When we come to life’s end and look back over a lifetime, what will have really mattered? What is most worthy of our attention now? What is the core of our faith? What is the essence of Christianity in terms of every-day life? Can we possibly get some handle on human existence at its best? What does the earthly life look like that brings ultimate joy to God and lasting satisfaction to us?
Is it a religious life centered on church activities and meetings, holy rituals and sacred ceremonies? Indeed, many Christians under-value the discipline of set meetings for worship, fellowship and study. Western individualism and the consumer mentality have little appreciation for community. Yet in Old and New Testament Scriptures alike the faithful person locates his or her personal identity as a part of the larger People of God. God was Israel’s Shepherd; because David was part of Israel, God was his Shepherd as well (Psalm 100; Psalm 23). Christ loved the church and gave himself for it, so each man or woman who is part of that church can say that “Christ loved me and gave himself for me” (Eph. 5:25; Gal. 2:20).
Ironically, in the name of grace many Christians today forget that God regularly and graciously encounters earthly people who come humbly with faith in such earthly elements as water and wine and bread. Whether understood as sacraments or as ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and to a lesser extent the anointing with oil) either convey or signify spiritual benefits of which these physical things themselves are either instruments or reminders.
Yet a religious life does not necessarily please God or bring joy to the religious person. In Isaiah’s day, God denounced the sacred assemblies of a people whose work-week was marked by injustice and selfish living (Isaiah 1:10-20). Jesus pronounced woes on meticulous tithers who neglected the things that mattered more (Matt. 23:23). Paul told one fractious church that their Lord’s Supper meetings did more harm than good (1 Cor. 11:20-31). A religious life is not in itself the essence of human existence.