Organized Religion

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other than what is reported in the Gospel accounts, there is little known about the life of Jesus. The Gospel stories tell us about his genealogy, his mysterious conception and birth, his infancy, and his entry into adulthood at the visit of the Temple in Jerusalem.[1] Then there is nothing more until he comes to the bank of the Jordan River to be baptized by John.

What happened in those intervening years? How did Jesus grow in strength and wisdom as we are told he did in the Gospel according to Luke?[2] When the story of Jesus continues he is a grown man, probably around thirty years of age, standing on the river bank seeking baptism. From there, after being blessed by God and receiving the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness—the arid desert either south of Jericho or east of the Jordan—where he survives the temptation to seek high terrestrial and temporal glory. Think about that temptation for a second. Had he accepted Satan’s offers to do miracles, jump from the temple’s pinnacles, and rule all the kingdoms of the earth, he would have, in fact, lost any power to do any good at any time. Jesus would have been rendered impotent and turned into a vassal of evil. This desire to be a miracle worker, live painlessly, and exercise power over others is the history of the world in which we live. Jesus brings to the world a new vision of the rule of God, which does not demand surrender to desire but instead surrender to the power of goodness and kindness.

The story, however, changes after the temptation. Jesus’ call to ministry is now well known and he has attracted a following of disciples. He appears in his home city, Nazareth. Jesus, possibly absent from the town for several years, returns with a reputation of being a rabbi and healer. However, Jesus is well known there. In fact, a story appearing in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus is identified as the community’s carpenter.[3] The people wonder how this man, who they know and they know his family, can do so many marvelous things and be such a wise interpreter of the Scriptures[4]. In the Luke,[5] Jesus is given the scroll from Isaiah to read. Recognized as a man of integrity holding some sway in the community, he is asked to read Scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth. The town of Nazareth, being on a major trade route from Damascus to the port at Caesarea, had many people, devout Jews and others with interest in the religion of the Jews, traveled through area. However, an unknown traveler could not expect such recognition at the Nazareth synagouge.

We cannot tell from the story in Luke whether Jesus chose to read the particular Scripture from Isaiah that announces that the “year of the Lord’s favor has come” or whether it was the appointed selection for that Sabbath. Regardless, with a few simple words, Jesus announces he is the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy. He is the one anointed with the Spirit of God. Jesus after a period of silence, which is customary after reading Scripture, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[6]

Jesus is the one who has been given the task by God to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive, heal the blind, and to liberate the oppressed. At first, his fellow Nazarenes were impressed. Jesus, however, knows their obduracy and quotes a proverb to them about a prophet is honored elsewhere except among his own people.

The men of the synagogue want Jesus to be their miracle worker, to be their hometown hero. Jesus intimates he has a wider mission by reminding the men of the synagogue that Israel is not the only nation to receive the benefits of God’s mercy.[7] This is too much for men who have believed all their lives that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, came only to the people of Israel and all others are excluded. These men, who just moments before were in awe of Jesus, now want to throw him over the side of a cliff.[8] However, the power of Jesus’ personality stuns them into inaction and he walks away from the Nazareth mob unharmed.

Let us imagine ourselves in this story. Who would we be? We can be disciples who have followed Jesus up from Capernaum, we can be the Nazarenes in the synagogue, or we can be an unknown traveler who has stopped by the synagogue to take part in the Sabbath prayers before we begin our journeys the next day. If we are the first two, our minds are closed. Jesus for the disciples is the miracle worker of Galilee. For the Nazarenes, he is their personal friend, a local boy made good. He is the sole possession of both and neither are willing to share the good news that the “year of the Lord’s favor has come” and that the oppressed can be liberated by the Word of God. The stranger hears something different, possibly even recognizes that he may be included in this Scriptural message of freedom and healing Jesus says of which he is the fulfillment.

This story describes the basic problem of Christianity today. Some Christians have taken possession of Jesus and have turned him into the person they want him to be instead of what Jesus is. Many Christians want him for a big brother who picks up the frightened to carry across the hot coals of life. However, Jesus is more than just a “good guy” who helps believers when things get tough. Jesus, if we read the Gospel stories correctly, is the one who God has anointed to set the captives free, to give sight to the blind, and to liberate the oppressed. Apparently, if we understand Jesus’ words, he is to do all those things for the entire world.  However, some Christians see Jesus as the one who closes the doors, who prevents the doubter from thinking, and who turns out the lights. The result is, many especially young people today see or experience Christianity in just that way—a closed institution. They are not opposed to following Jesus they are instead opposed to participating in an organization that does not reflect Jesus or through which you cannot see Jesus. They call it organized religion and disdain the idea that religion should be organized, especially one that purports to proclaim the message Jesus announced in the Nazareth synagogue two-thousand years ago.

Organized religion is important to me. I believe in order it provides, I believe in the way the message is studied in an organized way, I believe in the connection with the saints of the past and the saints the future as well as the saints of today. That connection is difficult to make unless there is organization. I believe in the majesty of a community where Christ Jesus is seen and is transparent enough for people to see beyond the doors of the institution to see the throne of heaven. However, I am becoming a part of a minority. That minority has come about and is the result of followers of Jesus who are like the men of Nazareth in the synagogue so long ago. They seemingly said to Jesus, “If you cannot be ours alone, you cannot be anybody’s.” If the Church is to survive this century, and I have faith it will, then those who claim to be followers of Jesus and have accepted him as their savior must begin to think like Jesus and read the Scriptures as Jesus did for their ultimate meaning.

Therefore, let us read the Scriptures for meaning. Jesus says, “I have come to release the captive.” What have we done to free those captive to those things that enslave them—poverty, selfishness, ignorance? Jesus says, “I have come to give sight to the blind.” How do we think about the world and universe? Do we open the world and the universe to people by seeing the hand of the Divine in the discoveries of science and new knowledge? Jesus says, “I have come to free the oppressed.” Is the Church in the forefront of seeking peace and justice for all and is the Church living up to the baptismal covenantal promise to honor the dignity of all human beings?

Jesus is the world’s model and if the Church is the Body of Christ, as the Apostle Paul has described it, the Church must also be the model of behavior of love to the world. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the continuation of Jesus’ life on earth today not merely an institution. The Church is to reflect the anointing of God to proclaim the year or time of God’s favor. The Father, the God that Jesus obeys and proclaims, loves the world and is willing to give us all there is in the universe to reconcile humanity to itself and to God.

If the people who make up the organized religion called the Church, do not allow the world to experience this anointing of God’s spirit and then act on that special calling to release the captive, give light to the blind, and free the oppressed, then organized religion is a failure—Jesus is not. When the Church provides to an ailing world the work Jesus has called it to, then it does not matter what the skeptic, the cynic, and the atheist says or thinks. The Church in its own majesty, as Jesus was on the hill in Nazareth, will always be available to the world.


[1] Luke 2:40-52.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark 6:1-4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Luke 4:16-30

[6] Luke 4:21.

[7] Luke 4:23-27. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

[8] Luke 4:29.

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