Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Worship on the Other Side of Religion

Sermon preached on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, July 22, 2007
2 Corinthians 5:14-18; John 20:11-18

Last week I proclaimed what some of you may have thought was a very strange message: “The only good religion is a dead religion.” In doing so, I acknowledged that if I was right, it might call into question just what it is we are doing here, participating it what appears to be a religious ritual. I promised that this week I would answer that question, so here I am, making good on that promise.

If the only good religion is a dead religion, then why do we continue to worship as if we were a religion?

Let me first remind you of my definition of “religion” for my purposes. A “religion” is a system of order which, if followed, assures a person of God’s acceptance.

My contention is that Jesus’ message was that God wanted his human creatures to get beyond religion, to know their acceptance as a gift, not a reward. This was not only the message he proclaimed, but that he also sealed with his death and resurrection. The death of Jesus was, in fact, the death of religion itself, and his resurrection the first fruits of a new order that turned the old order on its head. The resurrection was God’s eternal “yes” to humankind, without regard to human participation in evil or even the outright rejection of God, symbolized in Jesus’ passion and death at human hands.

It is serendipitous this morning that we celebrate the Feast of Mary Magdalene and hear a portion of the resurrection story. It is the resurrection that makes all the difference. If we continue to worship—to participate in ritual—as Christian, we do so after the resurrection. We worship on the other side of religion.

Paul puts it this way: “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The death and resurrection of Jesus has made for a new creation, a creation reconciled to God, once for all.

How does this affect our worship, and make it ritual “on the other side of religion?” Primarily, understood rightly, an important aspect of our worship is that we use things of the old order and subvert them. We use the things of religion but turn them on their heads. Here are some examples:

We use terms like “priest” and “sacrifice” that are very much part of traditional religion—systems where certain people set apart as holy offer sacrifices to appease God or the gods.

But we also call everyone “priests,” so our ordained caste of priesthood is simply representative of all the people, all of whom are given, as Paul says this morning, the ministry of reconciliation, which is the ministry that Jesus has already accomplished.

And we use the word “sacrifice” to describe what we do at this Altar, but we call it our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” We do not make a new sacrifice, but make present again the sacrifice that has already been made.

Here’s another example. In the Eucharistic prayer we are currently using we recognize at one point that we continue to fall short of all that God intends for us and say, “Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.” But we do not stop there as if that were the end of our story until we do something to make ourselves right with God. We continue the story of the coming of Jesus among us “to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.” And then, a scant 46 words after we have acknowledged that we are sinners in the sight of God, we proclaim, “By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds we are healed.”

All of this (and a lot more) is why we call our worship “Eucharist,” thanksgiving. Our worship, our ritual, is not for the purpose of getting ourselves right with God, but thanking God that God has already made us right. We come together week by week to give thanks to God for the many gifts we have been given, most particularly the gift of Jesus, and the sealing of our acceptance in him.

It is vitally important that we understand that it is our method of worship to use the tools of religion to subvert religion. There’s danger in that, of course, and that is why some sects of Christianity have thrown off as many of these religious trappings as possible. When you use the tools of religion it is easy to forget the subversion part and begin to assume that you are participating in a religion and the purpose of your being here is to appease an angry God.

But it is nothing of the sort. Our purpose here is to give thanks to the God who has time and again chosen us in spite of our failings and our weaknesses and who we are confident will continue to do so no matter what because we “are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

The great objection to viewing Christianity in this way has always been that it seems to throw morality out the door and leave us with a sort of “anything goes” philosophy toward living. St. Paul himself constantly faced this objection to his teaching. But following the teachings of Jesus, living in the way of his death and resurrection does not mean throwing out morality. It means that one has a different motivation for morality.

In conventional religion the motivation for morality is so that God will love us, accept us, and bless us. But that is not the way taught by Jesus or by Paul. The Jesus’ way is to live a life of thanksgiving that is so grateful for the assurance of “the kingdom of heaven” that we try to build that kingdom on earth. That is how Jesus taught us to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven

Jesus did not teach us to pray, “may we do your will on earth so that we can inherit heaven.” He taught us to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” I submit those are two very different motivations for morality.

I will end this morning with the figure of Mary Magdalene herself. Mary should be one of the poster children for Christianity’s meaning the death of religion, of worship and relationship with God in the way of Jesus on the other side of religion. All we know of Mary is her healing and acceptance by Jesus, and her grateful response, providing for him out of her resources, tending to what she thought was his grave when everyone else was either in despair or fear.

Unfortunately the church, giving into the temptation of religion, has needed to emphasize her life before Jesus and exacerbate her supposed “sinfulness” beyond the testimony of the Bible, so that when people hear her name they automatically think “prostitute.” In doing so she is made into a figure upholding conventional religion, who changed her ways to make herself right with God.

Let’s stick to what the Bible tells us. In this sense it is better for us to be literalists! The only thing we know about Mary Magdalene is the only thing we need to know: Jesus accepted her and she was grateful. It was the simple story of her life and it is the simple story of ours. So let us, with her, worship on the other side of religion, celebrating our acceptance which is a pure gift from God and living a life of pure thanksgiving, building that kingdom on earth as in heaven.

© 2007, the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins

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