“It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship!”
Personally, every time I have seen that posted by Christians I have found that statement to be rather glib. I know that there is truth in it, but most of the time it is utilized as a tool to shut down disagreement or discourse that is not going in the direction that one person wants the discussion to go. I would agree that our Christian faith is about relationship, but I also would argue that it is truly about religion also since religion is meant to establish structure in how we worship. Most of the time when that is used it is also used as a way to criticize the practices of those of us faithful Christians who enjoy and find richness in the practice of worshiping with a formal liturgy.
Relationship is a key to our religious identity and that relationship is truly centered in Jesus of Nazareth who is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ. I also find this argument used to argue against those of us who practice the ancient practice of infant baptism by stating that an infant cannot have a true relational understanding of what it means to believe and therefore their baptism as an infant cannot have validity. They also argue that the act of baptism isn’t the saving act, but the faith in Jesus Christ. Now I have been caught up in that argument and I agree that it is true, but I would argue a great point is missed.
As Lutheran’s we believe in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism that in the waters we are washed and renewed and it is in the water and the Word that make a baptism efficacious. The center of the Baptism is the words from Scripture that are of God and the promises that are made by Him. It never fails that at some point in the discussion of this comes the question of those that have been baptized yet live a life outside of the faith and do horrendous acts against others and the question of their salvation. This one I will have to say that I have struggled with and fumbled on in discussion. After discussing this within our Bible study I went to further prayer and discussion (I love it when I have moments with others in study that provoke me to ponder something more deeply!). In the midst of that time a thought was given to me, I guess it was inspiration and I know much of the things that entered are things I have heard over the years, read, and studied as well as in my own biblical reading. As I looked over the lectionary reading for this past Sunday and pondered, prayed, studied and so on God kept pushing my thinking. Here is the thought that came to me and I shared this past Sunday:
The Greatest Treasure that We Have in this World is Relationship
“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21, CEB)
Jesus was speaking to the disciples and all those who were listening to his teachings on the Sermon on the Mount. Often times I have heard this used as a criticism against the rich. Yet, when thinking of the people that Jesus was speaking to on that mount I don’t think there were many people of means that were there. We cannot take anything of value with us after our lives have ended here on this mortal coil. It will all go on to someone else or in the rubbish heap. I don’t envision that we will accumulate great masses of gold, silver, or gems in Heaven either, what would be the need of them other than to make something beautiful which in Heaven it would have no value anyway since everything is perfected. So, what are those treasures? Relationship!
In Heaven we are perfected and so are our relationships. I once heard a preacher say that we wouldn’t know or even care about our loved ones when we went to Heaven because we would be to preoccupied in our worship of the Lord. I agree with one thing I remember he said which focused on the fact that we wouldn’t be weeping for our loved ones that were not with the Lord, but a part of me also was troubled. I desire to see those whom I love that have passed on again and my hope in Heaven is that we will celebrate together. Scripture speaks of the many rooms or mansions (John 14:2) which we will have a dwelling but not in isolation but amongst many others. Why do I say that relationship is the treasure? Well, in Heaven, wouldn’t the greatest thing of value be the relationships that you have developed and being surrounded by those whom you have impacted by being a light to Jesus Christ? Not to say that it wouldn’t still be glorious to be in the presence of God in and of itself. So, then comes the question of those who were baptized and don’t live a life that glorifies God?
