A friend once told me that he wanted a “little religion”, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. Not too much – just enough to give him comfort and a sense of direction, but nothing too dangerous or demanding. I think I understood what he was really saying, although I could not agree with his sentiment. He was, I think, speaking for many, who want enough to provide a sense of community and a sense of belonging, a knowledge of right and wrong, and the sustenance it provides in times of difficulty.
But it rather begs the question: can you really have a “little religion”? Does it exist? In the same way, can you have a “little life”? Surely you are either alive or not? Even if life is, to quote Emmanuel Kant (I think) “nasty brutish and short”, it is still life and distinct from death (ie life extinguished) or inanimate (never alive anyway). It may be of a different order to the life of a plant or an invertebrate, and it may not be as rich and fulfilled as that enjoyed by some. But it is still life.
So too with “religion” which also begs some questions. Do we mean a religious cult, with forms of service and orders of ministry and a body of doctrine, and the other trappings of a form of religion? Or are we talking about faith? And if so what do we mean by it?
Now the questions become a little more difficult, for faith cannot exist in a vacuum, but must have a focus. For secular faiths there are many possibilities which can be invested with our devotion: the processes or conclusions of science, or of politics or of the economy or of society in all their various forms. But religions faith involves a deity and not just a principle of living or a philosophy. For a Christian that means God, but how to envisage Him, how to appreciate and receive Him, how to respond to Him? We cannot approach God directly any more than we can expect to journey to the sun, so we need an image that we can respond to. A human-inspired image, like an idol, is something that we have contrived but so has no substance or reality. That means we have to receive the means He has ordained – and accept them as coming from Him. So here is an exercise in faith.
The history of Israel and of the church is one of revelation – the self-giving of God in the history of mankind, by specific choice and by specific response by people. In the church we see Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and we know Him through the accounts of and reflections on Him in the New Testament. It is a vivid series of stories and reflections, all of which challenge us profoundly, for if they are given to us we must receive them and respond to them. More than that we are bound to respond to Jesus as far more than a story, for He is a person. As a person we must relate to Him in personal terms, and as He is God, then those terms are the most intimate and demanding possible. We cannot bargain, or have a “little bit” of Jesus. Either He is Lord or He is not, and we cannot know Him by reputation without knowing Him for ourselves.
And the Jesus that we know and respond to is He who has given Himself totally and unreservedly for us – so that is the measure of the knowing that He expects from us. And that is the challenge for we cannot take Him on an “A la carte” basis – He has received us as we are so we have to receive Him as He is. There are no half measures. We may well have personal issues and we certainly cannot hide them: all we can do is to acknowledge them before Him and seek His strength as we continue is life.
But the life we enter is far more than the biology of breathing and the circulation of blood. It is rather an entering His life, so that His life may permeate and give colour and focus and purpose to our own.
That is why one of the most comforting passages in the gospels is in John 15:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.