Jesus had a religion – a good one. In fact, as a Jew, he had the best one: Judaism, religion of the covenant, the one true God’s law and promises to his people. It’s these very promises, in fact, that point to fulfillment. Judaism's revelation speaks of the coming of the Emmanuel, “God with us” (Is 7:14) Jesus did not come to abolish but rather fulfill the Law of Judaism (Mt 5:17). He fulfilled God’s promise to David of an heir whose throne shall be established forever (2 Sam 7:12-16).
Jesus did not come to start a religion. He came to fulfill one.
Jesus does not talk much about religion. What he talks about is the Kingdom. The word Kingdom is mentioned 137 times in the New Testament, when referring to “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of heaven.” Over ninety of those times are from the lips of Jesus himself.
Religion has become a bad word in many Christian circles. It’s often used to sum up everything that’s wrong with the church. Bono famously said, religion is what you get when God leaves the building.
I am not a religion hater. I would not be a priest if I were. The religious sense is the cry for the infinite at the core of our humanity. Its creed-code-cult structure is its noble, necessary, and even biblically commanded vehicle. But religion is a means, not an end. The Kingdom is the end.
Religion is what man does about God. The gospel is what God does about man. That’s a big difference.
According to the gospel, Jesus is King, son of God and son of David. He teaches and heals in all authority. He confronts and masters sickness, evil, and ultimately death itself. Through Jesus, heaven invades earth, conquering and despoiling the devil, that 'strong man, fully armed' who so insolently guarded his possessions. 'One stronger than him' arrives to defeat him (Luke 11:21-22). The religious sense is answered. Jesus is here and the Kingdom is at hand. Faith repents and believes.
When we lose sight of the relative value of religion with regard to the gospel and the Kingdom, even good and necessary creed-code-cult structures become self-referential and self-justifying, lacking repentance and faith and thwarting Kingdom invasions of history. As seen in the scribes and Pharisees, religion can oppose the Kingdom it’s meant to serve, becoming instead something rigid and grotesque. Does this still happen?
“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1:17). That pregnant little phrase pretty much sums up...well, all of salvation history. But in particular, it sums up the difference between religion and Christianity.
Perhaps the best way to describe religion is that it’s a good start. The Kingdom completes what religion starts. This is the “good news” of the gospel.
Jesus came to announce the Kingdom. His first public words were: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near” (Mk 1:15).
Religion builds and reveres a throne but can’t fill it. Religion attempts to forge a bridge toward God with an institutionalized set of beliefs, morals, and worship which make habitual the search for God. In a hostile environment, these set the religion and its people apart and protect their identity. This was the situation of first century Judaism. A protectionary impulse arises, as seen in the scribes and Pharisees and priests. They were the Jewish culture warriors of the time, motivated by the best of intentions.
The problem was, the world was just too broken for religion. At best, religion could provide a channel to God and safe haven for a group. But it proved unequal to the task of setting the world right, really right.
Jesus came to set the world right. He came to announce that the King had come. The world was under new governance, new management, new leadership.
Have you ever labored under bad leadership? Worked in an environment that sucked your soul out of you? Lived under a government that seemed less than competent, had something less than your true good, the common good, at heart? (I’m from Illinois...don’t get me started...) So much suffering is caused by bad leadership.
Jesus is the good leader, the true King. He came to inaugurate a Kingdom, to bring a failing business under new management, to take a falling city under new governance, to set things right. He came to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly (Lk 1:52); to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10); to usher in a new Kingdom of justice, love and peace (Rom 14:17). Or, as he says at the synagogue at Nazareth:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor,
liberty to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
(Lk 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah’s messianic prophecy)
“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus announces. The King has arrived, says Jesus. Get ready for changes.
This good God, now present, has the power to intervene and the will to do so. He speaks and acts with authority. The Kingdom of God is the rule of God. Wherever Jesus reigns, there you have the Kingdom of God. There you have a benevolent reign where the world begins to be renewed, one heart at a time.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near” (Mk 1:15) Why “near?” Why not “here?” Isn’t Jesus, after all, standing before them? Well, Jesus is a King of respect and honor. He does not impose his rule. He seeks permission. The difference between the Kingdom being near and being here is our response, our yes, our welcome, our surrender. Our tradition calls it faith. The only way he reigns is through the permission of people.
Religious thinking produces set-apart believers, leading to a tribe. The problem is, tribes protect interests and agendas, and can easily become self-referential.
Kingdom thinking produces disciples (‘learners’), leading to a church. Disciples are called, formed, and equipped, then sent out. Kingdom thinking is God-referential and missional. Our King authorizes and trains disciples for the leadership training track, sending them out to announce and demonstrate the memo to all the earth: the world is under new leadership.
Religion and secularism, in one sense, are two sides of the same coin. One is humanity’s best God-seeking answer to history, the other is humanity’s best God-denying answer to it. The common denominator is, humanity. They are what “we” do. And what we do, history shows, is insufficient to set the world right.
The Kingdom is what God does. Without the Kingdom, we only have religion. The default tendency for religion is toward rules, law, and self-preservation, becoming tribal. In the face of hostility, or human intransigence, it ends up self-referential and self-protectionary. It plays defense, not offense.
Which raises the question. Are we maintaining a religion, or advancing a Kingdom? Are we a protectionary tribe, or a missionary church? If I am reading Pope Francis correctly, the answer is too often the former, and this needs to change. “To evangelize is to make the Kingdom of God present in our world.” (The Joy of the Gospel, #176)