Lost in religion: Simplicity

Occasionally I meet with a friend of mine and we drink to our ancestors. Let me explain. One day I called him up and said, “We need to get together. Maybe over a beer?” His response. “No, we will have two beers. One for us and the other for our ancestors!” I was like “YES! That’s what I’m talking about! This guy gets me.” Now, just so you don’t freak out. Yes, I am a pastor and yes occasionally I will have a beer. FYI, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine so I think its okay. Let’s move on.

During that conversation, my friend and I started talking about what I was up to. I told him that I was starting a campus with Chase Oaks Church in San Antonio and I would love for him to be a part of it. Of course this led to a conversation about what I believe and what he believes. He said this “I guess my faith is simple. Love God and love others. That’s it.” It’s impressive when someone can boil down their philosophy of life into just one sentence.

He just kept it simple.

A few weeks ago, I started a conversation about a guy in the Bible named Nicodemus. The passage is found in chapter three of the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is a super religious guy. He was a part of the Pharisees, the most powerful sect in Judaism at the time, and the Sanhedrin, an important group that made civil, criminal and sometimes religious decisions for their region. Nick was also an esteemed teacher in the area. He was the guy you would go to when you needed answers.

And yet, he had questions for Jesus.

“This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” John 3:2

I know. You didn’t see a question in that statement did you? Trust me, it’s there.

You don’t go to somebody after hours, under the cover of night for polite conversation. Nick was searching for something he hadn’t found in all of his years as a Pharisee or as a teacher. Apparently, his friends didn’t have the answer, otherwise he wouldn’t have risked coming to Jesus and potentially becoming a target himself. His group had openly attacked Jesus and some were plotting His death. Nicodemus was different. He had seen how the Pharisees religion had played out, how it had wounded people and pushed them away from God rather than pulling them closer to Him.

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

Even though we don’t see the question that he is asking, Jesus looks deeper into his soul and knows that one exists.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

Jesus saw Nicodemus. He knew that his life had been dedicated to law keeping, culture protecting and a religious structure that only benefited the people who were a part of it. Nick saw in Jesus the thing that he was missing. There was something other worldly about Him and he needed to know what it was. He saw the miracles that Jesus performed along with the love that He showed people who were pushed to the margins and often ignored. It was clear to him that when he compared Jesus to his restrictive religion, something wasn’t right.

His advice to Nick was, to be “born again”.

Yeah, I know. I’m not a huge fan of that phrase either. Not because Jesus said it but because so many people have abused that phrase that it does something wonky to my soul. I get serious “burn your rock albums in the fire, stop dancing because it leads to sex, let’s be accountability partners and I have an unspoken prayer request” vibes from it.

I’m not sure if this helps you but it really helped me to know, that “born again” can either mean to be physically born again or it could mean to be “born from above”. Jesus meant the latter. He was saying that you need to be born of the Spirit in order to experience heaven. He begins to discuss the difference between living a life focused on the flesh and one that is centered on the Spirit.

When you are born of the flesh only, you play by the rules that the world sets up. When you are born of the Spirit, your heart should begin to change. Your grid for looking at the world should be through the lens of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30-31) and the example that we have is the way that Jesus loved. In fact, it is the proof that you are a follower of Jesus. To be born again means that you are a child of God. To be a child of God means that you imitate the Father. Jesus was the best example of what it means to be a child of God and He emphasized love as an indicator of a genuine follower of His.

Loving as Jesus loves is proof of being born from above.

One of the last commands that Jesus gives His disciples is found in John 13:34-35, he calls it a “new command”. He tells his group of friends, before He goes to the cross, to “Love one another just as I have loved you”. As if that wasn’t enough of a curveball, He adds “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”. My friend was right! It really is that simple!

One of the things that has tested my resolve over the past five plus years has been how convoluted the message of Jesus has become for many Christians.

To be honest, I’m not sure why the water has gotten so muddy. It seems that over the course of time, Christians have added things to the message because loving our neighbors is so dang difficult! It requires sacrifice and selflessness. Instead, we have chosen the path of least resistance and added too many other requirements and ideologies to the mix. We have turned Christ’s church into a special interest group or a country club where we go to get validated for feeling the way that we feel about the world we are living in. We can justify our anger against people we don’t agree with and find “friends” who validate our biases against those who are “against” us. Instead of loving and making friends with people who are not like us, we make them our enemies.

We sweep “love your enemies” under the rug and adopt a scorched earth mentality against them instead.

It could be a political difference, opinions on race, gender roles or even your thoughts on current events.

When these things take a front row seat and loving God and loving others takes a back seat, we confuse the message of Jesus. If we insist that our culture wars are the main point and refuse to take a hard look at how we are distinguishing ourselves as a community that loves one another, it loses the people that Jesus came to save.

Don’t get me wrong, there are issues that are worth fighting for. There are injustices in this world that we should not be silent about. It is interesting to me what issues we choose to speak up about and which ones we are silent on, but that is probably a different topic for a different day.

My point is, our love for God and our love for our neighbors should be the driving force for these issues, not the issues themselves.

If the Church could manage to simplify, not water down, the message of Jesus, we would make a bigger impact on our neighborhoods and world. The more we add to our faith, the less clear it is to people looking on, what we actually believe. The hard part is that we, much like Nicodemus, have gotten lost in our own religion.

For Nick, and for us, it takes a spiritual rebirth; a focus on the essentials of what we believe. It all starts and ends with faith. A laser beam focus on trusting God with the entirety of our being. It will require us to reset our lives and take careful notice of how Jesus lived and loved.

Just in case you think Jesus’ command to love is a watered down version of the Gospel, loving God and loving others covers a lot of ground. As a matter of fact, you can take the first four commandments, of the Ten Commandments, and you could summarize that with “Love God” (no other gods, no false idols, don’t take His name in vain, remember the Sabbath). Then, you guessed it, the next six could be summarized “Love your neighbor as yourself” (honor mom and dad, don’t murder, don’t adulterate, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet). Those are pretty big buckets to draw out of! That is a life long endeavor isn’t it?

Instead of going to war against the culture we live in, and as a result the people who are a part of it, how about making the decision to show people how much we love them? That doesn’t mean that we don’t fight the injustices that we see happening around us. It does mean that we don’t make people or people groups the enemy, because we love them.

It also means that we keep our faith simple and pour all of our efforts into the main things. Just as Jesus taught us to.

You may not be there yet though. Maybe you are weighed down by the “do”s and “don’t”s of Christianity and don’t know where to start. Start by keeping it simple.

Maybe what you need is a fresh start; a rebirth of sorts. Trust God with that process won’t you?

Clear the deck and start with something simple.

Love God and love others.

That will be enough to keep you busy for the rest of your life or at least until next week. 🙂 See you then.

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