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I Don't Care for Organized Religion

Judas chose to go it alone.

He worked out his questions and did battle with his personal demons all by himself. He walked out of the upper room, made his escape down the back stairs, and the Twelve became the Eleven.

Now, in all outward appearance, everything with Judas was fine. When he left that evening, the other disciples were willing to see good reason for his absence—he was probably out doing some­thing for the poor he always talked about. But make no mis­take. Walking away from that cir­cle of Jesus’ followers, such as they were, meant walking away from Jesus himself.

And when grief came to Judas, when it gathered up its full man-crushing weight, he sought people who might help him carry it or who might help him somehow fix the mess he had made or who at least might tell him it was going to be all right. Everyone needs some­one to talk to, even Judas.

So he confessed his sin, making a gut-wrenching admission— “I have betrayed innocent blood!” —to the wrong sort of people. The so-called spiritual leaders of Israel didn’t know Jesus, therefore, they didn’t know grace. “Judas, there is forgiveness for you” and “there is one who loves you still” were not things they knew how to say. With the shrug of their shoulders and their “What is that to us?” these spiritual leaders, in affect, just killed him.

I can’t help but think: “If only . . .”

If only Judas had stayed in the upper room. There was always a place for him there, regardless of the secrets he hid in his heart. If only he had examined his own heart in the presence of the One who always knew what to say. In the real reasons Judas wanted to leave that little church— his greed, his anger, his pride—he could have seen pre­cisely the reason he needed to stay.

Judas needed forgiveness. It proved to be the one thing he couldn’t live without. And there in that upper room was forgiveness personified, for there was Christ holding together John, the one who leaned on his right side.

On Jesus’ other side was an empty place.

Please read John 13:18-30 and Matthew 27:1-10.

Having spent many years in Christian leadership, this joke still brings a smile to my face. One day someone said, “I don’t go for organized religion.”

Someone else answered, “It’s not that organized!”

However, the real question people are asking is, How can something as personal as religious faith depend in any sig­nificant way on institutionalized religion? They get more out of a contemplative walk alone in the woods, so they say, than from an hour of corporate worship. I too embrace the natural beauty of God’s world and crave the solitude of a quiet lake. When the setting sun creates a dazzling golden path across the rippling water directly toward me on my pier, my soul stands up to see. I really feel as if I could walk that ethereal road directly into heaven, into him.

Of course, I cannot.

Although there are things that can be learned about God in nature—so awesome, so extravagant—the thing we most need to know about him does not rustle in the leaves or shimmer on the waves. And we do not figure it out all by ourselves. The thing we need to know is, How does he—so above and so beyond—come down to us?

I must explain that while religious faith can be called per­sonal in many respects, in its truest sense it is not. Christian­ity is not personal if by personal you mean that the Christian faith is something we find within our deepest selves or is something we work out individually, privately, or internally.

The Christian is one who no longer seeks such things as salvation, peace, or hope within him or herself—in the end only darkness and death come from within. The Christian looks outside of him or herself and finds every good thing in Jesus Christ as the Word of God brings him near. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, the Christian lives wholly by that external Word, not by his or her own personal feelings. That is, the Word comes to the sinner from outside of him or her, declaring the sinner guilty even when he or she doesn’t feel guilty and declaring the sinner forgiven even when he or she doesn’t feel forgiven.

“Whenever our hearts condemn us . . . God is greater than our hearts.”

The Christian is one who daily hungers and thirsts for the righteousness and who constantly desires the absolution— the “I have loved you and have forgiven you now and forever”—that are in Christ. These things are found in only one place in this entire groaning world, namely, in God’s redeeming Word.

“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back.”

We taste that sweet redemption in the bread and wine that are, respectively, Christ’s body and blood “given for you.” This redemption also comes connected to the bap­tismal water on the strength of God’s promise: “Baptized into Christ.” The Word and sacraments are God’s things. They are found precisely where he himself has put them, in the center of every true gathering of believers in Christ. Their presence is the one true mark of the church and of the company God keeps among his people. When we can’t raise ourselves up to him on the ladder of religious feelings, he comes all the way down to us through these means. It is receiving this Good News again and again that keeps believ­ing individuals repentant and alive to God. It is learning to draw always more deeply from the well of salvation that means we are growing up into Christ.

In the same way, the church itself, that body of all people who believe in Jesus, cannot continue to be his church for one solitary day without the fresh supply of grace that comes from him through the gospel, that is, without the novel thing he does for believers’ faith with each Word of his that strikes their ears. Christians praise a God whose tender mercies arrive “new every morning.” And the whole thing doesn’t come down to how “organized” they are, thank God.

A sad memory of mine is the day I sat with a couple who hadn’t been in church to receive that grace for over five years. They tried to assure me: “Pastor, don’t worry about us. We still believe in God. And we’re doing everything we can to be good people so we can go to heaven.” They are certainly not Judases, betraying Jesus outright. But are they Christians? I honestly don’t know. I only know that there is no spiritual life in their words whatsoever. Not even close.

Here’s what I constantly find: The assurance of peace with God becomes a very weak thing when I try to work it up within myself. But Christ is strong in the Word of God that comes through a brother or a sister. He designed Chris­tian life in just this way: we need one another, we belong together. For God has put reconciliation in the mouths of the “two or three” who gather in Jesus’ name, who meet one another as bearers of salvation. “There am I,” Jesus told us, “with them.”

Why then would anyone want to be an isolated, separated Christian? As Fredrick Buechner put it, there is an “Us-ness” to the Christian faith. Those who belong to Christ by faith also belong to one another, like parts of a human body that are perfectly fitted together. Does a hand, a mouth, or even a little toe strike out on its own? Regardless of the part you are meant to play among the believers—to encourage the hurting, to teach the little ones, to serve the needy—if you don’t play it, if you aren’t there, you are missed.

If you are a member of Christ’s body by faith, then there is meaning for you in taking your place in service to his body, the church. The important thing to point out is in how many respects we cannot possibly express by ourselves all that it means to be a Christian.

“Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” That’s what Jesus said, and the context is especially important. This lovely promise sparkles in the midst of Jesus’ longest extended discourse about forgiveness. Before this verse is the principle to follow “if your brother sins against you,” and immediately after this verse is Peter’s classic question, “How many times shall I forgive?” This context indicates to me that the “two or three” Jesus has in mind don’t merely meet to chat over coffee or to arrange a play date for their kids. They “come together” when one has been bruised by another, when someone has been hurt and is angry, when the two or three have just fallen apart and something ugly has come between them . . . then the golden opportunity arrives.

We find out what it means to belong to Christ and what it means to be the church.

Please think about it. How will you learn to forgive your brother or love your sister all by yourself? How will you learn humility, patience, or anything that can be called gracious all by yourself? These are the things that do not even come into play until we’re together . . . and someone has offended someone . . . and someone says, “I forgive you” . . . and some two or three who had been separated in their mere humanness come together again.

Then we breathe the unmistakable fragrance of Christ.

Two deeply cherished members of my congregation were angry. They were hurt. They were leaving our Chris­tian family for good, and there was nothing anyone could say. A woman saw their grief as they stood in the lobby of our church, perhaps for the last time.

What happened next they would still wonder about and talk about years later.

This woman ached for them and felt compelled to walk over to them and to say . . . God knows what. She hardly remembers what it was, only that it rose up from the Scripture she hides in her heart.

They can only report that their anger, stored away for months, just lifted. The hurt they had held so long was simply gone, replaced by peace and warmth . . . and something More that they still can’t quite explain. Perhaps I can.

“Where two or three come together in my name . . .

“There am I."

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