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Religion or Relationship

Religion or Relationship

I love painting – not walls and skirting boards – proper art! I love visiting art galleries, and I love actually painting myself. Water colour is my favourite medium, although I have started to dabble a bit with acrylic. I love photography, and usually have a camera somewhere within easy access, either in my pocket or in my haversack, but nothing quite beats actually painting a scene. When it comes to portrait painting I am not very good – perhaps cartoons are nearer my mark than proper portraits. But when it comes to ‘scenes’ … a country cottage or fields hedges and trees, or a harbour or a market place … there is just something about actually putting it down on paper with pencil and paint. ‘Proper Art’ I call it … not this ‘Painting By Numbers’ nonsense that seems to be growing in popularity by the day?

‘Painting by Numbers’ describes kits having a board on which light blue or gray lines indicate areas to paint, each area having a number and a corresponding numbered paint to use. The kits were invented, developed and marketed in 1950 by Max S. Klein, an engineer and owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan, and Dan Robbins, a commercial artist. In 1951 Palmer Paint introduced the Craft Master brand which sold over 12 million kits. This public response induced other companies to produce their own versions of paint by number. The Craft Master paint-kit box tops proclaimed: ‘A Beautiful Oil Painting the First Time You Try!’ The rest, as they say, is history? But however good some of these ‘paintings’ may look … and they are even finding there way into ‘collections’ and Art Galleries these days … for me they are not ‘art’ in the proper sense of the word. All that is needed is the ability to follow ‘the instructions’, choose the ‘correctly numbered paint pot’ and have the ability to ‘copy’ with a steady hand. There is no need for original thinking, artist flare, developing any God-given artistic talent, and so on.

It seems to me that this can be rather similar to the way in which some of us ‘do church’ or ‘do Christianity’? Instead of developing a ‘living relationship’ with Jesus Christ (rather than simply being ‘religious’ Christians), or endeavouring to be a ‘relational church’ (rather than an ‘institutional church’), it is easier to follow our equivalent of the ‘painting by numbers’ model. What do I mean by this? Well, to begin with, I am fascinated by the way in which so many Christians, and churches, feel the need to ‘define’ themselves – often in minute detail – in order to make it absolutely clear (to anyone who may be interested) exactly what kind of ‘Christian’ or ‘Church’ they are? It is no longer enough to describe oneself as ‘Christian’ … the very term ‘Christian’ has to be qualified down to the finest detail. The Social Media is full of this kind of thing: look at almost any ‘Church Website’ or any individual Christian’s ‘Facebook Page’ and you will find examples of what I am saying.

Many churches will include on their web page a ‘What We Believe’ section, which will often be quite long and detail exactly what that particular church in question ‘believes’ (and oftentimes what it does not believe, as well). Every ‘i’ is dotted, and every ‘t’ is crossed … and if an individual church hasn’t got the time or energy or inclination to go through the process of putting together such a statement, they will often simply adopt their particular denomination’s ‘Statement of Faith’ or something such as the ‘Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith’, for example. Even individual Christians often go to lengths to make it clear just what sort of ‘Christian’ they are. Thus one man I know of recently describes himself in an article as ‘a Christian in the Western Tradition, Reformed in theology, Baptist in ecclesiology, Charismatic in experience, and Evangelical in desire to reach out to others!’

Now in some ways this is unavoidable. We live in a very messy, confused world where seemingly ‘anything goes’. So we need ‘rails to run on’. In some ways the church does need to be ‘institutional’ (hopefully in a small way) as well as ‘relational’. As individual Christians, and as a church, we do need to know what we believe. The problem comes, however, when instead of cultivating a living relationship with God in Christ we start to live out the Christian life by simply ‘ticking the appropriate boxes’ or ‘do church’ by legalistically adhering to the various tenets of our ‘Statement of Faith’ … the spiritual equivalent of ‘painting by numbers’ if you like.

