In his Glocalization, Bob Roberts quotes the following from E Stanley Jones, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, regarding the “war” between religions: I dislike exceedingly to feel that one must enter what may turn out to be an unholy rivalry. For I do not conceive of the Gospel of Christ as a religion at all. Jesus never used the word. It was foreign to his conception. He was not coming to set one religion over against another. He came to set the Gospel over against human need, whether that need be in the Jewish faith, the Gentile religions, or among His own followers. There are many religions, but one Gospel. Religions are man’s search for God; the Gospel is God’s search for man. One is from man up to God, the other is from God down to man.
After reading this, I said to myself: Well said! Standing at the Western wall surrounding the temple terrain in Jerusalem (also known as the wailing wall), I experienced the truth of Jones’ words. I watched a large number of Jews at the wall, reading from their prayer books, one with his face tightly pressed in a corner, others placing small scraps of paper with prayer requests between the stones of which the wall is built. And the impression I got from this was that they were trying by all means possible to them, to somehow connect to God, but never really succeeding. And this will always be the problem when we are trying to follow a religion or even when we make a religion out of Christianity. We will forever be trying to connect with God, but without success.
I can’t remember at which point it was in the conversation with the orthodox Jew while flying back from Israel, that I mentioned to him that it had forever been a problem between people and God, that human beings had tried to connect to God through things which they thought would be important to God. But Christianity (and for that matter, faith in the Old Testament) is not about a number of things to appease God. It’s all about living in a relationship with Him.
While questioning me about my understanding of God, I asked him how important the covenant still is to him. He replied that it was indeed extremely important to modern-day Jews – even quoting it: I will be your God and you will be my people. I then said to him that for myself as Christian this covenant is also important – in fact, in a certain sense, I would consider this as the basis of my faith. Many people do not realise it, but these words are often confirmed in the New Testament and is even used to describe God’s relationship with His children on the new earth (Revelations 21:7).
With a religion this relationship with God is substituted by something else – mostly a set of rules which have to be adhered to. And unfortunately, it is not only “false religions” that so this. Christianity, through the ages, have been doing the same thing, propagating a certain life-style instead of a relationship. I find many of my close friends (who’s faith in Christ I do not doubt for a moment) who also sometimes seem to lose track of what Christianity is all about – God’s way of connecting to us through the great news of the Gospel, showering love upon us in superabundance, so that we actually have no choice other than to want to live in a relationship with Him.
In missions the temptation is big to revert to strict rules through which a person’s Christian life may be regulated. This is so much simpler than to allow someone to discover God within a relationship. But then Christianity becomes a mere religion, instead of the gospel, the good news, about salvation through Jesus Christ.