So here’s a good question: what exactly is true religion?
Increase in us true religion, we pray in our Opening Prayer today. But what does that mean? What is true religion?
Within just a mile of this church, ask that question and you will get a myriad of answers: and that’s just within the Anglican churches, let alone the other Christian denominations, synagogues, mosques, and temples around here!
And down through the centuries it will have meant different things to different peoples and cultures.
So if you’d asked your average Aztec half a millenia ago what constituted true religion, you would have been told that the sun god required constant nourishment in the form of human blood to prevent the rise of darkness and the end of the world. That, to them, was true religion.
Many pagan religions would have shared that belief, and we know from the Old Testament that that meant many people in the time of the patriarch, Abraham: hence the almost sacrifice of his son, Isaac. It was just what you did when you wanted to offer the most precious thing you had to your local deity.
To the people who worshipped at Stonehenge, the sun was the centre of their world, their life, and so worthy of true worship. Or your local spring, or forest glade.
And so on, and so on.
Cultures and peoples down through history have exhibited a bewildering and diverse meaning of what they would have defined as true religion.
Now clearly this is a pretty important question.
If we believe in a thing called god, then how we relate to that god has a significance both here and now and, of course, in the hereafter.
What we believe determines how we act, or at the very least how we ought to act.
So how about junking everything that’s gone before and starting from scratch: what would that look like?
Now this is an interesting, but fraught exercise.
I could have a go at doing this myself, but I would have to admit that if I tried to create a DIY religion, I will bring a whole load of personal baggage to the exercise. I will bring my own personal likes and dislikes, my own personal morality, and all these things will be influenced by my DNA, my upbringing, my family, my environment, and the prevailing moral do’s and don’ts of this time which will differ from age to age, and place to place.
And if you did it, yours would be different to mine. Everyone would have their own personal religion.
In fact, it could be argued that that’s exactly what is happening in our highly individualised world, whether people call it religion or not.
So DIY religion is a not the most secure way of going about searching for what is true.
Luckily, we don’t have to invent a religion (though I know that atheists will claim that all religion is invented: park that one).
You see, we don’t believe that we have been left alone to scrabble around seeking truth about religion, floundering around, wildly flailing our arms about, trying to grab on to some kind of religious meaning to life – with no help.
And that’s because as Christians we believe in something called divine revelation.
We believe that God communicates with us.
The Sacred Scriptures are the primary vehicle of God’s communication with us, told through writings, of different sorts, written at different times, by different people, but all through the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Right from the beginning of the story of God and humanity, God has been communicating with us: think of the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Right from the off, God spoke to our human forebears and communicated stuff to them.
And Genesis is a good place to start in this search for true religion.
In Hebrew, the book we know as Genesis – which we tend to think of as the beginning – is known as Bereshit: not just the beginning of the love story between God and humanity, but the founding principles of religion, and therefore life.
And the first thing it tells us is that God created everything there is out of nothing: God is always in the beginning. He is the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
We are not an accident. As Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus, we were chosen before the foundation of the world.
We are not an infinitesimally lucky product of a whole series of chance events. We are here, along with everything else, because we are meant to be here.
Which tells us that we are part of creation. We are not God: God is God!
He is our creator and sustainer: He is the God in whom we live and move and have our being, as Paul told the Athenians.
Second, we – humanity – are created in the image and likeness of that God who freely created all things out of nothing.
God didn’t have to create anything, as God doesn’t need anything.
His choice to be creative was freely made.
And as we are made in His image, so we, too, are created free, and the Book of Genesis is the outworking of what that means: how that works for us humans.
God could be a god who stands over our shoulders, examining everything we do, making sure we know He is there, making sure we do things the way He wants them done.
But that would go against the notion of freedom.
God is not an in-your-face God: truly you are a God who lies hidden, we are told in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
So Genesis, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote, is about the complexity of the human heart as it seeks to work out its freedom through the interplay of freedom, choice, and responsibility.
Judaism, he wrote, is a protest in the name of human freedom and responsibility against determinism. We are not pre-programmed machines; we are persons, endowed with will. Just as God is free, so we are free, and the entire Torah – the first five books of the Bible – is a call to humanity to exercise responsible freedom.
