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I’m gong to ask you a question, and I’d like you to pay attention to how you answer it. How does a Jewish man who lived two-thousand years ago in the Middle East make anyone free? I’m going to share the two most common ways people answer this question and then I’m going to share a Bible story your pastor never told about, and then I’m going to answer this question in a way that has the potential to satisfy all comers. Ready?
The most common answer among those who subscribe to Christianity is: “Jesus frees us from our sins.” Of course, Christians do continue to sin the same kinds and quantities of sins that non-christian people do even after professing belief. This means Jesus doesn’t free us from committing sins nor from our capacity to sin. Otherwise, Christians would be the most sought after people in the world. Many say that freedom is the ability to see our sin and strive against it. What modern Christian teachers mean by this answer is: “Jesus frees us from the penalty of our sins.”
This is where the sub-plot of modern evangelical Christianity goes off the rails. Essentially the doctrine says there will be just as many bad people in heaven as there will be in hell, the only difference is whether someone is forgiven by God or not. The Easter story is then told in a way that invites people into believing that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins (past and present) and if believed, then we are forgiven. Future sins need a fresh repentance (i.e. church attendance) after committing them. The problematic idea is that Jesus started his own “sin management” religion and if you convert to it, then you go to heaven. If not, then you go to hell. This threatening narrative is read INTO the bible (eisegesis) far more than it is taken OUT (exegesis) from the text and history.
So what’s the alternative? Stay tuned, that’s coming up.
The second most common answer to the question is; “I have no idea.” If personal freedom and liberty is a tangible thing, then it’s fair and practical to ask for the proof of where believing in Jesus actually frees a person. Any observation reveals that most religious people (Christian and others) are actually less free than others. They live under more rules, more government, and more pressure to perform a certain way. Our post-modern world sees religion as having a stifling, regressive, and restrictive effect on people and culture. How is that freedom? This leaves people confused on whether belief is beneficial to freedom.
A person seeking evidence of freedom before they believe will almost always default into agnosticism or atheism, since both are preferred to converting. If they have a spiritual bend, the trend now is to be spiritual but unaffiliated. Instead of using the name of Jesus, God or other religious language, people refer to cosmic or quantum energy, the universe, or “whatever.” This leaves people in a spiritual grey zone with no real tribal elders. In their unaffiliation, they still have yet to answer the question on how their own system of faith is able to free them. The “ I don’t know” really means, “Doing it this way just makes me feel better” or “I don’t believe in Santa either and I’m fine” In other words, “it’s up to me to free myself.” We become the arbiter of our own freedom, which is akin to the lost man who refuses to ask directions.
Is that the best we can do? Belief or Unbelief. Religion or no-religion. We are stuck between two thieves in a binary again. Let’s think about this. What if both religion and unaffiliated spirituality got it wrong?
Who might have gotten it right? What if Easter isn’t a tribal power play or land grab for the souls of sinners? Consider this:
John 5:19-46 is a big chunk of the the bible where Jesus makes some pretty huge claims about himself as the son of God, who, as such, knows God better than the religious people do. (let that sink in.) In fact, he shreds them for claiming to believe in God but getting it soooo wrong. Did I mention this argument was during Passover? (Easter falls on the Jewish passover celebration.)
Jesus tells religious leaders on their religious holiday that they don’t even know God. Wow!
Would Jesus say the same thing to fundamental Religion today? I’d bet money on it. How would a modern evangelical react to someone telling them they don’t need a building, a choir, a pastor to know God? (I have first hand experience with how this goes over.) How would Islam react if they were told there is no need for hajj, or strict adherence to the 5 pillars?
Religion is not a fan of Jesus.
Back to the story. In John 6:1 Jesus is not heading to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s actually going in the opposite direction. What’s more, is that the masses of people, some of which would be on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, have decided not to “go to temple/church” but instead to follow Jesus into the wilderness. The people are coming because many have been healed, or set free, liberated back into their lives. And now Jesus is about to subvert the Jewish tradition and in doing so, allow all comers (Jews, Samaritans, lepers, Romans, tax collectors, prostitutes, fisher men, old and young) a way to know God and live free.
