Picture, if you will, two scenarios. The minister of a little Methodist Church in the north of England was driving towards his church one day when he noticed a young man sitting on the grass in the company of one of his church officers and two policemen.
The young man wore only a pair of torn jeans and in the words of the minister appeared to be ‘the worse for wear.’ He had lost his mobile phone and his wallet, and couldn’t remember where the rest of his clothes were. As the minister made his way toward the unsettling scene he overheard the conversation. The policemen were minded to arrest the young man but the church officer was saying, ‘No, leave him to me. We’ll look after him,’ and the police officers moved on.
The church officer and the minister rummaged about until they found the boy a pair of shoes, a shirt and a jacket. Then they discovered who he had been with the previous evening and connected him again with his friends, all of whom were struck by the love and compassion shown to the wayward lad, and the lad insisted on ‘donating’ a pound coin, all he had.
Now, I would like to be able to say that when the hangover had dissipated he made his way back to the church and gave his life to Christ, who knows, maybe he did, but one thing’s for sure, that young man learned something about the unconditional love of God that day.
On the contrary, in a sleepy Co Down village there stands a church whose membership totals around 200 souls. It’s a Congregational church, whose authority for church government resides within the congregation, and for some reason the minister has become unpopular over the last year or so. The congregation, or a sizeable chunk of it wants him to move on, but he steadfastly refuses, and on Sunday a couple of weeks a standoff developed between his supporters and his detractors, someone head-butted one of his ‘brothers in Christ’ and the PSNI were called.
I saw some of the public comments made on the internet and the one that struck me was: ‘Just goes to prove that religion is the root cause of all evil and suffering in the world today...’
Now I’m not qualified to make a judgement, nor would I want to, but I can comment on the perception, summed up by the observation: ‘True Christianity is about what God has done for us, religion is what we think we can do for God.’
The difference is stark when you contrast what two prominent historic characters have said about them. Firstly, Jesus; ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free!’ – that’s how it should be, but cold, loveless religion tends to get in the way of God demonstrating his love for his creation.
Secondly, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a first century BC Roman philosopher, politician and orator who invented the word religion to describe men who were ‘bound by a monastic code.’ The angry men in the sleepy village ‘know’ the rules, are bound by them, but their rules have split the congregation, for rules can corrupt and warp the mind. Perhaps that’s why Jesus gave us a new one; ‘...love one another.’
So there’s the choice; settle for being bound by sterile rules, or enjoy the freedom to live a life of love.
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