“I don’t want religion, I want Jesus.”
I’ve said this before, but I’m not sure it really reflects the truth of the Gospel. I agree in so far as I want to know Jesus intimately and want to discard anything that keeps me from that relationship. I disagree as far as the statement means that I have to give up religion to have Jesus or give up Jesus to have religion.
Religion isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s defined as a system of beliefs, attitudes and practices. I dare you to read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) , one of the most important teachings of Jesus in Bible, and not see a system of beliefs, attitudes and practices. There are beliefs about the sort of people who are blessed, attitudes towards God and towards humans, and commanded practices. This sounds like religion to me. So why do so many people often discard “religion” in favor of “relationship”?
Because we don’t understand the nature of love. When I was married to my wife we exchanged vows, promises that we would always act in a certain way towards each other, placing boundaries on what was and what was not acceptable in our relationship. I can’t act in a way that violates those commitments and say that I am loving her. In the same way, when I say that I want to love Jesus, to have a deeper relationship with him, I can’t act against what he has said is the way of love. Love isn’t a separate principle(s) that is defined by our individual desires and understandings of the world, it is incarnated and revealed in the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith who is present in the common life of Christian believers through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Relationship without Religion doesn’t work because there is a deficit of communication. Religion without Relationship doesn’t work because there is a deficit of incarnation.