Why go to temple, mosque or church, if God meets you were you are?
Your pastors preached about the feeding of the five-thousand. The real miracle isn’t multiplying bread from some boy’s sack lunch, as awesome as that is. The real Easter miracle is between the lines. Barley blooms early, and the boy with a sack lunch had barley loafs, which are the first fruits of the ground. Historically, these are offered to God (Leviticus 18:13) which Jesus does ceremonially (v.11), and then he gives it back to the people. In the Jewish religion this was reserved only for Aaron and his family (priests), a blessing for serving God in the tabernacle. Now Jesus is extending “Aaron’s portion” to everyone, well beyond and outside the temple.
Jesus’ passover/Easter wasn’t for a select group. It wasn’t a religious ritual or practice. God isn’t trapped in a building or a religion or a particular belief. Passover isn’t for the religious elite. The mercy of God now covers ALL.
EVERYONE. NO SUBSCRIPTION or credit card REQUIRED. FREE. NO religion to join. No pilgrimage to make. No sacrifice to bring. In fact, for many, he was leading them away from their religious tradition into personal freedom. Jesus reveals EVERYONE GETS A DIRECT LINE TO GOD THEIR MAKER. No altar call. No invitation. No “Just as I am” playing in the back ground. No card to fill out. No offering plate. No fancy clothes. No building.
Notice here the chronology! Jesus makes everyone GOOD WITH GOD. He did this before he died. Before any claim of substitutionary atonement. I’m not saying that Jesus death was not a sacrificial atonement for the sin of the world, I believe it was. However, if it was, then it was the end of atonement for all of us. There no longer remains punishment for sins, any sins, of anybody. The justice of God is no longer retribution, but restoration. Pandemics are not God’s punishment, but a plow which unearths our immaturity and grows us.
In the wilderness, Jesus simply filled empty stomachs and empty souls. Jesus was leading a movement of people in the opposite direction of institutionalized religion and revealing that religion got it wrong. Access to God is as easy as tasting and seeing. Need proof? Just ask within the privacy of your own life.
BELIEF CAME AFTER in Jesus’ algorithm. Belief is not a pre-requisite. Why does religion put it BEFORE? People were liberated back into their lives (sent on their way). Not back into institutional power. That is real freedom.
I‘m not saying all religion is wrong and has no purpose. Ritual has an emotional effect on people. Religious tradition has value in that it re-tells the story for each generation. The point of Jesus is that religion is only a container and if you love your container more than the contents, then it’s a complete waist. “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3) If the container brings you to a deeper proximity to the contents, then it is to be celebrated.
Jesus’ Easter offering was the favor of God, not just for a select minority who did everything right. Aaron’s portion was given to everyone. All without exception, not all without distinction.
Conclusion: the two thieves
The religious mind (thief one) rejected Jesus’ universal inclusion in ancient days and still does today. For them, it comes down to the issue of justice. The first thief on the cross thought that right thing was to accept the retributive justice and Jesus offered him restorative justice and mercy. This Easter, freedom will come to the religious mind when they see that Jesus beared the burden of retribution once for all.
The irreligious mind (thief two) rejects Jesus not by exclusion, but by minimizing sin. This too is a matter of justice. Modern unaffiliated spirituality minimizes sin (or avoids it altogether), calling it mistakes, or weakness, and as a result, it cannot lay hold of the freedom it purports to offer. This Easter, freedom will come once the irreligious mind sees that sin is a very big deal, for which Jesus lovingly took one for the team. As a result, Christ cannot remain sidelined, but his life and teaching must be considered, honored, and followed.
How does a Middle Eastern man from two-thousand years ago make us free today? By realizing Christ hangs as a third way between a binary, opposing worldview. None of us can hear the gospel in the midst of our religious and anti-religious filtration or propaganda. We must clear out the voices of the two thieves on the cross.
Only then can we experience true freedom, discovering that freedom isn’t a goal we pursue, but the state of being from which we all can live.