One Sunday morning I found myself in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. As is often my wont, I struck up a conversation with a stranger, who happened to be the pastor of Nazareth Baptist Church. He invited me to bring my group to his church before services that morning. He then asked, “Do you think your people would like to hear my story?” I said, “Absolutely.”
He told us that he grew up in Nazareth as Greek Orthodox, like most Christians in Nazareth. He noted that other people considered him devout, because he was a regular attender, a conspicuous reciter of prayers, a fulfiller of ritual and a core sustainer of church activities. But while other people considered him very religious, he simply saw himself as filling a role, doing what was expected of him. And he admitted: “Externally, I may have appeared devout, but internally I knew I was a spiritually empty.” One experience changed him: as he ministered to his father, who was beset with a terminal illness, he witnessed his father encountering the presence of the living God in a powerfully personal way. His father’s experience of God was so real, so intimate and vivid, conveying such comfort and peace, that this man’s father actually named for his son the day of his death, and he considered it a day of triumph.
Soon thereafter, this young man had his own vivid experience of the living God, an experience that was personal, dramatic and transformative. He felt his soul suffused with the Light of Christ. Friends and family could tell that something dramatic had altered his state of being. He knew himself to have been truly claimed by Christ, and soon felt called to the Christian ministry. So he left Nazareth, traveled to Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and attended Gardner-Webb University to be educated. Then he returned to pastor the Baptist Church in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel.
After thanking this young man for spending so much time with us, I led my group across town to the very Greek Orthodox church where he had worshipped much of his life. On this particular Sunday, the church was packed to capacity; I was told it usually was. Incense was burned. Prayers were chanted. Litanies were intoned. The service was very impressive, an overwhelmingly powerful experience of bonding for those in attendance. The overall impact of the worship was to give people a definitive communal sense of belonging. But I couldn’t help but think: the pastor whose testimony we had just heard would have been a part of these packed houses for years. He would have sung these songs , chanted these prayers, observed these holy rituals Sunday after Sunday, yet they had brought him no vivid sense of relationship with God. It occurred to me that within the space of one morning we had experienced the difference between religion and faith.
We often confuse the two terms, but they speak to very different experiences. The Baptist pastor’s experience of God was personal, intimate, vivid and life-changing. And the people around him knew that he had been transformed by his experience of God’s presence. But many of his hometown people were uncomfortable with his keen awareness of the intimacy of God’s love. His community cut him off when he became a Baptist. But he considered the sacrificial exchange worthwhile for his having gained a personal, intimate relationship with the divine.
Paul knew acutely the difference between religion and faith. He had grown up fanatically devoted to the religion of his youth. His early life had been defined by adherence to religious regulation. But then he had come to experience the reality of Christ personally, vibrantly, in unmediated fashion, and he knew his life to be forever transformed. He knew the profound difference between religion and faith. That is why he writes to his fellow Christians in the church at Colossae, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” Paul wants to know why these Christians who have been freed from bondage to all religious regulations through the ministry of Christ would willingly submit to people who wanted to impose such regulations upon them. He knew a group of Jewish Christians in the church at Colossae were trying to convince the Gentile Christians to embrace Jewish regulations as a way of becoming “more Christian.” Paul reminds them, “You were circumcised by the Spirit of Christ with a circumcision not made by hands. So why would you submit to the harness of religious regulations that make you define your faith by such restrictions as ‘Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch’ ”? Paul reminds the Colossians that they have been made alive and free through Christ. They know the freedom of faith! They know the real thing — an individualized experience of a relationship with Christ. They do not need the trappings of religious regulations to circumscribe that freedom. Such trappings add nothing to the quality of their faith.
The truth is, there are benefits provided by religion, as well as benefits provided through faith. We have our own individual experience of God, but when we come together for communal worship we blend our individual experience of God with the experiences of God known by others. Christianity is not a “Lone Ranger” enterprise. Rather, we collectively cohere our experiences of God together so that we can learn from each other, encourage each other, instruct each other. The rituals and litanies, the common actions in which we engage as part of communal worship, bind us together, provide us with a sense of belonging and corporate identity. But, if the rituals and the songs and the litanies have the effect of sapping the vitality of our individual experience of Christ, then our faith loses its personal vibrancy and uniqueness and can lapse into the practice of habituated custom.
On this World Communion Sunday, we recognize the importance of religion and faith. When Jesus invites us to the table this morning, when he says, “Take and eat, this is my body,” when he says, “Come, drink the cup,” he issues a personal invitation from a personal God, issued to the individualized depth of each soul. Yet even as we respond individually to that summons, we also recognize that the actions we engage in this Sunday are being mirrored by millions of fellow believers around the world. In our sharing our Lord’s Supper, we merge our testimony of God’s reality with the faith of saints across the globe. We are bound together in the universal family of faith by our communal actions. And yet, even as we eat the bread together, even as we drink the cup together, even as we engage in the unisonous clatter of putting our empty cups back in the pew racks together, even as we sing a song together, we recognize that these communal actions only have true meaning when we render our hearts vulnerable to the summoning Spirit of Christ, so that our participation in this table is not only a communal act, but also an individualized expression of a personal, vibrant, unique faith. Is your Christianity a habituated custom, shaped by religious rituals that cause you to conform to what is expected of you, or is it also an expression of your own dynamic, transformative relationship with the living God? That is a question that only each heart can answer.