Reference 1 Corinthians 15:12-23
Religion, according to Karl Marx, is “the opiate of the people,” mesmerizing them with promises of future “pie in the sky bye and bye” so the masses will accept their exploited miserable lot here and now. With the modern decline of religion and increase in drug use, the current observation is more that “opiates are the religion of the people.” Seeking fast, fast relief, modern man wants his pain of soul, mind and body dulled now, an instant gratification. He is quite unwilling to wait and endure to receive his pie in the sky.
Many church people since Marx first wrote his words have been either offended or challenged by them. Some recent theologians have attempted to respond by talking about the “death of God” or a “demythologized” religion for moderns. Such spin is cute, but it misses the point and rather distorts reality in the process. Early Christians would have had no trouble agreeing with Marx on this point. Unlike many modern Christians, who sees themselves as belonging to one of the great religions, the early Christians saw the plethora of religious cults of their time as quite separate from them. Religion is needed when there is a wall of separation between the divine and mankind. It provides the mechanism to propitiate and successfully negotiate with the gods, so they will not be angry with you but instead will help you. But in Christ, there is no wall. The very beginning act of entering the Church, baptism, incorporates you into Christ, who is himself Divine. The lack of standard religious paraphernalia and behavior made the pagans of Roman times accuse Christians of being atheists. They needed no temple, no sacrifices, no sacred places reserved for encounter with the gods. Jesus, in his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:19-24) makes this clear when he tells her that worship will neither be on the Samaritan sacred mountain nor at the Jerusalem temple, but “in spirit and in truth,” and that this is not simply for the future but already “now has come.” In saying this, he identifies himself to her as the Messiah, the Christ who is acting to make this happen. He is the temple (John 2:19) and we are its “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-5). And all the earth is the Lord’s sacred creation (see Psalm 24), not just some special spots. Likewise, the one effective offering of himself made by Christ replaces the needless and useless repetition of sacrifices (Hebrews 10:11-18) done by the religions of Roman times.
In the history of the American Republic, the main purpose of religion (sometimes identified specifically as Christian) is seen as inculcating morality, without which democracy and liberty cannot survive. “It is simply impossible for people to be moral without religion or God,” says Laura Schlessinger, for instance. When polled, the majority of Americans believe this assertion, in contrast to Canadians and Europeans, where the majorities strongly reject the concept. Professor Greg Frazer of The Master’s University notes “A number of key American Founders were neither Christian nor deists but theistic rationalists….They believed that promoting morality was the central value and purpose of religion.” The alarming problem in this is “identifying moral or ‘religious’ people as Christians makes the Gospel [message] one of moral behavior and character rather than the saving work of Christ.” Because this is exactly what has happened, the resulting muddle has greatly confused many Americans who connect the message of Christianity with a list of moral standards and an ethical foundation for the “American way of life.”
It is at this point that the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians call us back to Gospel truth (as referenced above). The epicenter of Christian Faith is an event in world history, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith….But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.” That statement of Paul’s has nothing to do with religion or morality. It is a statement of fact and historical reality. You can choose not to believe it, just as you can choose to believe that Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo and thereafter ruled the world, or that the Holocaust never happened. But all three events depend, not on your belief, but on historical fact. On a certain spring day in the First Century, Jesus did rise from the dead, as witnessed during the following forty days by hundreds of people, just as there were many witnesses to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and to the Holocaust.
The early Christians were, of course, not atheists. But neither were they adherents of a new religion, or any religion. Once they accepted the truth of the Gospel, that they were saved by the grace of God through Christ and baptized into him, they had no need of religion to reach or to placate God. Christ had come directly to them. They gathered in community to celebrate his presence among them, to be living members of his Body together, as Paul discusses in the chapters of 1 Corinthians preceding the comments noted above.
Does this mean that they had no consequent morality, or that Jesus has nothing to say to them or us about how we live our life? Absolutely not. Last week’s blog post discussed precisely that subject, the morality that Jesus urges on us. But it is indeed consequent to the central event of the resurrection. We follow Jesus and his teachings because his grace and love has saved us for a better way of life, not because it is a noble religious purpose to live a moral existence. To repeat Paul: if there is no resurrection, your faith is in vain, your morality is a branch without a vine, an arm unattached to a body, a lifeless form incapable of acting on behalf of the Body. And, as noted last week, the ethical imperatives as stated by Jesus, and as only relevant for those who would follow him, are quite different from what passes for Christian morality in our nation.
The message we Christians therefore have for the world, including the American world, is solely to throw yourself on the mercy of God, as we do, and then rejoice as his love warms your soul. That message is simple and clear, and it refutes the false and scrambled rantings of those who purport to deliver a “Christian religious” imperative from a “moral majority.” The confusion did not start with our generation, nor is it likely we can sort out the mess without major effort. But we really need to try, so that our generation and future ones can have a clear choice on accepting or rejecting the Gospel and our Lord based on its, and his, core message. Christ is risen!