one bit when you love each other and want “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs,” verse 29. It’s one of the marvellous blessings we get to experience that enables us, verse 3, to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” at those awkward moments when disagreement could easily tear us apart.  

Global warming – is it all “hot air”?

     I’m a Christian, but I’m in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to the fear, facts and future of climate change.

     Take the fear, for instance: I may be a Christian but it scares me too when I hear that extreme weather events will increase due to “global warming.” And when it comes to facts, I’m just as confused as millions of others as to who’s right and who’s a fraud among the climate change scientists. And I switch again and again from being an alarmist to a denier of climate change whenever I read or view a convincing argument about the future. Are we on the edge of extinction, or has doom and gloom been deliberately overblown for political and financial gain? 

     But what am I supposed to think when I read a quote like this one: that “The common drivers (of the climate change scare) are bad ‘science’, the press seeking disaster stories, NGOs seeking influence to pursue social engineering agendas, politicians seeking votes, government funded agencies seeking funding, the egos of the proponents and a gullible, uneducated population. The sad reality is that there is little, if any, learning from the past and none of the proponents are ever brought to account.” 

      But is that true? Is it true that global warming is “the greatest scam in history,” or are our children and grandchildren truly facing a frightening future? Can we carry on with our lives without having to worry that much – as a multitude of “experts” say – or should we be frantic in reducing carbon emissions? Well, after watching YouTube videos and reading articles until my eyes crossed and the circulation of blood in my bum quit, I admit I still don’t know what to think.  

     So I turned to my Christian chums for help, to see what they thought. I liked the comment by one prominent TV evangelist, that we don’t have to worry about melting glaciers, because God promised he’d never drown the world in a flood again, the rainbow being his proof of it. In other words, God won’t let us self-destruct, no matter how much the globe warms. 

     But I’ve also been watching a ton of stuff from Katherine Hayhoe, a prominent Canadian atmospheric scientist and wife of a Christian pastor, who says there’ll be lots of destruction as the globe warms. And it’s going to hit the most vulnerable people too, so in love to God and neighbour, turn our fears into action. 

    I like that, because if I love God for creating me and this planet, and I show my love by thinking about and caring for others, isn’t that the obvious approach to global warming? It becomes a pleasure doing business with God too, because if anyone’s got great ideas on what we can actually do about global warming, he does. He just needs people who are interested.

     And that thought came in rather useful when faced with one of my grandchildren recently, who said to me, “What’s the point of doing anything when we’re being told the damage done to the planet is irreversible, and no matter what we do all hell will be let loose in twelve years or so?” 

     But what I see in her is a multitude of talents and amazing thoughts that God implanted in her for just what the planet needs to flourish and survive. So, use your schooling, kiddo, get the best grades you can and develop every talent you’ve got. I went on and on about it to her too, because it’s dawned on me that God will do amazing things through our young people, if they’re interested. I wish I was young again, and someone had told me that when I was in my teens, that God is all for signing us up as partners to become movers and shakers, pioneers and discoverers, and good, solid citizens who care.

     I desperately hope that’s the picture she gets in her head, then, that to God it’s a pleasure doing business with her to make this planet flourish.  

Must a person be baptized to be saved?

In Mark 16:16 Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,” which at first glance seems to drop a very strong hint, that “Yes, a person needs to be baptized to be saved.”  No baptism equals no salvation. Could it be any more clear than that? 

So, if I don’t take the necessary step of believing and being baptized I won’t be saved, right? But isn’t that basing my salvation on things that I do? Or put another way, doesn’t it mean my salvation depends on me – on my belief, first of all, and then on me being baptized too? And does that mean I won’t be saved until those two conditions are met?

No, it doesn’t mean that, because God sent his Son to save us by his death on the cross – meaning we were all saved long before we believed – or even knew anything about – God or baptism. So it can’t be our belief or baptism that saves us, because only Jesus’ death has the power to save. 

And at some point in our lives that dawned on us, didn’t it? It suddenly became clear that when Jesus yelled out on the cross, “It is finished,” it meant his death had saved the world from the eternal death hanging over us, caused by human disobedience to God and lack of trust in him. In his death it had all been forgiven and buried. That job was done. 

The big question then becomes: “Do I believe it?” Do I believe that the job of my salvation from eternal death – caused by my ignorance, disobedience and lack of trust – was completed by Jesus’ death on the cross? Or as Romans 3:24 phrases it – do I believe that I’m “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”? 

I was “justified freely by his grace,” take note, not by my obedience, my works, my faith, or anything I do or did, including believing and being baptized. “For it’s by grace you have been saved, through faith – and (even that faith) not from yourselves (too); it is the gift of God, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), so that no one can boast.” So even my belief was a gift from God. And God didn’t wait for me to believe and be baptized to save me either. He made me “alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions,” verse 6. 

