I like watching magicians, especially the great Penn and Teller. I’m not one of those who gets frustrated wanting to know how they did it; I just enjoy the surprise and skill of the trick. There is an amazing amount of thought, preparation and practice in a magic trick and you have to get it exactly right or…it isn’t a good trick, you don’t get the result, and the audience is going to boo you right off the stage.
Is religion a magic trick? If you’d asked me that at any stage in my life I would have huffily denied it but, fact is, the way I lived and taught made my religion indistinguishable from a magic trick. It was all about doing the right things in the right way with precision and timing so that, if everything came together just right, you got the result you were going for. I learned that from growing up listening to preachers who railed against the people sitting in the pews – we baptized, church people! — telling us that if Jesus came back at that moment not all of us would be saved because we hadn’t done the right things in the right ways…or we’d done the wrong things. The upshot was: we weren’t going to pull off the trick.
On Wednesday nights I teach a small class at Fourth Avenue called “Just Jesus Stories.” We slowly walk our way through the stories, taking time to think about them, the people who heard them, the situation on the ground at the time, etc. We looked at passages in Mark 13 yesterday – not exactly a cheery chapter. In that part of the Jesus story the apostles were confused about Jesus’ comment concerning the temple, that their brand new, refurbished, beautified temple would one day be a pile of rocks. When four of them came to him privately to talk to him about what he meant he gave them a real downer of a talk about how people would rise up against each other, how they would be flogged in their churches, and how the sun would be darkened. Then he said this rather odd thing: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
This puzzled me for years. I was raised to defend the faith, to “always be ready to give an answer” to any question about faith, doctrine, and practice. I was well schooled in our unofficial – but binding – catechism. I knew what to say. I knew what to do. I knew how to pull off the trick of salvation. But Jesus is aiming for something different here.
Let’s jettison one misconception first: He isn’t telling preachers to stand up before congregations unprepared. He isn’t telling worship leaders to pick their songs out on the front pew ten minutes before the sermon. He isn’t asking for you to not plan your communion remarks and hope you get something from a Snapple cap you found in your car on the way in. And he isn’t asking for us not to know what we believe and why we believe it. No, he is going for something else here. (and he was talking to his apostles, not us, anyway)
A clue comes in verse 9: “you shall be my witnesses.” The weight of this phrase doesn’t hit us as it might have hit them. Another word for witness is…martyr. Whether they heard it that way or not is arguable but the fact remains that the word “martyr” means the same as “witness” and was used that way of Stephen and those early Christians who died in the Coliseum, of starvation, or who were killed and tossed into unmarked graves all over the Empire.
But how can we witness for him if we don’t rehearse what we are to say for him? Look back in Mark chapter 12 where Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. He doesn’t tell them any of the commands concerning what to say or do…but tells them how to be. Our witness is not our words, our precision obedience in this or that matter, or our perfect worship, or our systematic theology. Our witness is our lives, lived out in love of God and our fellow humans. No wonder an early Christian wrote, “We do not say great things. We do them.” By that he was not speaking of liturgies and the recitation of creeds but of a lifestyle that followed Jesus in love, grace, service, mercy, and humility.
It wasn’t the sermons of the condemned in the Coliseum that won over so many who watched them die; it was their faithfulness, their refusal to hate those who hated them, and their determination to live and die like their savior.
Religion isn’t a magic trick. You don’t have to get everything exactly right and hope for a good result. Religion – and I’m not afraid of that word – is all about our relationship with a Savior who calls us to live in love and follow Him. That is so simple that, like Naaman, when called to dip in the Jordan we rebel and want something more complicated. So we create and expand our lists of rules, procedures, and membership requirements and that has the effect of turning Jesus’ request for us to walk with him into…well…a magic trick that we hope works in the end.
But it isn’t magic. It isn’t a pre-prepared speech. It is life and what that life says to those who witness it.