World Wide Wolfmueller

Law and Gospel in Joyful Clarity

Sermon: Christianity is a Religion, not a Relationship


We continue our rejoicing in the Lord’s resurrection by considering how Jesus is our Good Shepherd. This is fantastically Biblical. Micah 5 has the famous prophecy of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but Micah’s comforting promise to the church continues, and includes the resurrection of Jesus, and then this:

And He shall stand [that’s the resurrection] and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth. And He shall be their peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

All through the Bible Jesus is claiming for Himself this title of Shepherd, and these are some of the most beloved passages and promises.

Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 95, the Venite: “We are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.”

We hand a major text on this from the Old Testament Lesson, Ezekiel 34, where the Lord judges the unfaithful shepherds (that is, the false prophets and the unfaithful rulers), and promises to take up the work of shepherding His people Himself. The Most wonderful phrase in this passage is “I will,” the Lord over and over promises that He will do the work; that He will take care of us.

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country.”

And the promises continue in the text. The Lord takes it upon Himself to care for you. He is the Good Shepherd.

The vocation of shepherd is a lowly office, it was for the youngest child. Shepherds were on the edge of society. It is a humbling thing, then, for the Lord to give this title to Himself, the Good Shepherd, but humiliation and lowliness never stopped Him for doing anything. In fact, the office of Messiah, of Savior, involves the humility and shame of the cross, and there is nothing, no shame, no suffering, that Jesus will let stand between Him and your salvation.

So we hear Jesus say in the Gospel text, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the Good Shepherd, I give the sheep anything they want.”

He doesn’t say, “I am the Good Shepherd, I make the sheep’s life comfortable and enjoyable.”

He doesn’t say, “I am the Good Shepherd, and I’m here to talk whenever you’re lonely, and need a pal.”

I think, when we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, that we might we swept away in some of the sentimentality of the image, and Jesus, the Good Shepherd, becomes very fluffy. His face is slightly blurred, and we are the cute lambs with very clean, white wool. Do you know what I’m talking about? There is a danger here, a danger that the Good Shepherd doesn’t have blood on Him, holes in His hands, a real cross and a real grave to save us real sinners.

It have been brought back to my attention this week (through a couple of books and a couple of conversations) that Jesus as our Savior from sin is not the way most people look at Jesus, or understand Christianity. Rather: Christianity is a way for us to have a relationship with God, a “personal relationship” is the phrase you will always hear. This is the cliché: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Have you heard this? Have you thought it? (I’m coming for you!)

This is wrong. First, the Bible talks about religion, and in fact uses the word religion, while the word “relationship” is never once used. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26).

But more than just the words, the idea behind them is wrong. Consider this: if a “personal relationship with Jesus” is the solution, what is the problem? Maybe the problem is that you are lonely, or your life is empty, you feel meaningless, unimportant, and insignificant, hopeless with no direction. The personal relationship with Jesus promises to fix these problems, to fill the hole in your life that only Jesus can fill, to give your life meaning and direction. These are all the promises being offered. And now, with this personal relationship with Jesus, there is two-way communication where God will talk directly to you. You will be filled and fulfilled. Your life will have meaning and direction, you will be transformed. And you will directly experience the presence and the power of God, all of this if we make a decision for Christ, if we surrender our life to Him, if we make Him the Lord of our life.

I think that this summarizes Christianity for most Americans. And some of this sounds good. You might have that angst grinding up against your own soul, I suspect we all do in one way or another. None of us know what tomorrow may bring. None of us see completely how our lives fit in to the big picture of the universe. All of us have times of loneliness. But if this is our biggest problem, then Jesus wouldn’t need to die; He could just come and hang out.

But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and this means that I problem is much bigger than we might think. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Lamb who has been slain. Jesus is the One who hands Himself over to the shame of the cross, because our biggest problem is not our isolation. It is our sin running face-first into the holiness of God. God’s wrath is our real problem, because of our sin, and Jesus and His death and resurrection is our only possible hope.

Jesus, then, is our Savior before He is our friend. He forgives our sin before His gives our life direction. He is the Good Shepherd who gives it all for His sheep. He lays down His life for you.

Everyone has a personal relationship with Jesus, it just might not be a good relationship. If we are busy earning our own salvation, or if we turn away when He promises forgiveness, then our relationship with Jesus is as our personal judge. But the Holy Spirit, in His kindness, has called us by the Gospel, given us faith to believe God’s promises, and Jesus is now our Savior, our Redeemer, the One who forgives our sins.

And now, having laid down His life for you, Jesus comes to you with His Word, with His kingdom, with living hope and the joy of salvation, with His Spirit and His peace. He gives us the gift of prayer, and He speaks to us in His Word, giving us direction and hope, His law and His promises. All of these come to us because Jesus did not hand us over to the punishment of our sin, but handed Himself over in our place.