I came “alive with Christ” – meaning my life was altered to the very depths of my being – when I grasped what Jesus had done for me. And it happened without me adding one stitch of belief on my part, or baptism. But the sign that proved this had happened to me was my belief. I grasped what Jesus had done for me. I acknowledged that it was only because of him that such a salvation had been made possible. It was a clear sign that the salvation Jesus had won for humanity on the cross had, and would, continue in its fullness, in me. And if I’d also come across those verses on baptism, and I wanted to be baptized, that too would be an acknowledgement and a sign that I’d been gifted by God with a grasp of his salvation through Christ alone, and the fullness of his salvation would continue in me.

But baptism would be a sign of that, not a requirement. Not being baptized would not damage or affect my salvation at all, because my salvation had already been secured in Jesus’ death. But there’s more salvation to come, where Jesus now lives his life in me, and belief and baptism become lovely signs, therefore, that this salvation would be happening to me as well. 

Why was Jesus baptized?

John the Baptist was really surprised when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but Jesus’ reply in Matthew 3:15 was: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” 

But why was Jesus being baptized in John’s water baptism so necessary in fulfilling all righteousness? John’s baptism was all about “confessing sin” (verse 6), and “producing fruits in keeping with repentance” (verse 8), neither of which Jesus needed to do.  Jesus didn’t need to confess to, or repent of, anything. But the Jews of that day, or Israel as a whole, did. They were the ones in desperate need of confessing their sins and producing fruits in keeping with repentance, because they had fallen far short of what God had called them to be and do.

God’s purpose for Israel had been clearly stated back In Isaiah 49:3, that “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” And in verse 6, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  Unfortunately, Israel had failed miserably in fulfilling those two purposes, and God had punished them severely for it, by sentencing them to many years in slavery to pagan nations. And.even after they’d been freed from captivity in Babylon, they were still under the thumb of the Romans 400 years later in Jesus’ day.

But God had sent Jesus to change all that. To prepare Israel for Jesus’ coming, God sent John the Baptist in advance, telling the Jews in Matthew 3:1-3 to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – taking a quote right out of Isaiah again, about “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'” in Isaiah 40:3. It resulted in Jews “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” going to John to “Confess their sins,” verses 5-6, and be baptized by John in the Jordan river.

And John baptized them “with water for repentance,” verse 11, but that wasn’t enough to make up for Israel’s failure in fulfilling God’s purpose for them. Their baptism in water was only preparation for the one who could make up for it, the one coming after John who would “baptize” them “with the Holy Spirit,” verse 11.   

But before Jesus could baptize those Jews with the Holy Spirit, God needed Jesus himself to be baptized in water too. Not for his own sake, but for Israel’s sake. The Israelites had clearly proved throughout their history that they could not confess their sins or produce fruits for repentance sufficiently enough to make up for all their failures. Their baptism in water, therefore, was only pointing them to the one who could. Only Jesus in his baptism could “fulfill all the righteousness” of confession and repentance they had been unable to fulfill themselves. His baptism could, and would, do that, not theirs.

The message was clear, that only in Jesus could true confession and repentance be made, sufficient enough to take away the sins of Israel. He was doing it for them, in other words, because only he could. But this would be the great beginning of God “bringing back those of Israel I have kept” and “restoring the tribes of Jacob,” in their mission of being “a light to the Gentiles” and bringing “God’s salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6 again).

Or as Peter phrased it in Acts 3:26, “When God raised up his servant (Jesus), he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” And that “turning from their wicked ways” began with Jesus’ baptism fulfilling the confession and repentance the Jews and Israel had been unable to do themselves. But with that righteousness now fulfilled by Jesus, salvation from sins could now spread from the Jews to the Gentiles too, thereby fulfilling John the Baptist’s statement in John 1:29, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the (whole) world.” That righteousness would now be fulfilled in Jesus too, all pictured so perfectly by his baptism.

Is baptism necessary?

I was asked recently if there are two baptisms for Christians, because in scripture it looks like we need both a baptism with water and a baptism with the Spirit. And I can see why a person would think that, because in Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me will come one who is more powerful than I….(who) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Two baptisms are mentioned.

And then in Acts 19, Paul bumps into some disciples in Ephesus who’d been baptized with water by John the Baptist but hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet, so he had them “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verses 1-6. Two baptisms again, first with water, and then with the Holy Spirit.

But then in Ephesians 4:5 Paul talks of Christians having “one Lord, one faith and one baptism,” not two baptisms, so which baptism is he referring to – baptism with water or baptism with the Spirit? It can’t be just baptism with water, because Paul made it clear in Acts 19 that baptism with water wasn’t enough for receiving the Holy Spirit. But if he meant only baptism with the Spirit in Ephesians 4, why do so many Christians feel a baptism by water is necessary too?

