I have been struck in recent political discourse with how vast are the differences between those who claim the label “Christian.” Often, the values, actions and politics of other Christians resemble little or nothing of the Jesus Christ I have come to know. And sometimes I wonder how close my own line up with that Jesus, too.
Brian McLaren helps address these questions in his book, “The Great Spiritual Migration,” when he offers Coca Cola as an image.
McLaren invites the reader to imagine recently purchasing a twelve-pack of Coke, removing the first can, popping it open, and lifting it to the lips. But the taste is awful, leading the person to reflexively spit it out.
“Now imagine you call Coca-Cola customer service and share with them your experience.
Customer Service: Coca-Cola World Headquarters. How may I help you?
You: I just bought a twelve-pack of Coke that tasted terrible.
Customer Service: I’m sorry to hear that. What color were the cans?
You: The cans were normal—bright red with white lettering.
Customer Service: Well, that’s the most important thing. Was the cardboard box,
sound the box that contained the twelve cans?
You: Yes, The Cardboard box was fine. It was the taste that was the prob--
Customer Service: Thanks for calling! I’m glad the cans were red and the box was sturdy. Enjoy Coke and have a nice day!”
In matters of religion, the packaging and labels often look very similar, and the container can appear sound. But the question is always what is within and what flows out from beneath the surface. Jesus regularly made this point in the Gospels, harshly criticizing hypocrites of the religious establishment of his day with epithets like “white-washed tombs” and “brood of vipers.” He lamented those who focused on washing the outside of the cup, but leaving filth on the inside. He talked of the inadequacy of old, worn, dried out wineskins to contain the fresh, vibrant, potency of new wine.
It matters what is within the forms, colors, and trappings of our religion, and what flows out from beneath the surface. Our labels are not reliable to convey whether or not we are cultivating spiritual vitality, growing in love, and actually seeking to follow the teaching and example of Jesus toward hopeful and redemptive purposes.
The Apostle James writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” True religion is about the things we do, the others we serve, the quality of our love for others, the center we are finding and what we are becoming. Christianity that is worthwhile is a religion that transforms us, more and more, into people who live out the love, compassion, justice proclaimed by Jesus in the world.
In these times, we must link up and work together with those who share righteous commitments. Labels won’t do: the Coca Cola has to taste good, and the Jesus must inspire us to steadfastness in love, in compassion, in justice. Or they’re not worth having.
The Reverend R. Scott Painter