Ultimate Concerns

What is the point of religion? 

Why practice it at all? 

At some point, we all ask that question. It doesn’t matter if we were raised in the faith or if we came to it later in life. It doesn’t matter if we have left the faith and returned, as I did, or left the faith and never returned. We all ask the question at some point in our own way: 

What is the point of religion? 

Maybe we don’t have a ready, easy, answer to that question, but it’s clear that all around us, people are losing their religion. We certainly see that in our culture across the country and across the Western world. But we can also see it right around us: family members who have abandoned faith, friends who no longer attend church, people we know and care for who have lost their religion. 

That’s what the band R.E.M., in one of their biggest hits, seems to sing about. In their aptly titled “Losing my Religion,” the lead singer says repeatedly in the song:

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream…

That’s me in the corner

That’s me in the spotlight

Losing my religion

He’s losing his religion and he can’t, for the life of him, figure out how to make sense of things any longer. 

Let’s compare that to the words of the apostle who wrote 1 John. Our scripture comes from chapter 2, starting with verse 15. 


What is the point of religion? 

This scripture says we are to avoid the things of the world, keeping them from being the center of our lives. Historically, that is interpreted to mean that Christians should avoid the particular temptations of money and power. The author certainly seems to offer that as the issue here: avoid the things of the world, particularly money and power. And if you successfully avoid these temptations, according to the last verse, you will live forever. 

The apostle ultimately wants his audience, those receiving this letter, to be of right religion. He wants them to understand what it means to practice right religion; and don’t we all want that? We want to follow in the right way, practice right religion, avoid false beliefs and especially false religions. But what does that mean, exactly? What does that look like in practice? We might think of the things of the world as the stereotypical money and power, but the apostle here means more than that. He alludes to more than that when defining the things of the world this way: “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches.” 

The apostle tells us to avoid the things of the world. There is no love of the Father in those things. 

What is the point of religion?

Fair to say that, for those who lose their religion, they experience disillusionment. I certainly did when I lost my religion and lived for a few years without. And that’s the gist of R.E.M.’s song, “Losing my religion.” The band sings:

That’s me in the corner

That’s me in the spotlight

Losing my religion

It seems like the song is about losing actual religion; a crisis of faith that leads to the loss of belief once held dear. But the opening words disprove this notion. The band sings:

Oh life is bigger

It’s bigger than you

And you are not me

The lengths that I will go to

The distance in your eyes

This song is clearly about a person. The singer has lost the love of his life. He keeps dreaming that she will come back, that they are back together. He keeps hearing her, seeing her, and dreams of laughing together again. But then he goes back to the oft-repeated phrase of the song: that was just a dream, just a dream; that’s me…losing my religion.

He’s disillusioned. The love of his life is gone. And that has caused him to lose his religion. 

Now, we ought to ask ourselves: how does that work? The loss of a relationship leads to losing his religion? 

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the kind of heartbreak that seems all-consuming, especially when we were young in high school or college. That’s just how relationships sometimes go at that age. We know what it’s like to experience heartbreak when an all-consuming relationship ends. 

We’ve all been there. 

But how does heartbreak equate to losing your religion? 

How does heartbreak like the band R.E.M. describes equate to this scripture with its emphasis on avoiding the things of the world? 

What is the point of religion? 

For the band R.E.M., the heartbreak here feels like losing their religion because the relationship was central to the singer’s life: his life revolved around the woman he loved. The relationship was his ultimate concern.

That phrase, ultimate concern, is poignant here, because that’s what the scripture wants to convey to us. It’s what R.E.M. demonstrates. When something other than God becomes our ultimate concern, in other words the thing around which our life revolves, that thing becomes our religion. And we are bound to lose it. 

Whatever is of ultimate concern to us, whatever our lives revolve around, that is our religion. And if it’s not our relationship with God, we, like R.E.M. describes, will lose our religion.

The apostle writing here in 1 John describes such a reality. He speaks of not being about the things of the world because he is concerned about when anything of the world becomes central to our lives. That’s the problem described here in the scripture: when anything besides our relationship with God becomes central to our lives; becomes our ultimate concern. And that’s what the lead singer in R.E.M. demonstrates: the woman he loved was central to his life, it was his ultimate concern, and so when that relationship ended, he lost his religion. 

The definition of religion is whatever we make of ultimate concern to our lives; whatever we place at the center of our lives. It’s the thing that we put our hopes and dreams in. It’s where we look to find consolation in this life. It’s where we pour our energies and our time. Religion is whatever we make of ultimate concern to our lives. And that can really be just about anything.

For example, it could be money. Remember that Jesus never said money was a problem. He spoke about money more than anything else. He had much to say about how money reveals our priorities; how our spending habits and whether or not we give charitably and support the church demonstrate whether or not we’re living our lives as disciples. He had much to say about that. 

But he never said money was a problem in and of itself. Paul echoes the gospels when he said, in our scripture last week, that the love of money is A root of evil. And we could describe the love of money this way: when money becomes our ultimate concern, the thing around which our lives revolve; our religion.