Next, Genesis tells us that though I am special – I am created in God’s image – so are you. And this is true of every single human being who has ever existed, exists or who will ever exist.
The notion of human equality literally has its genesis in Genesis.
There is no such thing as privilege or class in true religion. All men and women are created equal. And this is radical because that idea would not come naturally to humanity.
Too often life is about the survival of the fittest. It’s about what’s best for me, and mine. And if I feel threatened by the Other: I must use what means I have to dispense of that Other.
The idea that we are all created equal does not come naturally to humanity: it is revealed.
Genesis tells us that we are all equal before God, because that is the way God created us. Different, but equal.
Next, and this is really important, God does not create then step away from his creation. The stories in the Book of Genesis are stories of God’s involvement with the people he created.
God calls Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and wishes to enter into a relationship with them: a covenant. God has plans for these people and the other characters in the Book of Genesis.
And these profoundly moral stories are meant to be read as if we were in them. We are Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, and so.
The moral choices they faced are the moral choice we face, because they are the moral choices all humans face: the moral responsibility for themselves, for others, for creation, for their relationship with God.
But if Genesis is about freedom and responsibility and choice, the Book of Exodus is about hope and liberation.
Here’s Jonathan Sacks again:
No story has been more influential in shaping the inner moral landscape of liberty, teaching successive generations that oppression is not inevitable, that it is not woven into the fabric of history. There can be another place, another kind of society, a different way of living. What happened once can happen again for those who have faith in the God who had faith in humankind. The God of freedom calls on us to be free.
So where does all this leave us, then, in our search for true religion?
The opening books of Scripture tell us of our creation, our freedom, our responsibility, a hope of liberation, physical and moral.
But into this heady mix comes the Christian doctrine of sin – original sin – the condition that all humans share in and which has such a profound impact on our ability to exercise that freedom properly: that exerts such an enslaving influence on us and all humanity.
That turns us away from God, from love, from others, and inward into ourselves.
Concupiscence, to give it its posh title.
Look around yourself. Look into yourself.
Like Paul we will have to be able to say, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
This is the human predicament which any true religion has to confront.
Humanity has gone wrong, and needs to be put right: with God, with others, with ourselves.
In other words, true religion will tell us some really important stuff about what it means to be human.
And it will also tell us the indispensable truths about what it means to be the God who created us, saw our sinful predicament, and then sent the solution to the problem in the person of Jesus Christ.
Because again – in God’s use of revelation in the search for true religion – God has been preparing the way for the ultimate disclosure of Himself: that God is love, and that he loved us so much he sent his only Son to be our Saviour.
God did not leave us in our predicament, but not only came up with the solution, but IS the solution in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus IS salvation!
True religion, declared through God’s revelation of Himself, will tell us that though we can reject God for all eternity, that is not God’s will: His will is that we return to Him and share in His divine life now and for all eternity.
That is the central truth in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: we mess up, we get stuff wrong, we sin but God always awaits us. He never forces us to return home, or keeps us at home like a controlling parent: but He runs towards us with arms open wide to welcome us home, when we choose to return to Him.
True religion will tell us God’s will for us and for all people for all time: the basic do’s and don’ts of how we may live best, most fruitfully, for our good and the good of others.
And true religion will tell us that though we may get this stuff wrong, God gives us the means to get it right – which we call grace. In fact, without that grace, we can never get it right.
And it’s a gift He offers time and time again, eternally, superabundantly, extravagantly, excessively.
This is all radical stuff.
This is the radical nature of our Jewish roots, and the yet more radical Christian revelation we encounter in and through the person of Jesus Christ.
That there can be a new way of being human.
There can be a new way of living together.
Life is not about power and privilege and wealth and prestige. It’s not about survival of the fittest, and the selfish gene.
It’s about love, and service, and care, and the common good of all God’s children whoever they are, wherever they are.
Could humanity have reached these conclusions without revealed religion?
I don’t think so.
The roots of nationalism, tribalism, egotism, run deep in the heart of a sinful humanity, closed in on itself.
We needed to be shown this stuff: it needed to be revealed.
And in that revelation, is true religion.