Continuing in our exploration of the pot and the plant and the process to transplant the faith narrative we received from western Europe into the Australian context. Last week we looked at the need to come to grips with the churches history in this country and we ended with three realistically positive statements:
- By accepting that we who make up the church are human and make mistakes, that how we understand others and the world is constantly changing and what we once thought was appropriate no longer is.
- By accepting that we have to share the revelation of Divine wisdom with others who are not part of our faith or denomination, we no longer own it exclusively.
- By accepting that our place in the world has shrunk in that we no longer sit at its centre, but paradoxically, by doing so our place in the world has expanded as we work with other like minded people to bring about the justice of God for all.
- Coming to grips with the ethos of the space we now inhabit.
Today we will look at the second of the 4 original statements of process:
In other words, what is the social and religious atmosphere in which we live and how do we respond to what we discover?
In todays’ Gospel and the accompanying Ephesians Epistle, both John and Paul lay out a challenging landscape for us. Paul reminds us that we will need all of our spiritual wiles and tools to live and become whole in what he plainly sees as a hostile environment. Paul is writing from his own experience and the hostility he has met from both the Jewish and non-Jewish world-views. He is seeming to say that we will need to be on the defensive if we are going to survive and that the tools he outlines in this passage are essential for that purpose. Traditionally we have interpreted this passage as ways of self-protection, of the protection of our gift of eternal life from the sin of backsliding or turning away.
This is our legacy from the pot plant – we have to protect what we have from the environment, the space in which we find ourselves other wise the plant, in this case our faith, will die.
What if there is another way to see this.
Is he in fact saying to us that here are the tools we need to engage with and analyse the ethos or atmosphere in which we live? These are not so much defensive tools but tools of engagement, tools which if we employ them appropriately will allow us to stay fully aware of what is happening about us and how to respond, grow and be transformed by it.
The John reading also is blunt and direct. David Lose suggest”…the picture St. John draws for us in today’s reading may not a pretty one, but it is a rather realistic one. It is, in other words, a fairly accurate portrait of disbelief, with Jesus surrounded by folks who wanted to believe, who used to believe, who have been trying to believe, but have gone through the motions too long and have finally given up.” I suspect this is an accurate reading of where we are in our times and space.
Jesus is surrounded by people we are seeking a new deal with life, a new deal with faith and a new deal for the future. They want to be recognised and heard by those in power, both secular and religious. They have heard the same old platitudes of faithfulness both required from them and inherent in God’s part of the deal and have come to the conclusion, with Tom Waits, that God’s away on business. They have been waiting for their faith to be rewarded, for the promises of God to be received and the violence of everyday life to cease. And they have been disappointed so many times that they have decided that they have had enough and have moved away. Others have stayed but they are half-hearted and cynical and still others are fervent and intense but deep down unsure of whether this story of the covenant relationship with God and/or Jesus is the real deal.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you can see yourself somewhere in this mix? I would be surprised if you didn’t. I do. This is the harshness of faith – the now and then of what we believe – we believe it now but we are waiting for then to experience it – where ever then maybe.
Is this not the ethos of the society the church is in the midst of at this time and place?
The growing number of people identifying as nones – those without any religious affiliation is a sign of the move away from traditional religion in search of something different or, in some cases, nothing at all. The success of books such as “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, the rise of the humanist church of such as Alain Be Botton and the simple not knowing anything about God and Jesus of much of the younger generation signifies the groups Lose referred to within this passage.
Since the enlightenment and the rise of the individual as the centre of all that is, and the reduction of people to the single most important identity they have, that of individual economic units or consumers, the influence of religion has been reduced to just another consumer product.
In Australia this has been our history. The initial colonisation of this country was primarily by those who, for various reasons, were assigned to a penal colony as the means to rid England’s jails of over crowding and to man, primarily, a new economic endeavour. They came with little or no religious guidance on the ground in the first instance and were left to their own imaginations to create meaning in the new world.
The church became essentially a middle/upper class institution to which one belonged without necessarily having faith or knowing what that looked like. This, arguably, remained the case up until relatively recently. The injection of first Irish Catholics and then the faith and religion of European migrants after the two world wars continued the nominal Christian ethos. This changed again with the official the end of the White Australian policy and the injection of Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants since the ‘70’s.
Australia is now caught somewhere between the nominal Christian space and the more fervent and diverse faith experiences of new immigrants and the individual search for meaning through such as meditation, mindfulness and the faiths and practices which support such. Nominal Christianity has also been impacted by the history of the church we referred to last Sunday. In addition we have the cost and process of home ownership and home-making vastly different from that of the 50’s and 60’s, delaying interest in existential ‘things’ until much later in life. There simply isn’t the time or the financial freedom to engage as was the case previously. Today, for example, the average age of becoming a member of the Anglican Church is 60. This is not a sign that religion is of consequence only for older people, but recognises that only after having completed family and career responsibilities do people have time for things of religion.
While this is a superficial reading of the signs of the time, the climate and ethos has changed and we are unsure of how to respond.
Alyce McKenzie asks, “The question arises that if we are no longer going about with him, then where are we going?”
We can only answer this question for ourselves. We can not answer it for others. Like the remnant in John’s Gospel can we answer with Peter, ““Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The key word here is “come”. We recognise that we have not always believed but through a process of living we have come to this place.
In the midst of the diverse landscape that is modern Australia we are to leave space for others to come to faith in the same way. And remember this will not be the majority, but as John’s Jesus lays out clearly, it may only be a remnant and that’s ok.