I want a relationship, not a religion.

Most of our readers have probably come across this saying before, or some variation on it. In the present-day Episcopal Church, it often takes the form, “Jesus didn’t come to found a religion.” I understand the sentiment behind such slogans, and to a certain extent I am sympathetic with them, insofar as they reflect an earnest zeal to grow in and to draw others toward a deep personal intimacy with the living Christ and to avoid a stale, dead faith.

But, granted this sympathy, I have to say I rather like my religion, and I’m pretty sure it’s good for me. I like the stuff I gaze on when I walk into church: the crucifixes and crosses — wooden, golden, silver; the high-arched ceilings pointing me to heaven; the icons and the stained glass and the statues of the Blessed Virgin; the flickering flames atop candles and torches; the radiant vestments that remind me this isn’t just another business meeting.

I like what I get to do: bow and kneel, genuflect and sing, make the sign of the Cross and hold my hands together in prayer, following the choreography of worship.

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I like what I hear: the comforting, challenging, promising words of Scripture proclaimed aloud as the “Word of the Lord”; the soothing, exacting words of the church’s collects and prayers; the liberating, exultant words of the Canon of the Mass.

I like that we get to build a huge fire once a year, and light an enormous candle from it, and then process that candle through a dark church singing, The light of Christ/Thanks be to God!

In short, I like that my religion is not just an idea, a set of theories about the nature of reality (though of course it has those), but rather includes an elaborate series of concrete actions to perform, actions that are wholly gratuitous, that have no purpose (in the sense of “utility”) other than giving honor and worship to Almighty God and molding me as a person who worships, a proper homo liturgicus, to borrow the phrase of James K.A. Smith.

I like, too, that my religion provides some rules for living. We need rules. If I want to learn how to play a game, the first thing I need to do is learn the rules of the game. If I don’t know the rules, I not only won’t play the game well, I won’t play the game at all. If I don’t know that I’m supposed to dribble the basketball as I run down the court — and instead try to hold it under my arms like a football — it might be less likely that I’ll have the ball stolen, but I would be inadvertently making up a whole new game; I won’t be playing basketball anymore.

Similarly, if I want to live the Christian life, and not a life that I’m making up for myself, then there are certain fixed forms (or rules) to give my life some shape, forms that will make it recognizably Christian. Some rules are negative (don’t lie, don’t lust, don’t covet), and others are positive (pray the prayers Jesus and the Church have taught you, fast, give alms). Religion “regularizes” my life; it provides form to what is otherwise formless; it anchors it in a stable set of commitments that have been shown over the millennia reliably to provide the concrete context for the flourishing of my relationship with the living Christ.

Which is why I get a little puzzled when I hear the Jesus-didn’t-come-to-found-a-religion trope begin to drift into the eager, often exasperated appeal for us to leave “religion” behind. The most common example of this is the emphasis on the need to leave our church buildings and go meet people where they are: the coffee shop, the soccer field, etc.

Again, I get it. I appreciate the desire for an honest and sober assessment of where Christians sit with respect to the broader American culture, and how we will obviously have to adjust some of our ways of doing things to continue the work of the Church in our day. We can’t assume all our neighbors are Christians anymore, or that they will just turn up at church as a part of societal expectation (which, as Stanley Hauerwas points out, is probably a good thing: being a Christian should be a little weird). In order to fulfill the Great Commission, we clearly will need to get back out on our horses, do some circuit-riding, and go make disciples.

Yet surely the end of this commission to make disciples is precisely to bring people into this thing called “religion,” i.e., a certain regularized form of life that includes, for example, consistent times of prayer each day, commitments to fasting and almsgiving, and weekly attendance (at least) at public worship. But public worship requires a community of the faithful being gathered together in one place, and (since it does rain occasionally on Sunday mornings) ideally this would be an indoor meeting place, and (since we’re Christians and believe in Beauty) hopefully that place would dazzle us with its radiance. It should look “otherworldly” enough to remind people that reality is not reducible to the blandness of the concrete office building where they spend most of the other six days of their week, or the eerie gloom of the oncology ward where they received their most recent cancer treatment.

There are, of course, degrees of priority here. Having a beautiful church building is something that many (most?) communities of the faithful cannot put a lot of time and resources into, especially immediately. But the liturgy can be done in a way that inspires “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28); it is a site of beauty, almost independent of locale.

The other fundamental anchors of a “religious” life are even more readily accessible. What we need are priests and teachers of the faith who actually like this religious stuff, and who enjoy nothing more than teaching people how to pray the Daily Office, the Rosary, litanies, novenas, who eagerly anticipate the Church’s feast days and who celebrate hokey traditions associated with the various saints, who throw holy water at everything from parishioners’ new homes to their children’s backpacks on the first day of school.

I suppose my point here is that if we pound too eagerly and often on the Jesus-doesn’t-like-religion drum, we’ll find ourselves (to mix metaphors) sawing off the branch on which we stand. “Religion” for Christians — in its broadest sense at least — just means the substantive set of beliefs and practices that provide the context for our encounter with the risen Lord. Can these beliefs and practices become stale, mechanical, barren, and fruitless? Of course. Jesus was fiercely critical of those religious leaders who “outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). He chastised their hypocrisy in “tithing mint and dill and cumin,” while “neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.” But he didn’t tell them to forget about the tithing and just focus on justice. He said rather, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Jesus was so often at odds with the religious leaders of his day not because religion is bad, but because their reception of it was corrupt. They didn’t take the law of God all the way down to the deepest caverns of their hearts.

And by our own strength, we are inevitably no different than those Pharisees: hypocritical purveyors of religious platitudes. But that’s exactly the difference that the living Christ has made by his death and resurrection. “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds” (Heb. 10:16).

Jesus Christ is our religion because he has made himself a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,” and because by this sacrifice, he has inscribed his own self-offering, his own perfect piety, his own religion, on our innermost hearts. The best way to come to know him, therefore, as he himself “did institute and command,” is to “continue a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice” — by the many and varied ways our religion teaches us to do so — “until his coming again.”

Fr. Mac Stewart serves as curate at All Souls Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City. His other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image is “Religión” by Flickr user dlmanrg.

About The Author

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and serves as assistant priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.

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