A guy saw me reading my bible at work today on my lunch break, as I sat on the floor in a quiet corner of the lobby. “Reading anything good?” he called out. I looked up, “Sure am. My bible.” He looked a little surprised, then laughed good naturedly, “Oh, I always get zapped every time I try to read that thing. It’s like God’s trying to get me back, or something.” I chuckled along with him, but before I could respond, he was onto his next thought. “You know, though, the best kind of ‘book’ I’ve read for that sort of thing - or, well, should I say, spiritual stuff, ‘cuz I’m a spiritual person - is Buddhism. But, you know, they all seem to be pretty much the same thing. All about respect and harmony and doing good. Well, except for Islam... they seem to be stuck in - you know, back in the time when Moses, I think it was him, and the Israelites were going to battle and doing all that killing - yeah, stuck in that.” He continued on with his thoughts on women and Islam, but as quickly as he entered my lunch time, he was on his way out the door. “Well, nice talking with you. God bless you!” And he disappeared outside, to smoke with his buddies.
I looked out the door for awhile, processing our little exchange. Then I looked down at my bible, where I was reading in the book of Romans...
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31-32, 35, 37-39).
And I thought of that guy, whose name I don’t know, and I prayed for him. A nice fellow, I thought. Not unlike many of the nice people I often meet in Seattle who are seeking to know truth. People who probably want little to do with “organized religion,” but are quick to classify themselves as “spiritual.” People who are hungry for God, yet are searching in many different places for that fulfillment. Similar to what Paul is talking about in Romans when he says of Israel, "For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God" (10:2-3). I think many people, to varying degrees, agree with the fellow’s (on my lunch break) rudimentary theology - that all these religions and spiritual movements are, in essence, the same. Just different branches of the same tree. Different tributaries of the same river. You get my drift. I’ve heard many people voice their belief that the “God” worshipped in all the major world faiths is the same, just packaged differently. After all, they say, isn’t it all about the Golden Rule? Isn’t it about doing good to each other, about peace, love, and faith? Why does one have to be right and the others wrong?
Those are good questions, fair points - if you don’t know have a knowledge of Jesus. Last time I checked, Jesus didn’t come preaching zen-like meditation, self-actualization, enlightenment, do-goodism, peace and hand-holding, kumbaya-singing harmony. He didn’t come proclaiming, “I and the Father - oh, wait... and Mohammed, and Buddha, and Joseph Smith, and the Pope, and all the yogis, and the great scientists and philosophers of the ages, and nature, and your inner self, and all the collective good intentions of humanity, and all created things - are One and the same.” Nope, Jesus claimed He was God, that He and the Father are One. Either He was crazy (delusional), He lied (He’s not really God), or He was right (He alone is God). But He cannot be all of the above. Following Christ cannot be boiled down to merely having respect for humanity and creation and being responsible, socially active and conscientious people during our sojourn on this earth. We don’t achieve salvation (or “actualization” or “enlightenment”) through good karma, good works, good religious rituals, or the Golden Rule. In fact, no other religion or faith offers a Savior as the solution to the problem of a fallen, broken humanity. Salvation either depends on what we do or who we are - not on the radical love, mercy and grace of a sovereign God. Only in Jesus do we find life handed to us as a gift, not something we have to work for.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Following Jesus is not smooth sailing. It costs something, mainly the death of Self. But the truth is, that’s not even the best way of putting it. Because the more you come to know, to really experience, who Jesus is - and the more you fall in love with Him - the less you view this life of following Him as a “cost.” Following Jesus...it’s a reward, a privilege, and a mystery. A deep and lasting joy. An unending source of power and wisdom (not found within self, but within Christ, whose Spirit now abides in us). A comfort beyond all comforts. A rock of unyielding, impenetrable strength. An adventurous path. A life of purpose beyond ourselves. A well that never runs dry. An experience of pure, unadulterated, unfailing and unconditional love. Complete liberation. Healing. Forgiveness. Transformation. It’s challenging, yes. The experience of faith can be like walking with your eyes closed off a steep cliff. But a sacrifice? That it is not.
I just hate to see Jesus reduced to some moral principles, religious or cultural buzz words. He’s so much more than that. Did Jesus come to bring peace on earth - was that His goal? Um, I suppose in a roundabout way. But before peace comes a lot of other non-peaceful things (I believe He mentions bringing “a sword” instead of peace to the earth - Matthew 10:34). Did He come to bring justice and mercy, relief for the poor and oppressed? Yeah, He did - praise God for that. But that wasn’t His main objective. He came to restore us to relationship with God. And to think that we can somehow achieve these things without Him, that we can come together as humanity with our best moral/political/social efforts and right what is wrong in the world, simply by trying harder, educating more, legislating more, warring more or warring less, meditating more, protesting more, creating more... that is foolishness. It’s arrogance. Jesus did not come simply to offer us a ticket to life in some far off future, nor did He come simply to allow us to live good lives here on earth and follow His example to the best of our abilities, with no guarantee of a future with Him.
What does this have to do with the passage I was reading in Romans, you might be asking. Well... not directly (as in verse by verse) much, but mainly this: for any who argue that following Christ is the same as any other religion or faith, I have one question. In what other religion, faith or spirituality does “God”, driven solely by a relentless love, offer himself (or herself) to human beings entirely without condition - withholding nothing good, not even his (her) own life - for the purpose of redemption, salvation, liberation, complete transformation, and relationship? I know of no other God like this, no other but Jesus. He’s no synonym. He’s not a metaphor or a symbol for All that is Good. He’s not a means to an end. He’s a divine Person, the very essence of God Himself, and He desires intimate relationship with all of His creation. For we are tattooed upon His heart, upon His hands, and He wishes that all would know Him as the One, true God and Savior.
For this God, I eagerly devote all my love and passion. And how could I not? He really is irresistible once you get to know Him. I dare you to try, for when you do take a step - even a tentative, doubtful one - toward Him, you'll find He's already running toward you with open arms.
For "whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved..." (Romans 10:13).
I'll close with these thoughts from a book I'm reading, Blue like jazz:
The ability to accept God's unconditional grace and ferocious love is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return. Accepting God's kindness and free love is something the devil does not want us to do. If we hear, in our inner ear, a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything, this is the voice of Satan trying to convince the bride that the groom does not love her. This is not the voice of God. God woos us with kindness, He changes our character with the passion of His love.