Don’t worry, I don’t mean giving up God or Christ or Krishna, I don’t mean giving up my passion for Love, Peace and Consciousness. I’m not forgetting about Jesus and putting all my eggs in the Easter Bunny basket. It’s just that this Easter the whole concept of organized religion somehow struck me as very very odd.
Palm Sunday morning, I walked up to my little St Cyprians church as usual. Because it was Palm Sunday, the congregation was gathered outside the church steps, all holding palm leaves as we listened to the beginning proclamations from the Book of Common Prayer. As I walked up to join all the sweet people standing in the sun, all of a sudden the whole premise of religion struck me as very odd. At the same time that I love all religions and I love attending all types of services, pujas, meditations and prayers, I also think they are all kind of weird.
What a strange thing that 2000 years after Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem over the palm leaves put down before him all these random people all over the world should be standing outside churches on a Sunday morning holding palm leaves. I know that rituals have meaning, and I actually LOVE rituals – whether it’s smearing ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday or putting sandalwood paste on my third eye for Shivaratri, I love physical things that remind me about embodying the divine. It’s just that it’s important to remember that all the physical things don’t really matter – it’s all an inside job. And for some reason that morning, as I stood there outside the little church that I love so much, I was struck with the oddness of it all – if my heart is connected with Christ and I am loving God as I live and breath and move about my life, then what is the point of all of this?
Turns out, Father Ted’s sermon was the perfect answer for my feeling of strangeness at the whole concept of organized religion. (Now, how does God do that? Did He inspire those thoughts and feelings in me because He knew what Father Ted had written in his sermon? Or when I had that sense of oddness, did He go back in time to earlier in the week and whisper in Father Ted’s ear?)
After the reading of the passion story from Mark’s gospel, Father Ted began to talk about Palm Sunday and Holy Week. As Father Ted put it, “From triumphal entry to his death by crucifixion in just a few short verses. From riding a donkey into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week, to being put to death for speaking truth to power at the end of the week.”
Jesus had been preaching for years in Galilee and the areas surrounding Jerusalem, telling people that the Kingdom of God was inside of them, teaching people how to connect directly to God, showing them God’s love and mercy – and proclaiming that there is no burden of sin between us and God, and no need for any intervention or sacrifice by a priest or anyone else on our behalf.
In Holy Week, Jesus entered Jerusalem, the very center of both religious authority and secular Roman rule – and he went into the Temple and threw out the money changers and those selling doves for sacrifice. He was challenging the whole system of both political oppression and organized religion that had been established – that people needed to exchange the impure roman coin for temple currency to buy doves or pigeons for the priests to sacrifice at the altar in order for them to attain atonement with God. Jesus was telling us that we already have AT-ONE-MENT with God. We don’t need organized religion to mend our broken relationship with God – to God, it was never broken. We don’t need any rules or rituals or hierarchical system of priests and middle men. And this challenge to both the religious and secular authorities is what led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. And he knew it would. This was the cause Jesus was willing to die for.
So, sitting in the pew of my adorable little church, I am struck with the extreme irony that the establishment of religion has turned Jesus’s very teachings inside out! Instead of realizing the absolute truth of our original innocence and our direct connection with God, the teaching that Jesus gave up his life for, the church has turned his very death into the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf – even though Jesus himself taught that we didn’t NEED a sacrifice, God already loves us completely.
Palm Sunday evening I attended my second service of the day – this time online with the Collective, the wonderful little mis-fit faith community in DeLand. Pastor Ben, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, reading his sermon from his iPad screen in-between drumming in the band, talked to us about the parable of the Third Mile.
The parable Ben told goes like this: Back in Roman Galilee there was a law that if a Roman soldier commanded a citizen to carry his pack, they must carry it for one mile. One day, a small group of disciples heard Jesus preaching and he said “The law requires that you carry a pack for one mile, but I say carry it freely for two.” The disciples were deeply impressed by this and after a year has passed, this custom of carrying the pack for two miles had become a “new law” among the disciples and the leaders among them would often quote this teaching of Jesus and the need to carry the pack for two miles as a sign of one’s faith and commitment to God. Jesus heard about this new custom and came back to the community saying “Dear brothers and sisters, you are faithful and honest, but I have come to you with a second message, for you failed to understand the first. Your law says that you must carry a pack for two miles. My law says, carry it for three.”
