I spoke with Rev Jim Donaldson, who most will know is a former minister of TUC, about conducting weddings and funerals. He said to me, "I am discovering that people dont seem to want much Christianity in their weddings and funeral services these days." I replied, "Well Jim, welcome to the Post-Christian society." He hadnt heard that expression before and he laughed in his inimitable way. When we spoke later he told me that he had been thinking a lot about what I said and he could see that it was a very true statement.
Some say that the Christian Church is getting back to what it was in the first century; that is a movement rather than an institution. I not sure thats an accurate picture of the contemporary church. First, we really cant go back. Two thousand years of history is the baggage we carry into the 21st Century. Now some of it is good and some of it is not so good. So the church has lost its way and it is not a matter of going back to our roots.
Others on the other hand think that it is more important to discover what our contemporary culture wants and provide it for them. We see glimpses of this in the large evangelical and charismatic churches that embrace popular culture and shape their presentation to those seeking that form of faith. And for a small percentage of our society that works. But it doesnt seem to have the currency we need to attract the majority of those in our cities and nation.
But today, probably the most important fact is that we live in a multi-faith culture where the imperialist and conversionist aspects of religion are at best frowned upon and at worst legislated against. To put this in context, if a Muslim group proclaimed that they wanted Australia to be an Islamic country, as some have, there would be absolute outrage. We may hide behind the banner that Australia is a Christian country, but most of us know that that is a very insipid form of Christian faith. Its cultural and therefore not really practised with any passion or commitment.
My approach to this dilemma is to embrace the present situation the church finds itself in; listen to the tradition that has brought us to this moment in time; explore and mine our tradition for that which has relevance for the culture in which we find ourselves; listen to those in the culture who can express our deepest needs; and finally adopt and adapt our forms and practices in a welcoming and hopeful way. In a Post-Christian world, we are unshackled from being what our society expects us to be and we can become what our society really needs us to be.
What we really need to be
So what do we really need to be? There is a very interesting piece of art in the gallery at the moment. Its the one printed on Kinross advertising postcard. It shows a Cross made of ice melting on a boardwalk with a jetty in the background. It raises the question, as the cross melts, what is happening? Is it saying that Christian faith is melting away and will never be seen again? Or is it melting into the timber and becoming one with its context? Youll have to look at it and make up your own mind. But one thing I wanted to say is that this digital piece of art (its displayed on a TV screen) requires you to stand and watch it. It takes a long time to melt and there is a contemplative and meditative part to the experience.
First comes the Contemplative
I think to answer the question of what we should be as a community of faith is to say that we value the contemplative, the meditative, the reflective and the inner experiences of life. And God knows that our society, our culture is desperate to find a pathway to its own inner life. I put the picture of Mother Teresa on the front of the order of service this week not so much because I want to press home the good works that she did, which were countless, but to centre us on her motivation to serve the poor and dying on the streets of Calcutta. Hers was a contemplative awareness drawn particularly from the inner life of silence, prayer and reflection.
Mother Teresa once said:
We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.
That doesnt sound like the words of an activist who nursed tens of thousands of people who had been discarded and left to die on the streets of India. But if we listen to our culture, there is a deep hunger for that reality and what the church could offer if it was willing to welcome the stranger into a place where hope is nourished; love is expressed; faith is open to new interpretations; silence and reflection are practised; and the inner life of each person is honoured, respected and cherished.
I hope in August to attend a conference south of Milwaukee in Wisconsin in the USA. The conference is for clergy and church leaders and focuses on this very issue I have been speaking about. It centres on: attending to the heart of the leader; nourishing the heart of congregational life; and healing the heart of our greater community.
Friends, it always begins with the heart. Yes, we need good organization. Yes, we need structures, buildings and constitutions. Yes, we need programmes and projects that put hands and feet to our hopes and aspirations. But without the heart nurtured in silence, reflection and contemplation, we are but "a noisy cymbal and a clanging gong."
Second comes the Rumours of Resurrection
Which brings me to the story from the book of Acts read this morning. I made mention recently of an email from a person in West Australia who had read my Easter sermon on our website and said that my statement in my sermon "that I am not interested in what you believe about the resurrection of Jesus. I am more interested in knowing if you are living a resurrected life" was helpful. I see this story of the coming back to life of Tabitha, known in Greek as Dorcas, as one of those rumours of resurrection that made early Christianity both attractive and relevant to the culture of the day and can make it alive in our culture today.
Really, thats the point of faith. Not that people can rise from the dead: that belongs to a culture that prized such things. But that faith is life-giving, life-affirming and that those who have died to the inner life can rise again. It is no accident that in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is asked by Peter how many times must he forgive, Jesus replies, "No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times!" Which actually means seventy-seven times seven? There is no limit on the times one can be forgiven, reborn or rise again!
The story from the Acts of the Apostles, of which Peter is one:
So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.
What a rich story. There are so many ways one could take this narrative. But if you take it as a literal raising of Tabitha from the dead, then it is limited to one time and to one place and the great truth of resurrection, that the spirit of Jesus has been let loose in the world, will somehow be diminished.
I love the fact that this woman had lived a rich and productive life:
"All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them."
And that they are all women. Isnt it strange that women were so much a part of this early movement but were excluded sometime in the 2nd Century? Perhaps it was because they are better at what I have suggested in the first part of this sermon living the inner life; and Christianity was fast becoming an institution that needed rule makers, regulation keepers and male dominators Umm! Well thats my view; others may differ.
Sadly, rumours of resurrection disappeared. That is to say that faith became belief; story became history; metaphor and myth became canon law and legalism. But I can tell you that that is not what our culture wants in the 21st century. They desire and hunger for rumours of resurrection. They need the sense, like all of us, that they are embraced by that which gives life, even when all has collapsed around them.
I visited a dear woman this week who is dying of cancer. She doesnt belong to this congregation but asked if I would allow her to have her funeral in this church. She talked about the beauty of the church. But she said something else that stayed with me. She said, "You must be a beautiful congregation because there is such a wonderful spirit when one enters your church."
Is she right? Has the beauty of our spirit, the life of prayer and contemplation permeated these very walls? Have we created a space where all are welcome and where stillness and tranquillity are present? Are the rumours of resurrection and new life lingering in these transepts?