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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Religion & Spirituality: Part One

Normally my sermon is based on the Scripture readings for the day, and I try to explain  the meaning behind each of the readings, and what, if any, application they might have for us today. But for the next two Sundays, that is today and next Sunday, I want to share with you my thoughts on the topic of ‘Religion and Spirituality’. It’s a topic I’m very interested in, and very passionate about.

I was reflecting recently on how much more difficult it is to proclaim the Word of God to people in the twenty-first century, than it probably was when Jesus, and later his apostles, proclaimed it in the first century. 

That’s not to say that it was easy in Jesus’ day, but if we think about it, Jesus began his ministry preaching to the Jews, who already believed in God. They would have been familiar with, and probably also agreed with, much of what Jesus was saying about God and the Kingdom of God. Of course where things got difficult for Jesus with the Jews, was when he started challenging the religious leaders on their interpretation of the law, and also when he began to imply that he was the Son of God. 

And even when he, and more so his apostles, began preaching to the Gentiles, they were preaching to people who worshipped a pantheon of gods, such as the 12 major gods of the Romans. These people believed in the existence of gods, so the concept of a God such as that which Jesus, and later his apostles, spoke about, was itself not hard for them to grasp. But things are very different today in the twenty-first century, with fewer and fewer people having a faith, or believing in God.

We hear a lot of talk today about declining attendances in church and the increasing secularism of society, and we might think it’s a fairly recent phenomenon, but it’s actually been going on now for approximately three hundred years, since the Age of Enlightenment began in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It has certainly accelerated in the last fifty years or so, although that itself probably  just reflects the accelerated rate of change in society in general.

One of the major challenges facing the Church as it seeks to proclaim the Word of God in the context of this change, is the perceived relevance (or lack thereof) of the Church to the lives of ordinary people in the twenty-first century. Especially for those people who have grown up with no involvement in (or knowledge of) the Church, whom I will hereafter refer to as the “unchurched”. To people such as these, the Church might seem to be “out of touch” with the rest of society. The most recent example of this has been the issue of same sex marriage. 

In the wake of the legislation that was passed last year legalising same sex marriage, we have witnessed significant differences of opinion within the Church regarding what the position of the Church should be in relation to same sex marriage. The Anglican Church of Australia has reiterated its previously held position that marriage between a man and a woman is a sacred ordinance given by God, but it accepts that the State has endorsed, in law, a wider view of marriage. 

It is perhaps because of doctrine (that is, church teaching) such as this, that the unchurched find it difficult to see the relevance of the Church in their daily living. I can imagine people thinking of doctrine, such as that concerning the Holy Trinity, the question of heaven and hell, or even contraception, and wondering how any of that can possibly be of use to them in their daily lives. 

Unfortunately, I believe that the unchurched have come to see church doctrine as synonymous with religion. And because they don’t understand doctrine, and don’t see its relevance to them, they therefore don’t think of religion as being relevant to them. But when we talk of religion, we are talking about much more than just a set of doctrines; we are also talking about the personal relationship that exists between an individual and God, and the series of relationships that exist between people in a community of faith. I would define these as the ‘spiritual’ aspects of religion.

Before I go any further, I just want to make it clear that I am not necessarily being critical of, or challenging, the doctrines of the Church; but in just the same way that Jesus shone a light on the emphasis the Pharisees placed on observing the law as being the way to a right relationship with God, rather than loving God and loving their neighbour as God desired, perhaps we need to be mindful that we don’t place more emphasis on doctrine, than we do on love for God, and love for each other as fellow human beings. Church doctrine is clearly important to us, because it defines what it is that we, as Anglican Christians, believe in. But I would argue that our love for God, and love for each other, are more important.

And that love for God, and love for each other, are made manifest in both the personal relationship that exists between each of us and God, and the series of relationships that exist between all of us as a community of faith. Again, these are what I define as the spiritual aspects of religion.

Let me talk first about the personal relationship between individuals and God. Each of us has been called into a relationship with God, and having answered His call, each of us is on a journey to God, what we might define as our spiritual journey. And for each of us, that journey will be different, but the one thing that is common to all our journeys, is God’s grace. As Michael Casey puts it, “the most important happenings on our spiritual journey are not the result of our own actions but are gifts of God, given directly or indirectly, including what may seem, at first, to be accidents, tragedies, or disasters.” 

We are not always aware of it at the time when events are unfolding or happening in our life, but often when we look back on those events, with the benefit of wisdom and time, we can see that everything that happens in our life is a gift from God. That is certainly true of my own circumstance. Ten years ago, when I reflected back on the experiences of my life, it was obvious to me that the happenings in my life, the painful and tragic ones as well as the good and happy ones, were all part of God’s plan for me. Those experiences helped me to realise that I wasn’t being true to myself; that I wasn’t the person that I was meant to be. Each of us are called to become the person God intended us to be. That is what our spiritual journey is all about, becoming the person God intended us to be. And as we come closer to being that person, we also come closer to God.

Answering God’s call to become the people He intends us to be requires discernment. What is discernment you might ask? Let me share with you a definition of discernment from Henri Nouwen (Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian): “Discernment is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life that is acquired through disciplined spiritual practice. Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfil our individual calling and shared mission.”

One form of “disciplined spiritual practice” is prayer, which was the subject of my sermon two weeks ago. And as I said that morning, when we do pray, we find ourselves in a dialogue with God. Prayer is a two-way communication. In prayer, we bring our petitions to God, asking for His help or direct intervention in some issue or problem that is important to us, but we must also try to discern how God might be responding to our petitions. Prayer brings us into a closer relationship with God.

And it is prayer, and a closer relationship with God, that I will talk more about next Sunday morning, when I continue the topic of Religion & Spirituality.

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