Summary: Christianity differs from all religions in that it’s not about us finding God, but about us responding to God who has been reaching out to us.

Can you be a Christian without being religious?

It almost sounds like a contradiction in terms.

However, according to Webster, a religion is a system of faith and worship... Christianity is certainly that!

According to Webster, a religion is the service to and the adoration of God expressed in forms of worship... Again, Christianity is certainly that as well.

According to Webster, religion is devotion, fidelity, conscientiousness, an awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being which arouses reverence, love, gratitude, and the will to obey and serve... Christianity is certainly all that ... and more.

According to Webster’s definition, all religion has one basic characteristic in common; all its participants are reaching out to God, trying to find God and trying to please God.

This is the basic and standard definition of religion and it can be applied to all world religions from the largest group with millions of followers, to the smallest sect with a few dozen devotees.

Christianity however, though sharing many similarities with the definition of religion and containing some parallels to other world religions, nonetheless differs significantly in one major area.

Christianity makes the bold claim that mankind has not found God, but that God has found mankind.

Christianity differs from all others in that it’s not about us finding God, but about us responding to God who has been reaching out to us.

Christianity is not religious striving. It’s not a cycle of forms, formalism or formulas. It’s not a series of does and don’t, rules, rituals, or regulations. It’s not trying to ease, please, or appease the Almighty. Christianity, simply put, is about a relationship, a personal, individual, and privileged relationship with God that is induced, initiated and instigated by Him.

And this is what makes Christianity inherently different from all other world religions. God reaches out to us!

The most famous Biblical passage of all time, John 3:16, supports this assertion, 16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Consider Philippians chapter 2

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Eph. 1:4 for he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ,

The very Christmas story supports this when it says in Luke 2:11 today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

We call this the “Incarnation”. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

But not only did God come in human form, Jesus Christ, to redeem us, He came in love to reach out to us.

He reached out to common men like Peter, Andrew, James and John. He reached out to a Leper who was considered an outcast. He reached out to a paralyzed man whose friends didn’t take “no” for an answer, and He reached out to Levi and Levi’s friends who were looking for something more in their life.

Jesus also reached out to the religious leaders who were impressed with His teachings, His healings, His hope, and they were more than happy to bring some of His ideas into their religious tradition. They were hoping for some kind of compromise that would retain the best of their Pharisaical Jewish religion and the best of what Jesus had to offer.

So He told them this story, this parable:

36 "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.

37And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ’The old is better.’ "

Now this seems like a rather peculiar story. Why not compromise? Why not take the best of the old and apply it to the new. Well, the answer is rather simple. The old cannot contain the new, just as a brittle, old wineskin could not contain the expansion of fermenting wine.

In our backyard we have a massive oak tree. Every fall it fills my yard with it’s burnt sierra colored leaves. However, many of the leaves stay on the tree throughout the winter, that is, until spring. In the spring the sap begins to run and the buds begin to burst and they literally push the leaves off the tree.

When Jesus fills our life as He had with Peter, the Leper, the Lame man and Levi, there is a swelling from within that cannot be contained. This new life in Christ begins to fill us with the Holy Spirit and it affects every aspect of our mind, our will and our emotions. This is what Paul was saying to the believer’s in Ephesus when he said, 16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Eph. 3:16-19

It is the power of God to reach into our lives and transform us.

Religion by definition reaches out to a god

and tries to fit that god into our frame of reference

by defining who that god is

and the parameters in which that god will operate. Christianity is just the opposite. God comes to us,

defines who He is,

tells us what He desires to give

and informs us of what He expects.

And what He expects is often contrary to what we want to do.

Religion at its core is about control! It’s about putting God in a box and defining who He is and how one desires Him to operate. That’s why Jesus called Peter and Levi and reached out to the Leper and the lame man. None of these individuals had much power or control and what power or control they had or thought they had, they were willing to relinquish.

Religion is about being in control, but faith is relinquishing control!

Religion is about holding tight, but faith is letting go.

Religion is about being in charge, but faith is about coming under the authority of the One who’s in charge.

Being a disciple of Jesus is all about courage, courage to come under God’s authority and courage to follow Him.

The Pharisee’s on the other hand tried to use their religion as a source of power and control. The problem however, is that religion in and of itself has no real power, just perceived power. The Pharisee’s religion had become so wrapped up in itself that it actually lost the power of the God they long ago stopped serving.

