We are at an interesting time in the history of the Australian Church.
Much of what we have taken for granted has either been lost or is, at least, being challenged by both modern religious and secular people. The structures we have taken for granted, the language of our liturgy, hymns and theology as well as the role of the church in society are under siege. Even the most recent incarnation of the Prayer Book is now deemed to be insufficient for both the present and future by some academics, clergy and lay people. The same could perhaps be said about the hymn book.
There is a move for the development of a new prayer book for use in Australia.
I would suggest that not only is there a need for such but there needs to be a contextualisation of the church’s foundational beliefs, liturgies and language to accommodate its Australian context in the 21st century.
It has been suggested that the church in Australia could be likened to a pot plant that grandmother gave you when you moved out of home and into your new home. It came in a beautiful period pot hand made in some famous pottery and valued for both its aesthetic beauty and intrinsic value. You have kept the plant in that pot and taken it with you from house to house and it remains with you today in your retirement. The plant has neither gown or flourished but it has survived. It is still in the same pot.
It’s the pot that matters, not the plant.
The Anglican Church in Australia remains the Church of England, a Northern European Church, to this day, despite its name change, because that’s the pot it came in and that’s the pot we carry around with us from day to day. It is time to either take the plant, the Good News of Jesus Christ, out of the pot or, more dramatically to knock the pot off its pedestal and allow it to shatter into pieces. If we can collect pieces to reuse that will be good, but we need to plant the plant into the Australian context, and to do it soon.
John’s community is battling with its own unique identity as a people of God, in particular as a people of God who sees Jesus as the Chosen One of God. They are Jews. They have been practicing the Jewish faith. This Jewish Rabbi has changed their language and beliefs about the reality of God and they are struggling to work out how that fits with the plant and pot they have been given it in. Is the plant really the Son of God and if so, has it outgrown the pot called the Jewish faith? If it is a new planting of the truth in the context of their experience what are the words and the language one can use to understand it so it makes sense now and as a continuation of past belief?
This passage is not just about Jesus being the everyday staple that nourishes us physically. That is a literal reading of this text. This statement is more than a metaphor that we can use to describe Jesus, and it is not primarily a statement about the Eucharist, although the sacramental element is not far from the centre of this discussion.
Scholar, James. F. McGrath in his exposition of this passage suggests, “In this chapter, Jesus is identified as the true manna or bread from heaven. The origin of this concept is probably the need to show that Jesus fulfilled the Jewish expectation of an eschatological provision of manna, coupled with the developing Wisdom Christology formulated from the need to contrast Jesus with Moses and/or Torah. Although Eucharistic language and imagery does play an important part in this chapter, we have not found the Eucharist to be its central focus. Rather, the bread of life discourse represents a Christological exposition of the Old Testament manna tradition. Eucharistic language is thus probably used not as an end in itself, but because it enables faith in Jesus to be expounded in a way that is relevant to the Johannine community’s legitimation of its beliefs and practices in the context of its conflict with the synagogue.”
Context is the key word. Here it refers to the context of disagreement with the synagogue. It is about how they were to make sense of what they believed by reaching back to the Exodus stories and giving them a fertile ground within their own context in which to flourish and give life.
The Christian church, and in this case the Anglican Church, is being challenged to take its long and hard fought traditions and to plant them in the soil or context that is Australia, allowing that plant to grow and become not an import but a native of this place. This is a challenge because no church, even those who perceive they have adapted to attract young people have actually allowed the Gospel to grow into an Australian native. They still use images, liturgies, practices birthed in other places ranging from the Middle East, Europe, England, Africa and the protestant mega churches of the USA.
This is more than making room for aboriginal spirituality and language for example. While that may be a start it can be accused of appropriation of Aboriginal intellectual property. It is more than gender-neutral language or the adaptation of liturgies to include LGBTQI community for baptisms, weddings and funerals. It is more than changing the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit to, say, “The white cockatoo”. It is more than shifting the Church Year around so that the images of the seasons actually equate with the season we are in seeing, in its simplest form, Easter and Christmas transposed.
Planting the plant in the Australian context will require:
- Coming to grips with the church’s history in this country;
- Coming to grips with the ethos of the space we now inhabit;
- Coming to grips with the language and spirituality of this context
- Coming to grips with the need to mature both as a nation and as a church – growing up as a people into our own identity.
Each of these could occupy a sermon/paper on their own so there is no doubt this is and will be a challenge, and it is the challenge John’s Jesus addresses in this discourse on I am the bread of life.
If we are serious about being the church for the 21st century and beyond we owe it to ourselves, to all who have gone before us and all who are to come to address these questions. It is one of the driving factors behind our strategic plan. As we begin to attract new people, engage with new people and work with new people we will realise that we have to begin to take the plant, Jesus, out of the pot which came from England on the First Fleet and plant it in the land of the Werrundjeri people of the Kulin nation and see what happens.
This is not a post with a nice little wrap up. It’s a post with a challenge; what church are you going to leave behind: the one you have carefully nourished in the pot or one that comes into being because you take the plant, Jesus, out of the pot and plant him here and now? This will be an ongoing discussion.