July 14, 2013
What is your image of “old time religion?” Depending on the era, you may or may not resonate with some of the “antique” features we’ve sampled in today’s worship.
Whatever time you associate with “old time religion,” the song taps into our nostalgic longing for a time in the past that seems to have been better than our present.
The song Give Me That Old Time Religion started out as a Negro Spiritual that was first included in a list of Jubilee Songs in 1873. I wonder what “good old days” the former slaves were nostalgic for in 1873? After hearing it at a camp meeting in Lexington, South Carolina in 1889, Charles Davis Tillman published it for white churches just as the era of Gospel songs was getting started.
For the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) “old time religion” goes back to 1801 when Barton Stone hosted the revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky that helped launch the Stone-Campbell movement.
Words that could be translated “religion” are rare in the Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures have none at all, just not the way they thought. The New Testament only has two scarce possibilities.
One could be translated “superstition” and has a negative connotation. In Acts 17:27, when Paul saw all the idols in Athens, including an altar “to an unknown god,” he said they were very “religious” or “superstitious” or “afraid of many gods.” In Acts 25:19, when Festus and Agrippa were trying to figure out what to do with their prisoner, Paul, they concluded he was the victim of a dispute about points of the Jewish “religion” or “superstition.”
The other word that is translated “religion” means “ceremonial observance” or “rituals.” In Colossians 2:18, Paul cautions about such worship of angels. In Acts 26:5, Paul describes his former life as a Pharisee as one who followed the strictest “religion” or “ceremonial observances” of Judaism.
James 1:26-27 defines “religion” or “ceremonial observance” in a distinctly Christian way: bridle your tongue, care for widows and orphans, and keep yourself unstained by the world. “Religion” is not ritual but life!
In the very familiar Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus gave us a powerful picture of this kind of religion – real “old time religion” if you will. After he rejoiced in the reports from the 70, he told his disciples they had seen things that prophets and kings had longed to see but didn’t.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The Rich Young Ruler asked the same question as this Lawyer. Some have wondered if they were the same person with Luke telling the story a little differently than Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Since Luke 18 also tells the story of the Rich Young Ruler, I’m confident they were two different people. Jesus quoted from the Ten Commandments to the Rich Young Ruler, who seemed to be caught up in following the rules precisely. But this Lawyer quoted the great commandments about loving God and loving neighbor from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. He was probing both deeper and broader into what relating to God is all about. But self-righteousness triped them both up.
Common people at Jesus’ time often had an antipathy toward Priests and Levites who were contemptuous of them while arrogantly flaunting their own piety. So many who heard the way Jesus portrayed the Priest and the Levite were at least nodding if not cheering silently and waiting for the third character to be the hero whom they expected to be a devout Jewish layperson. So even Jesus’ most sympathetic listeners were shocked when a Samaritan is the hero of the story. When Clarence Jordan paraphrased Luke for his Cotton Patch Version, he set it in Georgia in the 1950s and used the N-word for the Samaritan. We might get the impact if we thought of the Samaritan as an Arab or a Palestinian or an Iranian.
Jesus turned the Lawyer’s question on its head. Instead of “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks, “To whom can I be a neighbor?” By using the Samaritan as the hero of his story, Jesus continues to push us to consider the least likely candidates to whom to become neighbors.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is rightly understood in the vast witness of Scripture mandating ministries of mercy and justice for the poor and of racial and cultural harmony. With the way Jesus turned the question to finding the unlikely people to whom to be a neighbor, his story also challenges the church today to pursue ways to become neighbors to the non-religious people in our increasingly secular society.
Several recent studies have confirmed that “no religious affiliation” is the fastest growing religious identity in the United States, especially for those under 50. In some areas, a majority of young adults have no church or religious experience, and for many who do it is negative. Through our sons, I feel I have had some opportunity for interaction with some of these folk. They are not asking “religious” questions. They are not asking about “eternal life,” as the Lawyer asked Jesus. But they are trying to figure out how to have a satisfying, significant life.
The “old time religion” of the Good Samaritan challenges us to actively pursue becoming welcomed neighbors to these non-religious folk. It is the mission of the church in our time and the shape of the church for our grandchildren. Having our presuppositions questioned is uncomfortable and can even be scary. But real conversation, authentic relationships with people about religion, church, God, Jesus, faith, life is also exhilarating. When we are in way over our heads, the Holy Spirit shows up as unexpectedly as did the Good Samaritan.
Brian lived across the street from us in his teen years and became good friends with our son Jon. His mother was a non-practicing Protestant and his step-father a non-practicing Jew. Brian had never gone to church until he started coming to youth events with Jon. I am not aware of a conscious moment of trusting Jesus, but he has expressed thanks to Jon for introducing him to Christ, which has been important in coping with his life challenges. Brian and his wife have an autistic son. Brian has pursued a high-stress career that often puts him in New York City. He fled his office and the city on foot on 9-11 to get home to New Jersey. Brian is part of a group of guys who have gone camping together on Memorial Day weekend for years. What started out as a lark evolved into a men’s spiritual retreat. Now that they are married with children, this group also camps with their families on Labor Day weekend. I am convinced hundreds of Brians are in Odessa waiting for someone to be their neighbor.