Faith beyond Religion.
The readings this morning are very interesting. As we progress towards Pentecost Sunday in a few weeks’ time, the reading from Acts is already chronologically after Pentecost and yet the gospel reading is before Pentecost and is pointing us towards it. The readings feel slightly out of sync. But that conflict, that dissonance is actually what has inspired my title this morning, namely, faith beyond religion.
Acts tells us the story of the stoning of Stephen. We read it nowadays with a sense of disassociation, a cool objectivity. In fact we often joke about it saying it is not a story about being stoned on drugs. But it was cruel and savage way to be killed. It was a cruel and savage way to kill. Just recently I saw a similar real life example of just such savage and cruel behaviour. It was a video taken in my birth country of South Africa of a women being stamped and beaten upon by a mob of people while large crowds stood by watching. Without going into the graphic and really disturbing details, I was shocked at how humans can treat one another without a sense of guilt or remorse; how people who kick someone helpless on the ground do this without hesitation or restraint. Some even lunged themselves into the air so as to land upon this lady with both feet and their full body weight. This blood covered women lay helpless on the ground. I stopped watching when a man approached her with an axe and proceeded to use the back of the axe on her head.
Human beings in this story in Acts, with malicious intent, picked up stones with the aim to cause another human being grievous harm. As we read, this harm caused the death of that human whom we know to be Stephen. He was brutally killed for his religious convictions. In the video I watched recently, which I sent to Amnesty International, it seems these actions of the mob were politically motivated.
Verse 58 here in chapter 7 of Acts says, ‘the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’. This act of brutal violence was religiously motivated. Surely that is a contradiction? Surely here too there is conflict and dissonance? Surely such violence is not the true intent of religion? Surely any such violence towards humans by humans, religiously or politically motivated is unjustified?
If you have been watching the news recently, you will know of the actions of a religious fundamental group that have kidnapped girls in the north of Nigeria and liberated them because they have converted in fear to Islam. Surely this is not what religion is? Surely Christianity as a religion is not like this? Surely us here on a Sunday expressing our religion are not like that? Surely there is no dissonance, no conflict in our religion?
Pete Rollins in his book ‘Insurrection’ says, “the person who affirms God through fear of persecution makes the claim in order to convince another, while people who affirm God through fear of hell or meaningless seek to convince themselves” (p10). What I suggest is being implied here is the difference between religion and faith. Saul was driven and motivated by his religion and was zealous and driven for that cause but he did things that could not be justified. Our passage from John this morning especially verse 6 has been used in the same way in different ways throughout history and still today within our religion. This is where I suggest religion and faith differ.
Paul Tillich the theologian said that the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim was transreligious, thereby no justifying any religion credence over another or insolence towards that which is different. Karen Armstrong in her chapter about a second axial period says, “every theological statement should be paradoxical, to remind us that when we are speaking about God we are at the end of what thoughts and words can do and that the divine cannot easily be contained within a human system of thought” (p27). Faith therefore as Geering explains is that which “refers to the personal attitude of trust and hope which we humans manifest as we interpret the world in which we live and respond” (p33). It is a position which surrenders control especially control over others and replaces it instead with wasteful generous love. It is a position which places action as a result of the faith it holds to respond to the world in love and in many cases it is love that directs our actions against injustice.
In contrast, religion often is about control.
Allow me to illustrate this point about control through another story form the Bible. In Genesis 32 we have the story about Jacob wrestling with God. In ancient society to name something was to have control over that thing. Note God asks Jacob his name and Jacob provides it. As a result, his name is changed by God from Jacob to that of Israel. Jacobs tries to control God by asking him his name but God does not concede. There are 2 significant aspects here in this story. One is that God likes us to wrestle and he blesses that action. Religion often likes to have all the ‘t’s crossed and all the ‘i’s dotted and does all in its power to exert this constant unchanging position. Faith on the other hand is about mystery as defined by Hebrews 11 ‘sure of what we HOPE for’. The second aspect is that of control by naming things. A similar situation can be found in the story where Moses is being sent to Egypt and he really does not want to go and so Moses asks, ‘who shall I say sent me?’ In other words, what is your name? Interestingly God replies ‘I am that I am’ has sent you.
Here in John we have the very same reference in verse 6 ‘I am way. truth and life’ and it is part of a long list of ‘I am’s’ such as ‘I am the bread of life’(6:35), ‘the light of the world’ (8:32), ‘the living water’ (7:37) etc. found here in the gospel of John. Bishop Spong says that ‘Johns gospel is so profound so poetic, so skilfully crafted, so dependent on images and concepts out of the Jewish past that it is worthy of the study of a lifetime’ (p189).
Faith is so much more than doctrines, rules, control, naming. Faith is about hope and love just as Paul writes in the letter to the church in Corinth chapter 13 saying, ‘and these 3 things remain, faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love’.
I’d like to think that as Stephen lay there on the ground, helpless and innocent, being unjustifiably and brutally killed in the name of religion, his pronouncement of forgiveness to his enemies, the ultimate expression of agape love was a seed of conviction placed within the heart of young Saul.
Stephen exemplifies faith, love and hope. As Rollins writes, “This is what love does. It does not make itself visible but, like light, makes others visible to us. In a very precise sense, then, love’s presence cannot be described as existing, but rather is that which calls others into existence; for to exist literally means to stand forth from the background, to be brought forth’.
And finally, Bernard Brandon Scott in his chapter ‘from parables to ethics’, says “hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world….and its not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…it is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” (p132).
May we truly be Easter people where we do not believe for what value it solely gives us but may we be truly faith people, inspired by our faith, hope and love that the world is transformed by our faith living in the way, that it matters to the world what we believe, that our faith catapults us into loving action against any form of injustice for we seek to live life, celebrate life and life in all its fullness. And may God empower us through the coming of the Holy Spirit in this way.