Christianity stands apart from all other religions. In fact, in the narrow sense, Christianity by its very nature opposes religion; it has nothing to do with religion, and really shouldn’t be called a religion. Nevertheless, in a wider general sense, we still refer to Christianity as one of the world’s major religions.
Religion exists because death exists. People look to religion to bridge one’s existence from this world to the “after-world”. In this sense Christianity is similar, in that one is carried through death into eternal life with God. But on examining how death is bridged within the various religions one will come to understand Christianity is very different to religion. In fact, in the narrow sense it is not a religion.
So what is religion? If you were asked this question, what would you answer? Furthermore, how would you explain the differences between Christianity and, say, Buddhism, or Hinduism and all western New Age variants of these eastern religions? Or what about Judaism, or Islam? Knowing the differences helps us isolate and uphold the single ultimate truth Christianity professes to hold.
If you believe Christianity is just one of a number of various truths amongst the world’s religions and philosophical truths, Christianity for you is just a religion. Why? Because when one believes like this they usually explain, “My faith is right for me and your faith is right for you!” But this is not the faith given by the Holy Spirit in the Word of God. Rather this is a subjective faith; a faith that comes from a person rationalising different belief systems within themselves. And when one puts on the rationalisation filter first before trusting the God of Christianity, are they really trusting God? Or are they doing a work to believe? In fact they’re doing a work of righteousness!
On the other hand, within the one holy apostolic and catholic church hidden within the denominations of Christianity, one will first trust God, from an act of faithfulness from God towards us, and then with this God-given faith rational thought centred on Christ and other types of understanding will be enacted within by the Holy Spirit. This then will produce righteous works to come from within us. And these good works God had planned in advance before any of us were created.
Christianity is not a belief system which can be chosen; rather it chooses you and me. It is prefaced and driven by God. It can’t be observed from afar, like a work choice product. Rather, Christianity permeates the whole being when the Word of God is heard.
When we do the right thing, God’s will is enacted within us by God; we participate in God’s will. Any action on the part of our human-centred will is a move away from God’s will, whose will it is to have us trust him completely. Therefore, for Christianity to be right there cannot be any religion that’s right.
And this is the chasm which separates Christianity from world religions. It’s the right actions done within the scheme of the individual religion or within Christianity which allows us to be taken from this world to the next. But the one doing the right thing is the critical difference between Christianity and religion.
So religion in the narrow sense cannot be Christianity, because one is required to seek a right relationship with someone or something by earning it. Once a sufficient amount is done the person is worthy enough to deserve a new life, or a better life, in the next life. But only if the person deserves it!
Christianity however, is under the total control of God. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is sent and he does the right thing, for a right relationship with God. So what is the thing, he does right? It’s not so much about what he did, but that he trusted God the Father while doing it. God allowed the doing to happen to Jesus, ultimately, his death on the cross! And now risen, Jesus acts in us by sending the Holy Spirit to show us his righteousness resides hidden in us and in the church which looks to him as the only way, the only truth, and the only life.
Religion is being bound to something. It's duty done for gain. And a religious righteousness is a rigorous requirement demanding deeds to avoid the wrath of death.
John the Baptist was performing a religious baptism on those who came to the river Jordan. People were coming, confessing their sins, and being baptised. This was a deed done during the days after Israel’s former glory was gone as a result of human sin. His baptism was one of preparation and cleansing for the coming of the Messiah.
To those at the river John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11–12, ESV)
John was looking to the One who would come purifying with the Holy Spirit and fire since religion had failed. It failed because its adherents were more concerned with themselves doing the right thing than the right relationship doing the right things would allow. They sought not a relationship with the glorious God of heaven, but rather sought glory for themselves through their righteous deeds.
So when Jesus arrived at the Jordan, and requested to be baptised by John, his apprehension is understandable. After all John was proclaiming, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And now he wanted John’s baptism of cleansing which was really his anointing as the Messiah. But why does this need to happen?
Listen for it as you hear the gospel reading Matthew chapter 3:13-17… Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13–17, ESV)
It had to be so to fulfil ALL righteousness. Jesus was not sinful as were the others who came to be baptised. So why was he baptised? To fulfil ALL righteousness. He was anointed as the Messiah, crowned with the Holy Spirit, and declared by God as his beloved pleasing Son. Why? Because he was doing the right thing, glorifying God’s will by faithfully being anointed to the task of being enthroned on the cross where he would experience God’s winnowing folk, by suffering the fires of eternal death. Although innocent of this death, Christ allowed himself to be treated like chaff that’s burnt. And through it all he was faithful because of his loving relationship with God the Father.
Jesus underwent the religious rigours of Judaism for ALL righteousness. He allowed John the Baptist to administer the rite which began his beaconing to the fury of the cross; a rite through which we today allow his work on the cross to baptise and burn us; to clean and refine us.
In our baptism ALL righteousness is fulfilled making us all right with God. Jesus underwent a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire first, so we might be live under the fire of the Spirit, who gives us the faith to focus on Jesus as we undergo all sorts of fiery trials on this earth.
But this righteousness doesn’t just end at our baptism as if now we must work to keep the righteousness. We not only look to Jesus as our example of righteousness, but we know his righteousness resides with us. ALL has been done, ALL is being done, and ALL will be done in us and through us as we allow the faith placed in us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism into Christ Jesus to do what God intends it to do in us. This ALL happens by the ALL righteousness of Christ.
After his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but nevertheless, he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem and the cross. In your baptism, the Spirit seeks to lead you through this wilderness. Yet he reveals the hidden Jesus Christ in you in this worldly wilderness, and calls you to allow his faithfulness to engender trust as you walk towards your cross of earthly death.
When you allow God to be God, when you allow Jesus to be you Christ, and when you allow the Holy Spirit to be the one who breathes the breath of faith in you, you will be all right with God. Through faith Jesus walks with us from the font to the funeral; the Holy Spirit seeks to resolutely set your face towards the cross.
So how do we do the right thing? By trusting God! By allowing your sin to be exposed and allowing the power of God to cleanse you through a washing of daily repentance.
Jesus fulfils ALL righteousness. Letting him do it, letting God do what God needs to do within, is true Christianity. For us who believe it is not duty but rather beauty. Livin’ is being forgiven and trusting that Christ’s righteousness is working in us and through us, to the glory of Father, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Amen.