Then our churches would be full of people who: Loved God, did not do things in order to impress other people, were humble, didn’t wonder about other people, prayed, worshipped God in spirit and in truth, trusted God, didn’t worry, didn’t put their trust in earthly treasures, loved others (including their enemies and other Christians), prayed for anyone who persecuted them, treated others the way they would like to be treated themselves, talked to anyone who had offended them, talked to anyone who they had offended, were merciful, did not judge others, served others, forgave others, spoke in such a way that their word could be relied on, and taught others to obey Jesus’ commands.
One of the reasons many people leave churches may be that too many churches place too much emphasis on the importance of human rules and traditions, and not enough emphasis on the key requirement of the Christian life: loving God. Christians who want to focus on loving God, and who want to be with other Christians who love God, are finding that many churches are not meeting this central need.
Jesus strongly criticised the religious leaders of his day for losing sight of their primary role which was to enable and encourage others to love God. Jesus criticised these leaders for focussing on teaching human rules:
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain. Their teachings are merely human rules.'” (Matthew 15:7-9)
We Christians sometimes place more emphasis on our denominational traditions and rules than on the importance of loving God. We have become burdened and weighed down by traditions and rules that have nothing to do with loving God, but we find it difficult to even recognise those traditions as being burdens. And if we do not recognise them as burdens we cannot change them. This weakens our witness and hinders the coming of God’s kingdom.
It gets worse. We do not just weigh ourselves down with traditions and rules; we burden others with them. Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day, saying:
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
If we deliberately promote the traditions of our denomination as rules required by God then we make them a burden for others and we deserve the condemnation Jesus pronounces. But if we even fail to openly identify these traditions as being human, not divine, then we make them a burden for others and we deserve the same condemnation.
God does not want us to be burdened with human traditions. He wants those who commit themselves to his service to be free from burdens. Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
And Jesus’ beloved disciple, John, said:
“For this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1John 5:3)
We Christians must free ourselves from unnecessary burdens, including our human traditions and rules, and we must be very, very careful not to lay these unnecessary burdens on others.
So why do I say that Christians who are leaving churches today may be our best hope for tomorrow?
The Christians who are leaving churches can help us in two ways:
• They can develop ways of expressing their love for God which are not hindered by the traditions and rules found in established denominations. Their witness to non-Christians will be free of these traditions and may be simpler, clearer and more effective.
• They can serve as an example and an encouragement to Christians who remain in churches to identify the rules and traditions that hinder God’s work in his world at this time, to throw them out and to focus on loving God.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
How to avoid hearing Jesus say “I never knew you.”
Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Jesus then tells the parable of the wise and foolish builders, illustrating and reinforcing his teaching about the importance of not just hearing his words, but acting on them. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27).
Other examples of Jesus teaching on the importance of ‘doing’ include: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35); “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14) and “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17)
So it is very important that we do the will of God. If we rely on our faith, our beliefs, our creeds or our doctrines to save us, but do not do the will of God, then we may be risking hearing Jesus say “I never knew you”.
What is the will of God that we should be doing? Fortunately the answer to that question is very clear. We must look after those who are in need. We must give to those who are poor, befriend those who are alone and promote justice for those who need justice. To put it simply we must love our neighbour. The importance of ‘doing’ these things that God commands is found throughout scripture:
• In Genesis God says: “I have chosen him (Abraham) that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19);
• In the law given to Moses there are many, many examples of commands to look after others. Just one example must do for this post: “Give liberally and be ungrudging …for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.'” (Deuteronomy 15:10-11);
• In the prophets, to take one example, “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8);
• In the gospels, Jesus’ chilling teaching on what happens to those who do not look after others (Matthew 25:31-46).
Of course, we must not think for a moment that we can earn salvation by our good works. As our brother Paul put it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). We cannot guarantee our salvation by looking after others. Salvation is the gift of God and God alone – but the scriptures make it very clear that God expects us, his servants, to act on his commands to look after those in need.
It is a wonderful thing to see a small child running to someone that they trust, looking forward to being picked up and carried. The moment the child allows their feet to leave the ground they have completely surrendered their safety and security to the one who is holding them. As we get older it becomes more difficult to trust others, but Jesus reminds us that He wants us to be like small children. We, His children, need to learn to take our feet off the ground as we surrender ourselves to Him.
Taking your feet off the ground is a risky thing to do, but the child doesn’t think about that. The child has no difficulty in taking their feet off the ground because they have learned to trust the person who holds them. The child trusts because experience has taught them that they are safe when that person is holding them.
We learn to trust a person over time. Even small children don’t trust someone they have only just met. We get to know a person slowly. We learn that we can trust them a bit, so we trust them a bit more. This is how we come to know that we can trust God. The more we trust Him the more confident we become that we can trust Him more.
Taking my feet off the ground is also a risky thing to do because I am no longer in control of the direction in which I am going, or of my destination. I deliberately surrender responsibility for those things to the one who is carrying me. I do so confidently because I know I can trust Him.
My favourite image of God is found in Isaiah 40:11, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” God picks us up and carries us in his arms, close to his heart. We can trust him completely and He wants us to trust him completely. If we don’t struggle, if we trust Him to decide our direction and destination, we will be safe and secure.
Jesus tells us to pray. However, a sister in Christ asked me ‘What is the point of prayer if God is just going to do what he wants to do anyway?’ It’s a good question.
Jesus tells us to pray, and that alone might be a good enough reason to do it. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to do things that don’t have a purpose. He talked about prayer a lot and he prayed a lot. And, for Jesus, prayer wasn’t just about asking for things. When Jesus prayed, the beloved son was in deep conversation with his loving Father. So, when we read about Jesus praying, we get a glimpse into the very special love relationship that exists between the Son and the Father.
This relationship between Jesus and the Father is so outside our normal human experience that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to fully grasp what it is. Jesus tells us that he and the Father are one (John 14:8-11). Jesus also tells us that he is in the Father and the Father is in him and (here’s the amazing bit) we are invited to join in too and (here’s the even more amazing bit) when we join in, the effect is going to be that the world will be convinced that God sent Jesus (John 17:20-21).
When we pray we are taking our first steps into joining this indescribable relationship. It is very difficult to even begin to understand a relationship that is so outside our human experience. It seems impossible to imagine what communication in that relationship might be like. So, let’s talk about something that we can grasp. Let’s talk about communion (and I’m not talking about the sacrament we celebrate in our services). I googled the word “communion” and the first definition I got was “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on a mental or spiritual level”: That’s a good definition of what “communion” means. When we love someone we want to share thoughts and feelings with them. We want to be intimate with them. In other words, we want to be in communion with them. Prayer is being in communion with God. It is sharing thoughts and feelings with God. It is being intimate with God. It is loving God in practice.