What is the point of religion?
Why practice it at all?
At some point, we all ask that question. It doesn’t matter if we were raised in the faith or if we came to it later in life. It doesn’t matter if we have left the faith and returned, as I did, or left the faith and never returned. We all ask the question at some point:
What is the point of religion?
Maybe we don’t have a ready, easy, answer to that question, but it’s clear that all around us, people are losing their religion. We certainly see that in our culture across the country and across the Western world. But we can also see it right around us: family members who have abandoned faith, friends who no longer attend church, people we know and care for who have lost their religion.
Today, as we continue our sermon series on God in Pop Music, we look at the biggest hit for the Athens-based band R.E.M. aptly titled “Losing my Religion.” The lead singer says repeatedly in the song:
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
That was just a dream
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spot-light
Losing my religion
He’s losing his religion and he can’t, for the life of him, figure out how to make sense of things any longer.
Let’s compare that to the words of the apostle who wrote 1 John. Our scripture comes from chapter 2, starting with verse 15.
This scripture is often interpreted to mean that Christians should avoid the triumvirate of temptation: sex, money, and power. The author certainly seems to offer that as the issue here: avoid the things of the world, particularly sex, money, and power. They will make you lose your religion. And if you successfully avoid this triumvirate, according to the last verse, you will live forever.
It seems pretty cut and dry as an interpretation until we examine our own lives. How many among us have some wealth? Part of how I feel called personally is to establish wealth to leave to my children. I feel called that way not for the love of money but for the love of my family. In our fourteen years of marriage, we have changed our money practices in huge ways to conform to this standard and we have made progress toward that goal. By my own standards, I have some wealth.
But by the world’s standards, I am super wealthy. By the world’s standards, we are all incredibly wealthy. And we know that; we’ve heard the statistics. But based on what the apostle is saying here, we should give up our wealth because it will cause us to lose our religion.
Or let’s consider power. I have some power. Very limited power, to be sure, but I have some power based on my position here at the church and with the chamber of commerce. I like to think that I put that power to good use for the betterment of the church and our community. You’ve heard me say before that I follow the camping rule in leadership: I use my leadership, my power, to leave things better than I found them.
Some of you have more power than I do in our community, whether because of position or because of stature or because of relationships you hold or the history of your service. Some of you will one day have more power than I do. But based on what the apostle is saying here, we should give up all of our power because it will cause us to lose our religion.
And aren’t we concerned about that? About losing our religion? If we believe the wrong things, or if we succumb to the wrong temptations, we might lose our religion. Our faith might collapse and, with it, the foundation of our lives. We build our lives upon our faith, our belief that Jesus will take care of us and the church will be there for us. Our belief that we hold good values that make us a good person. But if we succumb to the triumvirate of temptation: sex, money, and power, then we might very well lose our religion and, with it, the stability of our lives.
We’re quite right to be concerned about losing our religion.
Fair to say that, for those who lose their religion, they experience disillusionment. I certainly did when I lost my religion and lived for several years without. And that’s the gist of R.E.M.’s song, “Losing my religion.” The band sings:
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spot-light
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
At first, it seems like the song is about losing actual religion; a crisis of faith that leads to the loss of belief once held dear. But the opening words disprove this notion. The band sings:
Oh life is bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
This song is clearly about a person, not a religion. The singer has lost the love of his life. He keeps dreaming that she will come back, that they are back together, and he keeps fantasizing about hearing her, seeing her, and laughing together. But then he goes back to the oft-repeated phrase of the song: that was just a dream, just a dream.
He’s disillusioned. The love of his life is gone. And that has caused him to lose his religion.
Now, we ought to ask ourselves: how does that work? The loss of a relationship leads to losing his religion?
I’m sure we’ve all experienced the kind of heartbreak that seems all-consuming, especially when we were young in high school or college. That’s just how relationships sometimes go at that age. The person we’re dating seems to be, in the words of another 90’s band Vertical Horizon: “everything you want, everything you need, everything inside of you that you wish you could be.” We know what it’s like to experience heartbreak when an all-consuming relationship ends.
We’ve all been there.
But how does heartbreak equate to losing your religion?
How does heartbreak like the band R.E.M. describes equate to this scripture with its emphasis on the triumvirate of temptation?
What is the point of religion?
For the band R.E.M., the heartbreak here feels like losing their religion because the relationship was central to the singer’s life: his life revolved around the woman he loved. The relationship was his ultimate concern.
For the apostle writing here in 1 John, the description of sex, money, and power, listed as examples of “things that are in the world,” are not the problems in and of themselves. No, the problem is when those things, or anything else that is found in the world where we live, becomes central to our lives. The problem is when our lives revolve around those things. The problem is when anything of the world becomes our ultimate concern.
Remember that Jesus never said money was a problem. He spoke about money more than anything else. He had much to say about how money reveals our priorities; how our spending habits and whether or not we give charitably and support the church demonstrates whether or not we’re living our lives right. He had much to say about that.