And when Christians talk about “the sacrament of baptism,” do they mean water baptism or baptism with the Spirit, or both?

Christian tradition leans towards both baptisms, including water baptism, due to several examples of water baptism in the New Testament – Jesus himself being baptized in water (Matthew 3:13-16), Jesus’ disciples baptizing people in water (John 4:1-3), and Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in water (Acts 8:36-38). There are several other verses leaning toward baptism with water too, like Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38, but all these verses about water baptism occur in the early stages of the New Testament church. By Ephesians 4, however, written by Paul near the end of his life, there was just “one baptism,” and that, according to Paul in Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27 was being “baptized into Christ.” And Paul made it clear in Acts 19 that water baptism did not baptize those disciples into Christ. Only a baptism with the Holy Spirit could do that (Acts 1:5, 8, Acts 8:14-17). 

Did Paul’s understanding of baptism evolve, therefore, as it dawned on him that it was only immersion or baptism into Christ – and all that God had accomplished in Christ for him – that counted in his life, and not anything that he did himself, including being baptized with water? 

Paul stated clearly that “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2:20. And he knew this understanding had been given to him by “the grace of God” (through baptism with the Holy Spirit), verse 21, and not by anything he did, whether it be his obedience to God, his faith, or being baptized with water.  

He realized that Jesus was his life (Colossians 3:4), meaning there was nothing he need do to help, complete or add to what Jesus had done for him, including water baptism. His life was immersed in Christ, not in water.   

There is just one baptism, therefore, and that is the one with the Holy Spirit, that immerses us in the life of Christ, the life that Jesus himself lives in relationship with his Father, made real in and to us by the Holy Spirit.

Water baptism, therefore, is not necessary for a Christian to become a Christian, but if a person wishes to be baptized with water to acknowledge and respect all that Jesus has done for him, then be baptized in water, but not as a requirement or a magic bullet that suddenly makes a person Christian. 

What makes me a good Christian?

I’d like to be a good Christian, today, tomorrow and for the rest of the year for the simple reason that Jesus died for me. God also sent Jesus to demonstrate through his life and teachings what a good Christian is. It’s a person who loves God and loves neighbour, which Jesus did to perfection.

So I’ve got my motive for being a good Christian – Jesus’ death – and I have my example of a good Christian too – in Jesus’ life. And he left us a very clear example as well. In his love for God he didn’t veer off track one bit from God’s will in his thoughts, actions, words, and reactions. Even when faced with the prospect of excruciating suffering, either from physical torture or the mental stress of people making ridiculous accusations against him, he was able to resist his own feelings and emotions and stick to God’s will for him.

And his love for neighbour was just as amazing, because there wasn’t a person in need he refused to help. He never condemned anyone for being ignorant either. The only people he called to account and threatened with hell were the religious hypocrites who demanded perfect obedience to God from others, but fell far short of perfect obedience themselves.

So he set quite the example of compassion, mercy, wisdom and anger, all finely balanced, perfectly timed, and customized to each person’s need. I’d love to be able to imitate him. We have a whole list of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount too, which if we all lived in tune with would make our world a very different place. Imagine if we all lived by the Golden Rule, for instance, of treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

So now I’m left with a perfect motive for being a good Christian, and a perfect, practical example in Jesus’ life and teachings, and how he dealt with people, both the ignorant and the hypocrites.

But how on earth do I live up to such an example? Must I be consciously thinking about it every waking second of each day, even when tying my shoes, going shopping, or checking the dog for fleas? Is that how I stay on track to what makes a good Christian? Is it up to me?

No it isn’t, and it wasn’t for Jesus either. He openly admitted he could do nothing of himself, and it was only the Father working in and speaking through him that the miracle of his life and death were possible. Which is why Jesus knew we’d need help too -which he gifted to us in the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is now the one at the controls of our lives. It’s he who reminds us of Jesus’ teachings, he who gives us the words to speak, he who corrects our thoughts, and he who gives us the love for God and neighbour we need to be good Christians. And his comforting, correcting help is being directed by both the Father and Jesus too, so we now have the aid of the entire God family on our side every waking second of each day.

What I’d love to be next year, then – the best Christian I can be – is based on me simply believing that and getting on with life, no matter how basic, tedious, or troubling it is. And I can look back at the end of each day and see the difference the Holy Spirit made, that even in my excruciatingly stressed out or boring life, or in the mistakes I can see I made, underlying them all is the Holy Spirit keeping my love for God and neighbour intact and growing, because he’s the one that makes me a good Christian, thanks to Jesus dying for me and kickstarting the New Covenant.