What I got from the sermon is this: if there is a religious rule that a person should carry the pack for one mile, then Jesus taught that we should go the extra mile, because it’s not just about following the rules, it’s about what the rules are trying to show us about giving, loving and our relationship with God. But when the “extra mile” group of people, following Jesus teaching, re-set the rule to two miles instead of one, Jesus said again, no, it’s about that extra mile, so go 3 miles. But it’s not really about how many miles. The problem is, however many miles you add on, it becomes exactly the same thing: a rule to follow to be a good Christian, a good Muslim, a good Hindu or a good something or other.
“What if instead of offering his followers an ethical system to follow, Jesus was inviting them to enter into a life of love that transcends ethics, a life of liberty that dwells beyond religious laws?”
If we just create a new religion in the name of Jesus and set up similar rules or roll calls that must be followed in order to get to heaven and a new order of priests and go-betweens, we’re not really following the teachings of Christ. If we absorb the way of love which transcends systems that Jesus showed us back into a system of rules, requirements and safe ethical formulas, we’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter how many miles the rule says you should run, it’s not about counting the miles or following the rules, it’s about transcending the rules and running towards God with all your heart.
“In the end, our wholeness and wellness, our goodness and flourishing, are not to be found in systems of accepted minimums, or in the predictable systems that arise to challenge those minimum requirements – not in religions or in our best attempts at better religions.”
So in the pew and again online at the Collective, I got the message – it’s not about the rules, it’s not about organized religion, it’s about connecting directly with God. As Ben put it, it’s about “Love that transcends ethics.” In all these churches and mosques and temples, in all these rituals and Palm Sunday ceremonies, the purpose of it all is to live closer to God, to live AT-ONE-MENT with God.
It’s the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter of the law. And living the spirit of the law is an entirely inward process between you and God. It has nothing to do with any organized religion or consecrated creed. No amount of empty rule following or proper religious conduct can make any difference. If a person runs 5 miles or half a mile doesn’t matter in the least. We could run an infinite number of miles or just stand still – as long as we do it with absolute sincerity. It’s what is happening inside that matters. It’s about the state of our hearts. It’s about our direct connection to God.
That is the cause that Jesus died for! And the ironic thing is, by Christianity creating this complicated system of rules and have to’s, in setting up an organized religion with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it is recreating the same system that Jesus spoke out against. We see this again and again, and it is up to us to keep bringing back the Love that transcends religion, just like Martin Luther speaking up about the Catholic church selling indulgences or Martin Luther King Jr. speaking up against injustice.
So, to truly follow Christ, we can’t just create a new religion, we have to let go of religion, let go of the outer show of faith and live our inner experience of faith. And not just when we are dressed in our Sunday best, but in our every day moments.
In Father Ted’s Easter Sunday sermon, he also spoke to this direct connection of God and the Resurrected Christ not in organized religious ceremony – but inside our ordinary lives.
“After all the “Alleluias” this morning we will leave this sanctuary and go out into our ordinary lives. But that is exactly where we will meet the risen Jesus if we will only open our eyes, and hearts, and souls to the world around us. In our liturgy this morning we will greet each other in the “Peace of The Lord.” This is a greeting of the Christ that is alive in each one of us greeting the Christ in the other. It is a symbolic and liturgical action. But when we walk out the door into the world we are called to see the risen Jesus in each and every other person we encounter.”
I have often grappled with the check box called “Spiritual but not religious” because I’ve at times felt that I am “Spiritual and ALL religious” or an “Everything.” I love all religions and all ways of loving God, so I haven’t wanted to say that I am no religion – until now. In the essential truth, the truth that Jesus died for, it is not about a new religion, no religion or all religions – it’s just about connecting with God.
Peter Rollins examines traditional religious notions from a revolutionary and refreshingly original perspective. At the heart of his message is a life lived through profound love.