True Christianity is ‘experimental’ (or ‘experiential’ if you like). In other words it is all about a living, personal relationship with God in Christ generated by the active presence of God the Holy Spirit within us. It is not about, and can never be about, simply obeying particular rules and regulations, ticking specific theological or ecclesiastical boxes, or adhering mentally to various points in some belief system or other (however true any of those points may be).

One of the most fascinating stories in the Bible – a story that underlines and affirms the point that I am seeking to make above – is the story of Jesus’ night-time conversation with a man called Nicodemus (John 3:1-15). Nicodemus was an extremely important man in Israel at that time. He was a leading Pharisee, a key member of the Sanhedrin (the ruling Jewish Council), and (if we understand Jesus aright here) he was not just ‘a teacher’ but ‘the teacher of Israel’ (John 3:10), that is, the leading Jewish theologian at the time, the ‘go to’ person for understanding the Jewish ‘belief system’ of the day. The Apostle John tells us here that Nicodemus came to see Jesus ‘during the night hours’ (John 3:2). This was not because Nicodemus was afraid that people might see him discussing things with Jesus but because the ‘night hours’ was the time for ‘serious, deep conversation’ … away from the heat of the day and the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Nicodemus wanted to have a serious conversation with Jesus because he was deeply burdened about the state of his own spiritual life. For all his ‘theological understanding’, his years of religious training as a Pharisee, a life of dedicated religious observance of the demands of the Jewish Law … Nicodemus had no living experience of God! Aware of the real reason for Nicodemus’ visit Jesus cut through Nicodemus’ opening pious, platitudinous greeting and got straight to the heart of Nicodemus’ problem: ‘In very truth I tell you no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born again’ (John 3:3)!

Initially Nicodemus was confused. He thought Jesus was talking about natural birth and couldn’t comprehend how someone could return to their mother’s womb and be born all over again (John 3:4). But, of course, Jesus was not speaking of ‘natural birth’ but rather speaking of ‘spiritual birth’. Jesus unpacked this concept by contrasting ‘natural birth’ with ‘spiritual birth’: ‘In very truth I tell you no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water [natural birth] and the Spirit [spiritual birth]. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit’ (John 3:5,6). Just as God breathes life into a human embryo in the womb in order to turn it from a lifeless amorphous mass of cells into a living being, so God breathes spiritual life into a spiritually dead sinner in order to enable them to ‘come alive’ spiritually! This ‘miracle’ is effected by God the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells Nicodemus. It is practically impossible to explain such an experience in a cohesive and comprehensive way. According to Jesus the Holy Spirit is like the wind – he moves wherever he wants to in whatever ways he wants to. What can be seen, however are the effects. Just as we can hear the wind, feel it blowing in our faces, and see how it drives the clouds or bends the trees … ‘So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ says Jesus (John 3:8). I am not being naïve when I suggest there is an obvious difference between people who are simply ‘religious’ and those who have ‘a living relationship’ with God in Christ as a result of a receiving new life by the Holy Spirit!

We are not told in this story whether this conversation with Jesus resulted in Nicodemus being ‘born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). Indeed the probability is that initially Nicodemus struggled with what Jesus had to say  (John 3:10-12). However, it would seem that sometime later Nicodemus himself came into such an experience of the living God because later on in Jesus’ story we find him standing up for Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50,51), and after the Crucifixion providing the customary embalming spices, and assisting Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:39-42).

What is very clear throughout, however, is that nowhere does Jesus advocate living the Christian life, or ‘doing church’ for that matter, in a kind of ‘painting by numbers’ way. As another ‘converted’ Pharisee (like Nicodemus), Saul of Tarsus who became better known as the Apostle Paul, was to say later: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking [following man-made rules and regulations], but about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit [a dynamic experience of the living God]’ (Romans 14:17).

This was something that the Anglican clergyman, John Wesley (1703-91) (a man who went on to found the Methodist Church) also had to discover for himself. Although an ordained clergyman (rather like Nicodemus he had no living experience of God) until one day (he tells us in his Journal): ‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’

Jim Binney

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