There is such an incredible divide between our understanding of Christianity today and the person of Jesus and the first century Christians that it would be almost impossible to overstate the chasm between the two. What most people understand Christianity to be, including most people who are practicing Christians in the religious sense, looks almost nothing like the human life of Jesus, the teacher and prophet from Nazareth as witnessed in the New Testament.
Between us and Jesus exists a vast chasm of time, adaptation, extrapolation, popular philosophy, political upheaval, massive cultural change, technological revolution, and most of all perhaps, religious institutional adoption. You could study Christian history for a lifetime to try to grasp the divide between us and Jesus and only scratch the surface. But the point I want to make is that it is incredible how little most people know about who Jesus was and what he was about in his life and teaching. Just as little is popularly known or understood about what his first followers believed about his resurrection or how they understood themselves.
There is no reason to think in reading Jesus' recorded teachings that he intended to start a religion. Actually, the teaching of Jesus and Christianity seems against religion, if religion is understood to be a system of belief, practice, and worship. Instead of religion, Jesus taught a revolutionary understanding of the God of Israel. He prophecied reform against what he saw as unjust and immoral practices of his people's religion. He taught and lived a way of love that had no interest in power, achievement, or influence as the world understands it, and when put up against the institutions of the world, he was shamefully crucified to death by the government and religious powers. Unlike how most people think of the crucifixion of Jesus, Jurgen Moltmann begins his work The Crucified God, "The cross is not and cannot be loved." In her culminating work The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge writes,
"The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection is given its true significance. The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of the Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed. Since the resurrection is God's mighty transhistroical Yes to the historically crucified Son, we can assert that the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened. The resurrection, being a transhistorical event planted within history, does not cancel out the contradiction and shame of the cross in this present life; rather, the resurrection ratifies the cross as the way "until he comes."" - The Crucixion, pg. 44
Instead of seeing the crucifixion as the abhorrent act of the world when confronted with God's love, or as the culmination of a way to follow, popular versions of Christianity have tried to do all manner of things with the death of Jesus. We've built a completely irreligious historical tragedy into a religious emblem, or a transaction for salvation, and in large part lost its true meaning. The other tendency is to instead embrace Jesus as just another charismatic spiritual figure, as a large part of liberal Christianity has done.
Fleming Rutledge goes on to point out the Gnostic nature of modern religion including modern Christianity. The gnostic heresy, it seems, is as popular as ever, and it is fundamentally opposed to the truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Rutledge identifies three characteristics found in the New Testament of gnosticism, and I think you will find them readily apparent in the religion of today.
an emphasis on spiritual knowledge
a hierarchy of spiritual accomplishment
a devaluation of material/physical life and a corresponding avoidance of ethical struggle in this material world
Doesn't that sound like American religion? My mind goes to one of my favorite folk/bluegrass spirituals, I'll Fly Away,
Some glad mornin' when this life is over I'll fly away To a home on God's celestial shore I'll fly away
I'll fly away, oh, glory I'll fly away When I die, Hallelujah, by and by I'll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then I'll fly away To a land where joy shall never end I'll fly away
Contrast this with John Bell's Advent hymnody,
"Why don't you tear apart the heavens and come down? Why don't you shake and shatter mountains in your path? Why don't you set the Earth ablaze and boil the ocean so that the world may fear and wonder at its God?"
Fleming Rutledge drills down even further on the difference between Jesus and religion. Quoting her again,
"Virtually all human religion is gnostic. The eclectic religiosity of America today emphasizes individual spiritual experiences with a corresponding lack of interest in the human struggle for justice and dignity. The great Eastern faiths have many gnostic tendencies, with rigorous spiritual disciplines for the elite and popular, undemanding rituals like prayer wheels, amulets, and idols for the masses. It seems likely that the versions of Buddhism so popular in America today are actually types of gnostic spirituality." pg. 49-50
What Jesus invites his followers into is something very different.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,"
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. Later, he'd write about religionless Christianity while locked in a nazi prison waiting to be put to death. In a letter he wrote of this religionless Christianity,
In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?
What does religionless Christianity look like? This is something I've been thinking about quite a lot as a member of the religious institution itself. I think it is a practice, a following of the way of love, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry might say. I think it is living the kind of life Jesus did, actually studying and following his teaching, living the kind of love that led to Jesus' death. It is a life that looks like the cross. Even more so, it is a life infused with the life of the age to come. Christianity is not meant to be religion, it is meant to be a Body, the Body of Jesus, the Risen Lord's presence in the world. When Jesus was raised from the dead, that transhistorical event was the New Creation crashing into history in the person of Jesus. His followers are baptized into him, not as a religious activity, but as adoption into the household of God, into the New Creation in him. He breathes into his followers his own Spirit, so that empowered by that Spirit, we could continue his authority and power in the world. At his table we are invited to the feast of the parousia, the second coming of Christ and the coming age, not as some far off event to escape to, but here and now.
The point of all of this, is that this is what we are called to live and practice as followers of Jesus. We're not invited into a religious institution or a Sunday club for like-minded friends, or a spiritual practices meetup to enhance happiness in our every day life. We are adopted into God's household, we are filled with his Spirit, we are transformed into his likeness as agents of his mission, a mission of love and reconciliation in a world of brokenness and sin. Every day we must wake up and obey him. Every day we must put to death those parts of us that are selfish. Every day we must turn toward him again in confession and repentance, and every day we must then turn outward in servant love of our neighbors. Every day we must be ambassadors of Jesus the Son of God, and if we do that, perhaps we will begin to close the gap a bit between Him and the understanding of him that exists in the world today.