But he never said money was a problem in and of itself. He said the love of money was the problem. And we could describe the love of money this way: when money becomes our ultimate concern.
Within scripture, God elevates people to positions of power, whether they be kings, prophets, or apostles. The problem isn’t that they have power; the problem is when they decide that power itself is the thing they love, rather than God. The problem is when our lives revolve around having power and getting more power; when power becomes our ultimate concern.
And let us remember that sex is something God created, too, to be enjoyed. There’s an entire book of the Bible dedicated to celebrating it! The problem is when sex becomes something our lives revolve around, something we become addicted to; when sex becomes our ultimate concern.
Anything in life can become our ultimate concern; the thing around which our lives revolve. It’s not limited to sex, money, and power; it might be a status, a job or position, a hobby, a reputation. For example, some people love being a big fish in a small pond. Their lives revolve around achieving and maintaining that status. Others focus their efforts on trying to attain a status, or trying to gain a promotion or a particular salary, because they have decided that’s what ultimately matters in life; that’s their ultimate concern.
Still others put their energies into maintaining a particular relationship or finding that special someone. Their lives completely revolve around that. I’m sure we’ve all known people who changed once they entered a dating relationship or who are seemingly obsessed with finding that next spouse. Or friends who disappeared from our lives when they starting dating someone. That is an example of where a relationship has become of ultimate concern.
And then, there are those who put their bodies as of ultimate concern. They diet obsessively, the exercise obsessively, they are too concerned with how they look in person. Exercise and proper diet are not problems in and of themselves anymore than money or power, but they can become problematic when they become of ultimate concern.
That phrase, ultimate concern, is poignant here, because that’s what the scripture wants to convey to us. It’s the example R.E.M. sets. When something other than God becomes our ultimate concern, in other words the thing around which our life revolves, we are bound to lose our religion. That thing will inevitably let us down, it will collapse; the job won’t satisfy, the salary won’t satisfy, the relationship won’t satisfy, the power won’t satisfy, the reputation won’t satisfy; none of the things of the world can satisfy for long. And when those ultimate concerns fail to satisfy, just like in R.E.M.’s song about a lost love, we too will lose our religion.
And yet, we are prone to put something else at the center of our lives; to make something else of ultimate concern.
That’s a constant struggle even among clergy. Our appointment system, with the bishop moving pastors around, has its definite advantages and I wouldn’t trade it for a different system. But one of the things it sometimes fosters is resentment, jealousy, and bitterness when someone else gets chosen for a promotion or gets the bigger church that a clergyperson thinks she or he deserves. When that happens, it’s symptomatic of a larger issue: career advancement, getting the bigger church, being recognized for a promotion; any or all of that has become of ultimate concern. Clergy are not immune from wanting to place the things of the world as their ultimate concern.
When 1 John refers to things of this world, the issue the author wants to convey to us is this: it’s really easy to make something other than God, something from our experience living in the world, of ultimate concern to our lives. It’s easy to make something other than God what our lives revolve around, the center of our lives.
And that’s what we mean by ultimate concern: the thing around which our lives revolve; the center of our lives.
When the relationship ended for the singer in R.E.M., he did in fact lose his religion. The definition of religion is whatever we make of ultimate concern to our lives. So, we all practice religion. Even those who do not claim a faith practice religion because we all make something of ultimate concern. All of our lives revolve around something. All of our lives have something at the center.
And when it’s not God, just like for the band R.E.M., we will lose our religion because that thing will ultimately fail, falling far short of the hopes and dreams we placed into it.
That, indeed, is a point of religion. Our faith contains our hopes and dreams. There are many ways to answer the question “what is the point of religion,” but one of the major answers is this: true religion, built upon God, teaches us to hope that a better future is possible. And, of great consequence here, true religion teaches us that we matter, that our lives matter, and that what we do in this life will live on beyond us.
The author of 1 John ends our reading this morning with these words, “And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.” This means more than spending eternity with God in heaven. It means that when we are gone, if we have made God of ultimate concern to our lives, what we do will live on beyond us. We will leave a legacy that inspires others. Our family and friends will carry a piece of us within them and use our example to fuel their own lives in service to the God we served.
The point of religion is to make faith in God central to our lives so that we will make a positive difference in the world and in our own lives. Nothing else can do that, no matter how good it may seem. Everything of the world will ultimately corrupt us if we make it central to our lives. As the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We can say that about anything else in the world: “absolute dieting corrupts absolutely,” or “absolute career advancement corrupts absolutely” or “absolute wealth-building corrupts absolutely.” Anything we make absolute in our lives; in other words, anything we make of ultimate concern to our lives will ultimate corrupt us and fail us.
The point of religion is to make God of ultimate concern in our lives.
So let’s ask a different question this morning: what is of ultimate concern in your life?
When God is of ultimate concern, our lives matter, we see ourselves making a positive difference in the world, and we have hope and confidence for the future. “Those who do the will of God live forever.” That’s the promise when we choose to make and keep God as the ultimate concern in our lives.
So, what is of ultimate concern in your life?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.