This has always been the question that I have struggled with the most. Some of those that criticize the stance we hold on infant baptism and the sacramental promise that is given by God in baptism argue, “Well, if you can save all by simply baptizing them, why don’t you just fly a plane over a large area and drop Holy Water on people to insure that they are baptized?” That question, I don’t believe, I have ever answered well and I may miss the mark here again. We believe that it is the water and the Word as we confess, but we still wouldn’t do this with a loud speaker proclaiming the Word as we drop the water either. It is not about our choice, this I believe, but an infant, child, or adult are only brought to the waters of Baptism by the drawing of the Holy Spirit who calls them to those waters. That happens when parents bring their infant to be baptized or someone older comes to the waters by their own two feet, they only come to those waters because the Holy Spirit has led them to those waters. I remember once I had a young lady that was preparing to be confirmed and she had never been baptized, well since Confirmation is the Affirmation of Baptism it seemed like it would be difficult to affirm something that had not happened and yet she had completed Confirmation. As I spoke to the father I had found that the older son, who had been confirmed, had also never been baptized (this was an odd occurrence and I had never encountered or heard of another encountering this before). So, I arranged the morning of confirmation to have a Baptism at the first service and the second service the girl would be confirmed with all the other confirmands. The son did back out and would not be baptized with his sister, which is what it is. The explanation that I would give is that he was not called to the waters and had never been led to them. Confirmation for this young man was simply an expectation of his parents as something that he should do yet they never were led to bring him to those waters, now I pray he will be baptized one day but that is not up to me nor truly up to him but by the calling of the Holy Spirit. We are not saved by our parents faith but the promise of Baptism is firm and it is what I cling to. So, if a person is baptized and turns away I would argue that I cannot speak to the salvation of that person but only to the promise that were given at baptism and I would seek to be a reminder of those promises that they cling to them. If I found that one that had perpetrated evil had received the gift of salvation in spite of their actions I would find hope in that for me because I would rest even more confidently on those promises that are the greatest comfort to me.
Now as for those treasures of relationship, what treasure would one have in Heaven if none of their relationships offered a reflection of the promise of Jesus Christ?
“You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5–6, NASB95)
God offers us insight to His nature in the blessings He desires to give us. If we sow death in the lives of those whom we love, which I believe are the greatest treasure, our children, and the generations that follow then how sparse will our treasure be in Heaven. My prayer is that I will worship God in Heaven with all my family for generations and we glorify Him in prayer and praise for eternity together. If my life does not reflect Christ in my relationships, what is it that I am reflecting? We have a God who came down in order to be in relationship with His creation and He walked amongst us for three years before He took our sin and shame with Him upon that Cross. This was not necessary if all we had to do was follow rules and speak a certain way with people in order to find salvation. That was what the Pharisees did and we know that that was not satisfying to God. It’s amazing how relationship can change interactions and how sin can affect that. I have had people that have told me that they “loved” me and my family and said that we were “family” only to have them betray and turn their backs upon us when I didn’t meet their “expectations” or I challenged them in some way. I am glad that God does not love this way. God is faithful in spite of my shortcomings. The great gift that we are given by Christ is that our salvation is placed securely upon him and we can be confident in that gift. When we fail and fail and fall short and we love the Lord our God in our own imperfect way, it is He who perfects us. In that vein as we continue to develop our relationship with Him in our prayer, in our study, and in our worship our relationships with others are affected because as we do this He flows more richly through us since it is not our reaching up that brought us salvation, but His coming down and entering into our lives. So as we practice our faith, we walk with Him, and in that time He opens for us greater faith. In that greater faith that He gives us the Holy Spirit flows into the lives of all whom God puts in our path. I was just recently talking with a woman about faith and she described how in the nursing home she is in she has been drawn to talk with people struggling and sharing her faith and prayers. This to me is the most wonderful picture of God at work within us, it’s not a passing of a pamphlet or leaflet, but a sharing of one’s faith by offering comfort, words of encouragement, and a showing of compassion. These things can be done without Christ and I know of many who do not believe in Jesus Christ that are very compassionate and can offer comfort, but when these actions are preceded by the calling of the Holy Spirit they bring with them true healing.
As I ponder these thoughts I know that they may not satisfy the doctrinal understanding of our faith and I may even miss the mark, but a part of me says that, though it may not be fully fleshed out, that God is within them and is developing within me a fuller understanding of His true nature. My prayer is that more come to the comfort of knowing the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ. I know, that as a sinner, I have made many mistakes and have fallen short of what God has desired for me and I am so thankful for the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ that redeems me, sanctifies me, and justifies me in that same faith. In the same moment I am a Saint through Christ’s washing and renewal, I am a sinner in need of His saving grace.