Not Religion, but Relationship

Fourth Sunday of Easter

TEXT:  John 10:1-10

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits . . . Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (JOHN 10:7-9)

Some time ago, I had a serious conversation with an acquaintance of mine—a conversation about religion. He had a very bad experience with religion when he was a child, and for that reason he has always looked upon the time when he was able to say “no” to religion as the time of his emancipation.

He has little respect for religion of any kind. As far as he is concerned, religion is a form of slavery, an insidious instrument of control that those in power apply to maintain order. He struggles to understand how and why even well-educated, intelligent people can fall for the hoax. How can they not see through the “big lie” and understand it for what it is: a conspiracy to control the weak?

Well, there’s a part of me that understands where this fellow is coming from. I’m not fond of religion either, and I find people who wear their religion on their sleeves quite offensive.

Yet there is something about my faith in the gospel message that I know I can’t trade for anything. Far from being confining and oppressive, my faith in Jesus is something which sets me free. It gives me life.

But to this doubter, I can’t seem to communicate any of that. He talks about religion, but I am trying to explain about a relationship. We simply cannot connect on the same wavelength. Not yet, anyway.

When and if we speak about this subject again, I may bring up today’s gospel lesson, because I think—and I hope—the parable of the Good Shepherd might be able to bridge the gap between his understanding and mine.

In this parable, Jesus presents three images:  the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheep pen. Sheep are precious, living creatures that need protection and guidance in order to stay alive and (hopefully) lead a good life. The world is a dangerous place for sheep. Without protection, their lives are in peril. There are thieves, predators, and all sorts of other dangers out there. That is why it is necessary to build a sheep pen—to keep the sheep out of danger.

However, the sheep pen is not an end in itself. Keeping the sheep alive is not the final objective. It is only the beginning. The goal is to give the sheep a good life. And for that, you need the shepherd to develop a relationship with the sheep.

Jesus says that the good shepherd calls the sheep by name. The shepherd talks to them, sings to them, and leads them to green pastures. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice. They trust the shepherd, and they will go wherever the shepherd leads them because there is a loving relationship between them.

The sheep will, therefore, wait patiently in the sheep pen. It is worthwhile to stay alive and wait patiently in that holding place because they know that sooner or later the shepherd’s life-giving voice will come. They know that when the shepherd comes, they will be led to green pastures. They know that the shepherd will care for them and lead them to a good life.

So it is with us in our relationship with God through Jesus. The good news comes to us by way of religion. It is what we human beings have built in order to transmit the message of the gospel. Religion, like the sheep pen, is necessary to protect the message of life. But it is not an end in itself. It is only the visible shell from which comes the voice of the Good Shepherd, and it is that voice which gives life. It is the voice that makes it worthwhile to relate to religion.

In very truth, religion can be nothing but an empty shell. There are many religious zealots who have no life. There are people who will do anything in the name of religion but have no love in their hearts. They are alive, but not living. They may talk about God’s love, but they have not experienced true love.

Furthermore, religion can be dangerous if it does not contain the truth. Jesus talks about the thief who climbs in through the window. We have seen cults that begin with truth and then veer off into misleading and sometimes dangerous territory.

On this point, the doubter is quite correct: it is not religion that we should strive for. Rather, we should seek to hear the voice within. If it is the voice of a stranger—if it does not connect with us in love, if it violates our conscience or leads us into sin—then it is not the voice of the Good Shepherd, and its religion will not lead to life.

But if you hear and recognize that voice as the Good Shepherd’s voice—if you hear it calling you by name—then you will know that therein is truth.

Listen to the voice within. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The gospel is about more than mere religion. It is about a life-giving relationship that leads us to a good life.

It is about a relationship with the Good Shepherd—a relationship that is freely offered. It’s not a difficult relationship to begin. All you have to do is accept it. It isn’t dependent upon some particular brand of religion. It’s about knowing a person. For that is what God gave us—not a rule book or a road map or a set of hard-and-fast instructions, but a person. A leader. A shepherd. Someone who really loves us and cares for us. Someone who not only knows the way, but who is the way. Someone who not only knows the truth, but who is the truth. Someone who not only offers abundant life, but who is himself life.

We don’t need to look for hidden truths—we just need to look to Jesus. We don’t need to tax our brains trying to understand what cannot be understood—we just need to listen for the Shepherd’s voice.

In short, faith does not ask us to swallow a doctrinal or political bill of goods—it just asks us to trust Jesus. Faith does not demand of us that we say we believe a whole bunch of stuff we can’t make sense of—it just asks us to believe in the love of Jesus Christ.

That’s the difference between religion and relationship. Thanks be to God for it.


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