“Followers of The Way”
In the interest of beginning to set the stage for the impending season of Advent, let’s reflect upon some of the most foundational terms and concepts from our shared religious tradition as 21st century Western, Anglican/Episcopal, American Christians … and let’s start with the most basic, the most fundamental term of all: religion itself.
So, what is religion?
Many of you know that I am a cradle Episcopalian; I grew up in this Church, as I grew up in the United States and in the South, in the downward slope of the 20th century. All of those factors have shaped who I am and how I see the world around me, the things I presume to be true on a subconscious level.
So I grew up thinking that “religion” meant “church” and “worship” and that it was something that happened “occasionally” … once or maybe--maybe—twice a week, at most.
On a side-note: I also grew up as the original Star Wars trilogy was first dominating popular culture, and I remember being rather confused when the characters in those movies referred to the Jedi order as a “religion.” What? I thought. They don’t go to any church! They don’t have any rituals or hymns or anything! How can that be a religion?
I think perhaps if I had grown up in and around the Mediterranean Sea in the centuries immediately before, during, or immediately after the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, I might have inherited a very different notion of what religion is—and then maybe the Star Wars reference wouldn’t have confused me so much.
You see, there is an ancient understanding of religion that is much bigger, much deeper, and much more interconnected than modern American pop culture might have us believe religion should be. This ancient concept of religion goes beyond defining religion as (merely) a philosophy or a set of teachings (although many of the philosophical schools in ancient Greece would strike us today as having more in common with religion than with academia), or even a set of rituals or ceremonies.
The ancients in many cultures (including those of what we now call the Near East) defined religion as a complete way of living. And that included many things which we, as modern Americans, tend to separate into distinct categories: philosophy, history, culture, family & kinship, metaphysics, food preparation & diet, law, biology, astronomy, ethics, worship, politics, poetry & literature, subsistence & economics, etc.
All of these aspects of human existence were integrated into one interconnected world view that shaped every action, every choice of how to order one’s life, from sunrise to sunset, so as to live in right relationship with each other and in right relationship with the heavenly realm.
The followers of religious teachers were called “disciples” because to follow such a teacher meant to be “disciplined,” to live one’s life deliberately so as to emulate the teacher as closely as possible.
Now, to be fair, I don’t think for a minute that everyone in the ancient world lived such a dedicated and disciplined life. In fact, most folks probably didn’t. But for someone to go to the trouble of converting to a particular religion probably did mean that such a person would be taking on a new way of living, and therefore would be making a much bigger life-change than we today would associate with simply joining a church.
We know that in both Jewish and early Christian communities, there were folks who hung out on the edges of those groups—interested in the religion, but not fully committed to that total life change I’m talking about. But these were the folks who were not yet converted—they had not yet accepted, for example, the circumcision or baptism required for full membership in those groups. For the folks who had undergone those rituals and accepted full initiation into those groups, however, I think it was much harder at that point for them to be, well, casual about their religion.
I’ve even read descriptions of ancient Christian baptisms in which the candidate is asked if he or she is ready “to die with Christ”; if the answer is yes, then the candidate is plunged into darkness as well as being plunged underwater—without knowing what’s coming next. After being immersed three times (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), the newly baptized person is then brought up into the light and partakes in his or her first Eucharist—another mystery that he or she was not allowed to have any knowledge of prior to baptism.
It is intriguing to consider what modern American Christianity might look like if that were the way we all had to come into the faith, is it not?
Well, we need not go to such extremes. Still, what I’m inviting all of us to contemplate this fall as we approach Advent is this: to what extent does our Christian faith really pervade and infuse our lives? Are we Christian primarily on Sunday mornings, and maybe for a little while on Tuesday mornings or Wednesday evenings, perhaps? Are our worship services and rituals exist as ends in and of themselves, or do they serve as a means to some greater end?
These questions are not meant to be rhetorical; they need answering, and each Christian must answer them for himself or herself. But they are neither meant to be answered quickly or superficially. Rather, they represent opportunities to spend time in focused prayer and in conversation with God.
The Christian religion is about ordering our lives, day to day, week to week, year to year, moment to moment, so that we are constantly seeking encounter with Christ: in the inmost depths of our being; in relationship with each other; in sacrament, prayer, and meaningful engagement in the world; in both tranquility and transformation.
Christian faith is not merely a set of philosophies or teachings (although the teachings are crucial!); it is meant to be a way of life. The first Christians called the religion The Way for this reason. And they called themselves followers of The Way.
Deep study of Scripture, regular participation in corporate worship and individual devotion, and the ongoing attempt to ever mindful of Christ within us, Christ in others, and Christ in the world around us … these are the building blocks of The Way, and it is the mission of the Church—of all baptized Christians—to demonstrate this way of living in the world, to invite everyone to share in it, to teach it, and to support each other in our efforts to come closer to Christ and to live out our faith in the world.
It ain’t easy. It was never meant to be.
That’s why we need each other on The Way.
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