Is there enough grace in Christ to enable us to follow Him without religion? People have called me a hypocrite because I say, ‘religion is a sickness, and Christ is the cure,’ and ‘I am not a religious Christian,’ yet they still see me going to church. Those who have lived with me have seen me reading and studying scriptures and the Church fathers, a few have even seen me praying (more have, of course, prayed with me than have seen me praying ‘in secret’). Visitors to my home are met immediately at the front door with the image of Christ crucified—the Cross of San Damiano—as well as a small tapestry ikon of the Holy Triad. When I open to them—if they didn’t know to open the door themselves—they can see in the vestibule to their left, hanging on the wall right inside the door, a bas relief carving representing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew script, then a small ikon of Christ holding an open book that says, ‘Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that ye should go and bring…’ and then a plain olivewood cross with budded ends. There are dried laurel leaves and palm crosses stuffed behind the ikon.
A small dark mahogany Chinese table with a carved top under glass is next, with a ceramic three-legged toad sitting on it, holding a cash coin in its mouth, facing the doorway. I place my keys and my bible there when I first enter, so I can take off my shoes and hang up my coat in the closet across the hall. Down the runner on the same side of the wall is a little bench to sit down on to untie your shoelaces or drop off your things. On the wall are family mementos from Indonesia. When I hung up my guest’s coat in the front closet and closed the door again, he may have noticed a cartoon poster of ‘Comparative Religions in a Nutshell’ hanging on the door, and next to the door on a narrow spit of wall, an ikon of Christ blessing the children. Then, there’s the stairway up to the private rooms of the house. I will invite my guest in and ask him to sit down on a sofa and make himself comfortable, while I go to bring tea and some sweets, usually loukoumi—Turkish Delight—or some Japanese mochi, anything light and natural. While I am momentarily away, my guest, if new, may look around.
I am not a religious Christian, but I have already given something away, something that I never intended to hide, that I am a follower of Jesus. If my seated guest looks to his left or across the room if seated on another sofa or in one of the becak chairs by the windows, he will see a strange little paneled roll-top desk, barely a cubit wide and little taller than a kitchen table against a narrow east wall. On its top stands an incense burner, a green copper candlestick in the shape of a book-reading field mouse whose tail has unexpectedly grown long enough to rise up and support a candle, and some other strange objects, like three tiny pine cones clinging to each other, and a small ceramic pot with a lid. Centered on the wall above this little desk, or whatever it might be, there is a small photographic image of a man who looks like he might be Jesus, set in a simply carved wooden frame. To either side are ikons of two somebodies. (In fact, holy prophets Daniel on the left, and Moses on the right.) Another very tiny ikon with gold and silver shines out below these three, but above a hole in the wall that offers its shelf to a thick book with Greek writing on its cover—that’s my synekdemos, the priest’s prayer book with all the liturgical services. Then there’s an oil lamp hanging in front of these pictures.
Looking into the dining room, above the table a large leather parchment covered in strange writing hangs on a canvas scroll backing, flanked on the same wall by two brass scallop shells that hold candles and reflect their light when they are lit. There’s another hanging oil lamp in front of this. This is not the home of an non-religious person or a non-Christian, for sure. Whoever lives here has to be religious, has to be a Christian. Well, that’s what people think, but looks can be deceiving. Anyone can pretend, anyone can act. That’s what it means to be a hypocrite—an actor. But the man who lives here says he is not religious. What is he then? Enough people call themselves Christians but do not live like one to drive the world to despair or contempt. Why then, go to church, read the bible and study the fathers, why pray, why fast, why keep oneself from wanton acts, why refrain from lying, stealing, committing adultery? Why would anyone do any of these things, if he is not religious? Is he living in denial? Is he living in a fantasy world? Anyone can easily see that religion is the law of this house. What can he possibly mean—the man who lives here—when he tells us he is not a religious Christian?Again I ask, ‘Is there enough grace in Christ to enable us to follow Him without religion?’ And of course, the answer is yes, but it’s not that simple. There is enough grace, but most of us, even followers of Jesus, cannot bear the weight of that grace, light though it is. Religion is what it has always been, both a crutch for the weak and the refuge of sinners. But a crutch can become permanent, when no effort is made to walk without it, and a refuge can become a prison as much as a protection. Religion without Christ is crippling, it is a prison. Religion with Christ is a clinic with the Physician in residence. But this is a strange clinic. Those whom the Physician heals do not depart, but they stay and assist in the cure of the other patients, not because they must, but because they want to. Those who claim they are healed, but leave the clinic, what of them?
I don’t know the answer to this. I still say, ‘religion is a sickness,’ and by this I mean the crippling and the imprisoning of souls. I still confess, ‘and Christ is the cure.’ Who else but Him? Though ‘He came unto his own, and his own received him not’ (John 1:11), those who ‘received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God’ (John 1:12). What else can this mean but a religionless Christianity? ‘To walk in the Light, as he is in the light’ (1 John 1:7): this is what awaits us when we follow Jesus. It is what this looks like when it appears that confuses us. But only until we forget what we believed, and only keep what we received.