This Good Shepherd does the unthinkable. He dies for you. And His death is your life. His word is your hope. Amen.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

2 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Lumbering Brown and commented:
    Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller, “Christianity is a Religion, not a Relationship”

  2. On the religion/relationship discussion:
    “Christianity is first of all, a Faith (capital “F”).” — J. I. Packer
    “Having a relationship with God is not the question. It’s what kind of relationship do you have?” — Michael Horton
    “The Religion About A Relationship” — me (shortlink: http://wp.me/pMUrU-FS)

Leave a Reply

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*

Sermon: Christianity is a Religion, not a Relationship


We continue our rejoicing in the Lord’s resurrection by considering how Jesus is our Good Shepherd. This is fantastically Biblical. Micah 5 has the famous prophecy of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but Micah’s comforting promise to the church continues, and includes the resurrection of Jesus, and then this:

And He shall stand [that’s the resurrection] and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth. And He shall be their peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

All through the Bible Jesus is claiming for Himself this title of Shepherd, and these are some of the most beloved passages and promises.

Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 95, the Venite: “We are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.”

We hand a major text on this from the Old Testament Lesson, Ezekiel 34, where the Lord judges the unfaithful shepherds (that is, the false prophets and the unfaithful rulers), and promises to take up the work of shepherding His people Himself. The Most wonderful phrase in this passage is “I will,” the Lord over and over promises that He will do the work; that He will take care of us.

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country.”

And the promises continue in the text. The Lord takes it upon Himself to care for you. He is the Good Shepherd.

The vocation of shepherd is a lowly office, it was for the youngest child. Shepherds were on the edge of society. It is a humbling thing, then, for the Lord to give this title to Himself, the Good Shepherd, but humiliation and lowliness never stopped Him for doing anything. In fact, the office of Messiah, of Savior, involves the humility and shame of the cross, and there is nothing, no shame, no suffering, that Jesus will let stand between Him and your salvation.

So we hear Jesus say in the Gospel text, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the Good Shepherd, I give the sheep anything they want.”

He doesn’t say, “I am the Good Shepherd, I make the sheep’s life comfortable and enjoyable.”

He doesn’t say, “I am the Good Shepherd, and I’m here to talk whenever you’re lonely, and need a pal.”

I think, when we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, that we might we swept away in some of the sentimentality of the image, and Jesus, the Good Shepherd, becomes very fluffy. His face is slightly blurred, and we are the cute lambs with very clean, white wool. Do you know what I’m talking about? There is a danger here, a danger that the Good Shepherd doesn’t have blood on Him, holes in His hands, a real cross and a real grave to save us real sinners.

It have been brought back to my attention this week (through a couple of books and a couple of conversations) that Jesus as our Savior from sin is not the way most people look at Jesus, or understand Christianity. Rather: Christianity is a way for us to have a relationship with God, a “personal relationship” is the phrase you will always hear. This is the cliché: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Have you heard this? Have you thought it? (I’m coming for you!)

This is wrong. First, the Bible talks about religion, and in fact uses the word religion, while the word “relationship” is never once used. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26).

But more than just the words, the idea behind them is wrong. Consider this: if a “personal relationship with Jesus” is the solution, what is the problem? Maybe the problem is that you are lonely, or your life is empty, you feel meaningless, unimportant, and insignificant, hopeless with no direction. The personal relationship with Jesus promises to fix these problems, to fill the hole in your life that only Jesus can fill, to give your life meaning and direction. These are all the promises being offered. And now, with this personal relationship with Jesus, there is two-way communication where God will talk directly to you. You will be filled and fulfilled. Your life will have meaning and direction, you will be transformed. And you will directly experience the presence and the power of God, all of this if we make a decision for Christ, if we surrender our life to Him, if we make Him the Lord of our life.

I think that this summarizes Christianity for most Americans. And some of this sounds good. You might have that angst grinding up against your own soul, I suspect we all do in one way or another. None of us know what tomorrow may bring. None of us see completely how our lives fit in to the big picture of the universe. All of us have times of loneliness. But if this is our biggest problem, then Jesus wouldn’t need to die; He could just come and hang out.

But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and this means that I problem is much bigger than we might think. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Lamb who has been slain. Jesus is the One who hands Himself over to the shame of the cross, because our biggest problem is not our isolation. It is our sin running face-first into the holiness of God. God’s wrath is our real problem, because of our sin, and Jesus and His death and resurrection is our only possible hope.

Jesus, then, is our Savior before He is our friend. He forgives our sin before His gives our life direction. He is the Good Shepherd who gives it all for His sheep. He lays down His life for you.

Everyone has a personal relationship with Jesus, it just might not be a good relationship. If we are busy earning our own salvation, or if we turn away when He promises forgiveness, then our relationship with Jesus is as our personal judge. But the Holy Spirit, in His kindness, has called us by the Gospel, given us faith to believe God’s promises, and Jesus is now our Savior, our Redeemer, the One who forgives our sins.

And now, having laid down His life for you, Jesus comes to you with His Word, with His kingdom, with living hope and the joy of salvation, with His Spirit and His peace. He gives us the gift of prayer, and He speaks to us in His Word, giving us direction and hope, His law and His promises. All of these come to us because Jesus did not hand us over to the punishment of our sin, but handed Himself over in our place.

This Good Shepherd does the unthinkable. He dies for you. And His death is your life. His word is your hope. Amen.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

2 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Lumbering Brown and commented:
    Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller, “Christianity is a Religion, not a Relationship”

  2. On the religion/relationship discussion:
    “Christianity is first of all, a Faith (capital “F”).” — J. I. Packer
    “Having a relationship with God is not the question. It’s what kind of relationship do you have?” — Michael Horton
    “The Religion About A Relationship” — me (shortlink: http://wp.me/pMUrU-FS)

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