Lost in religion

This past Sunday I gave a message on John 3. John writes about a man named Nicodemus. Nick, we’re tight so I can call him this, was a Pharisee. This means that he was already a part of the spiritually elite and powerful in Judaism. In addition to that, he was a member of the Sanhedrin which was an influential group that made civil, religious and sometimes criminal decisions in that region. In addition to that, Nick was a respected teacher in this area.

All of that to say, Nick was an answer man. If you wanted answers to complex spiritual dilemmas, he was your guy. He and the groups that he ran with, had a chapter and verse for anything that you could throw at him. He was definitely a “take two verses and call me in the morning” kind of guy when it came to life’s problems. All of that being said, he went to Jesus at night so that his peers wouldn’t see him approach Jesus. He had deeper longings that his religion wasn’t addressing. There was something missing in his life and his belief system wasn’t doing the trick.

Then, he began to hear about this Rabbi from Nazareth. He was doing miracles that could not be explained rationally and the love that he had for those pushed to the margin was legendary.

He was intrigued by Jesus but he feared those within in his religious circle.

Nicodemus had been around “spiritual people” for awhile but felt as though he was missing something. The thing that he was missing, he saw in Jesus. Nick was used to practicing this legalistic form of his religion and saw no fruit in it. All that it yielded was a bunch of finger pointing hypocrites that were more interested in identifying other people’s sin than their own. Jesus would use a word picture for such people in Matthew 23:27; he would call them “whitewashed tombs” meaning they “appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity.” A verse later he would clarify this by saying that they were full of hypocrisy.

Nick knew that he was missing something and that Jesus had whatever it was that he couldn’t summon within himself. Jesus would identify that as a need to be “born again” or more specifically “to be born from above”. The thing that he was missing was eternal life. Eternal life is more than just living forever.

In fact, eternal life is less about duration and more about quality.

In begins with trusting Jesus and saying something along the lines of “Jesus, I give you my life.” and believing that Jesus is who He says He is. That He is eternal life and the giver of abundant life. When we are “born from above”, we possess eternal life the moment we accept. One might say that we all have eternal life either way, but the quality of this eternity is different. It is “life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).

Nicodemus was missing a life that was truly life.

I believe that we can be in church, around church and serving at a church and not be in possession of a life that is truly life. This Sunday, I talked about my journey through “church hurt” over the course of my life. Many of us have a story about how we have been wounded within the four walls of a church building. I know that church is full of people, in fact it is people, and people are imperfect. However, there is a special kind of wounding that happens at church. It is personal and intensely painful as a result. After experiencing church hurt, it is quite common for people to feel angry and even lost as a result. Here is an incomplete list of just a few things that you may have experienced.

  • Angry rants from the pulpit.
  • Culture war rhetoric aimed at specific people groups.
  • A mishandled marriage counseling session.
  • Weaponizing scripture in order to shame or guilt someone.
  • And everyone’s favorite…good old fashioned hypocrisy.

Whatever hurt you’ve experienced, no doubt it has caused you, in some way, to doubt what you have learned from those responsible. There may have even been moments where you doubted your faith as a whole or even punted the whole thing. I get that. There have been seasons where I have looked into a different profession for the same reason. It is natural to doubt when you are in tremendous amounts of pain especially if that pain was caused by a faith community.

If this is you, I want to invite you to join me right here for the next few weeks where I will delve into a few things that I learned from the story of Nicodemus that can help you find your way back to faith, if you are in a space to do such a thing. I found encouragement in the interaction that Jesus had with this religious seeker who had lost his way but, I believe, found his way back after a conversation with this Rabbi sent by God.

The only thing I would ask is that you remain open, as Nicodemus was, to hearing from Jesus. That you might come to accept that even though a group of people claiming the name of Jesus, have wounded you, that they misrepresented Him or even worse, did not know Him in the first place. My hope is that even if you don’t go back to organized religion, you could begin to cultivate a relationship with Jesus that brims with abundant life.

The Jesus I know is a respite for the wounded, a healer of the broken and a pursuer of lost souls.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

While it is true that “church is full of people and people are imperfect”, I do think we, as followers of Jesus can do a lot better. If we are charged to love just as Jesus loved and by that love we are seen as followers of His, we have to do better (John 13:34-35).

However, if you are a part of that group that has left church and also left your faith in Jesus because of your pain, and you are looking for a way back, I really believe that the story of Nicodemus contains some hope for you. Over the next few weeks I will offer a few things that I found in this story that I hope will be a source of comfort and direction for you. Hang in there friend, and I’ll see you next week with the first discovery.

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