Now there is really no better place to understand this than in the life of the Apostle Paul. Paul wasn’t just a Pharisee, He’s was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He made other Pharisee’s resumes look like they were written in crayon. This is what he say’s about himself. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. Phil. 3:4-6

This guy was so full of himself that he put the “air” in

“air-rogant”. But he goes on to say; 7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Phil. 3:7-9

I have to wonder if Jesus wasn’t referring to this encounter at Levi’s house when He told the this story later in Luke 9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about[a] himself: ’God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ’God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14

Let me ask you a rather personal question. You don’t have to raise your hand or acknowledge out loud. I just want you to think about this question.

How many of you were raised in church, believed in God, came to worship, prayed, read your Bible on occasion and participated in religious activities, but did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ? If you have experienced this, then you can begin to understand what these Pharisees were experiencing.

Like them, you may have attempted to meet the requirements of God.

You aimed to let your good outweigh your bad.

You endeavored to play by the rules instead of giving into rebellion.

You made a conscientious effort to do the “do’s” and to stay away from the “don’ts”. But how many “do’s” had to out weigh the “don’ts” in your life?

How good did you have to be? How many rules did you have to keep? Jesus had just said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Luke 5:31-32

The Pharisee’s saw these tax collectors as those who didn’t measure up. And the kicker was that these tax collector’s and sinners new they didn’t measure up and that’s what made them not only candidates for a relationship with Jesus, but it caused them to respond.

When your pride, your pretense, and your posing is scrapped away like barnacles from a hull, you’re actually in a very good spot. You’re at a crossroads, a jumping off place that can change the rest of your life both now and for eternity. You are at a place to respond to the very God who is trying to reach out to you.

The problem these Pharisee’s had was that they thought they measured up because they thought they were doing all the religious does and don’ts.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not as a result of what we do. It is a response to what He has done for us. We respond to God who is reaching out to us. That’s what Jesus was trying to tell the religious leaders that day and it’s what He is still saying To-day!

The Apostle Paul said, 16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

Now why am I telling you this? I’m telling you because it is a reoccurring theme that people struggle with. Every generation has fallen into the trap of religion! Christianity continually falls back into rituals, rules, and regulations to reach up to God. But this is not the Gospel, which means “GOOD NEWS”. The good news is that God reaches out to us in Jesus Christ and He asks us to respond.

That’s what Peter did. That’s what the Leper did and the lame man and his friends. And that’s what Levi and the other tax collectors and sinners did. They all responded to Jesus.

They were not relying on what they could do or had done for God. All they knew was that God was reaching out to them and they were responding to Him.

So what did they have to do?

What did this religion of Jesus require of them to earn God’s favor or acquire His approval?

The answer Jesus gave them was startling!

He told them that they couldn’t earn God’s favor and they were to stop trying.

They were told to abandon the rituals, the regulations and the rules and respond to the relationship that was reaching out to them.

That’s what the Lord was telling Peter and Levi when He asked them to follow Him? It’s also what is He asking of us when He calls us to follow Him?

He’s asking us to respond to Him. He’s asking us to get rid of the religious self-effort and to respond to Him. In fact Rom. 3: 20 says, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

So what are the religious requirements? What are the rules, the regulations and the prerequisites of this religion known as Christianity?

Paul says it best, if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved Rom. 10:9-10

Christianity by definition really isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. It’s responding to a God who is reaching out to us in Christ!

Now some of the Jews who came to Jesus had a hard time with those who weren’t religious so they tried to force them, especially the Gentiles to become like them in their rules, regulations and requirements. They wanted them to go through “initiation ceremonies” like circumcision before they were allowed in the church. It was hard for these good Jews, steeped in tradition and religion to accept the idea that salvation is a free gift for everyone on the basis of faith and faith alone. And so it was all too easy for them to put Christianity back into the religious category, complete with requirements, rituals and rules. And unfortunately, that continues to happen today!

Why? Because it’s all too easy! Religion produces a god that is easy to handle, compact enough to tuck in a dresser drawer and “tailor” to size. But a relationship is something totally different. A relationship is not something we do, it’s something we respond to and God is the initiator. God is reaching out to all of mankind in Jesus Christ. He is the initiator and that’s why Christianity is different from all other world religions. It’s not about appeasing or trying to please God to win His love it’s all about responding to Jesus God who reaches out to people like Lepers, the lame, and the Levis.