Or, let us consider power. Within scripture, God elevates people to positions of power, whether they be kings, prophets, or apostles. The problem isn’t that they have power; the problem is when they decide that power itself is the thing they love, rather than God. Power, like money, can be A root of evil. The problem is when our lives revolve around having power and getting more power; when power becomes our ultimate concern; our religion.

Anything in life, power, money, a relationship, anything at all, can become our ultimate concern, our religion; defined as the thing around which our lives revolve. This might be a status, a job or position, a hobby, a reputation. For example, some people love being a big fish in a small pond. Their lives revolve around achieving and maintaining that status. Others focus their efforts on trying to attain a different status, or trying to gain a promotion or a particular salary, because they have decided that’s what ultimately matters in life; that’s their ultimate concern. 

Still others put their energies into maintaining a particular relationship or finding that special someone. Their lives completely revolve around that. I’m sure we’ve all known people who changed once they entered a dating relationship or who are seemingly obsessed with finding that next spouse. Or friends who disappeared from our lives when they starting dating someone. That is an example of where a relationship has become of ultimate concern. 

And then, there are those who put their bodies as of ultimate concern. They diet obsessively, exercise obsessively, they are too concerned with how they look in person. Exercise and proper diet are not problems in and of themselves anymore than money or power, but they can become problematic when they become of ultimate concern.

That thing will inevitably let us down, it will collapse: the job won’t satisfy, the salary won’t satisfy, the relationship won’t satisfy, the power won’t satisfy, the reputation won’t satisfy, the money won’t satisfy; none of the things of the world, as 1 John says, can satisfy. And when those ultimate concerns fail to satisfy, just like in R.E.M.’s song about a lost love, we too will lose our religion.

God wants to be at the center of our lives. As disciples of Jesus Christ, God belongs at the center of our lives. That’s the point of the apostle writing 1 John: when we make anything else the center of our lives, anything of the world, we make that thing our religion and it will ultimately fail. 1 John is saying: keep God at the center instead of anything of the world, like relationships, power, position, salary, reputations, money, or our bodies. And yet, we are prone to put something else at the center of our lives; to make something else of ultimate concern. 

When the relationship ended for the singer in R.E.M., he did in fact lose his religion. He had made that relationship the center of his life; his ultimate concern. The definition of religion is whatever we make of ultimate concern to our lives. So, we all practice religion. Even those who do not claim a faith practice religion because we all make something of ultimate concern. All of our lives revolve around something. We all put our hopes and dreams for the future in something. All of our lives have something at the center, and so all of us humans practice religion.

And when it’s not God at the center, when God is not of ultimate concern, just like for the band R.E.M., we will lose our religion because that thing will ultimately fail, falling far short of the hopes and dreams we placed into it.

That’s certainly my story. Where I had placed my hopes and dreams when I had abandoned faith ultimately failed. And that failure brought me back to faith. That’s the good news this morning: God is ready, always ready, to welcome us back with open arms. One of the great things about being Methodist is we put the emphasis on God’s grace, on God’s love and forgiveness for us, no matter how long we’ve been gone and no matter how much we’ve failed to put God at the center of our lives.

At Martha Bowman, I put God back at the center of my life and was welcomed back in with open arms by God and the church community. 

What is the point of religion?

To place God at the center of our lives. To make God, our relationship with God, of ultimate concern. For only faith grounded in God will never fail. 

The point of religion is to make faith in God central to our lives, both for God’s glory and so that we will make a positive difference in the world and in our own lives. This is, as we Methodists say, for personal and social holiness, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

When we practice religion by putting God at the center, we will live forever as 1 John says; in other words, our lives will make a lasting difference. The author of 1 John ends our reading this morning with these words, “And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.” This means more than spending eternity with God in heaven. It means that when we are gone, if we have made God of ultimate concern to our lives, what we do will live on beyond us. We will leave a legacy that inspires others. Lives will be changed because those who encountered us encountered the living God within us. We all want a better world; only through placing God at the center of our lives, making God of ultimate concern, will we see the transformation of the world.

Our religion, whatever its basis, contains our hopes and dreams. Whatever we make of ultimate concern contains our hopes and dreams. But only true religion, built upon God, can bring about the better future that we desire. And, of great consequence here, only true religion can make our lives matter; make what we do in this life will live on beyond us. 

The point of religion is to make God of ultimate concern in our lives. The center of our lives. The thing around which our lives revolve. 

What is of ultimate concern in your life? 

Around what does your life revolve? What takes up your thoughts? Where are your hopes and dreams placed? What are you striving for trying to make a lasting difference? What is of ultimate concern in your life? 

If it’s not God, whatever it is will ultimately fail, leaving us disillusioned. We will lose our religion. 

But when God is of ultimate concern, our lives matter, we see ourselves making a positive difference in the world, and we have hope and confidence for the future. “Those who do the will of God live forever.” That’s the promise when we choose to make and keep God as the ultimate concern of our lives. Our lives will make a lasting difference. We will reveal God’s glory to the world. And we will keep our religion. 

What is of ultimate concern in your life?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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