Sunday, June 9, 2013

Good news, religion and change

Texts: Galatians 1 (different gospels), Luke 7 1-10 (healing by faith)

Change is a constant in all of our lives. Each day brings changes to ourselves, to our families, and to our surroundings. Each day brings changes to the culture in which we live. These changes can feel both exciting and frightening. They give us new possibilities, but they can also threaten old ways of doing things.

Today's Scripture readings are about change. In the reading from Luke, Jesus meets the friends of a Roman soldier who ask Jesus on this officer's behalf to heal one of his slaves. Jesus remarks that he has never found faith in Israel as strong as that shown by this Roman soldier.

Paul's angry letter, Galatians, of which we heard the first chapter today, presents his side of his argument with Peter. Peter was the disciple whom Jesus called the rock upon which he would build his church. Peter says that non-Jewish followers of Jesus must adopt traditional laws and customs. Paul disagrees. He says that to insist that non-Jews follow those ways is a violation of the good news revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Like the reading from Luke, Galatians highlights big changes that are occurring in the religion into which both Jesus and Paul were born.

Today, I discuss these readings against the background of change in our church today. Last weekend, I was in Estevan at the Annual General Meeting of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church. Much of our discussion was about the decline of the church. And this past Tuesday, eight of us from Borderlands sat around Anne Borgerson's kitchen table to talk with a facilitator from Regina who is part of a large team gathering input from congregations across Canada. These conversations will help the United Church's Comprehensive Review Group make recommendations to the next General Council meeting of our church in 2015. Their recommendations are expected to be both radical and dramatic.

Like Paul 2,000 years ago, we are faced with the question of how to preach the good news in a changing context. For Paul, this context was the Roman world outside of Judaism. Paul preached to people who were not Jews and who wanted to be faithful Christians without having to also follow Jewish traditions.

For us in the 21st Century, the challenge is to be Christian at at time when more and more people locate their spiritual life outside of the church. Church today is in crisis, just as Judaism was in crisis after the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem in the First Century. Jesus said that non-Jews could be as faithful as any Jew. Paul argued that Christ's good news did not depend on old religious practices.  I hope that looking at their words from 2000 years ago can help us today as we struggle with a world that is moving beyond the church.

Much of the New Testament focuses on tension in the early church between Jews and non-Jews. Peter says that the gospel does not do away with the need to follow Jewish laws. Paul disagrees. He says that the good news liberates us from tradition. Simply by dying with Christ and rising with him to new life, all can be saved. Nothing else matters besides this good news, Paul argues, including religious traditions.

Paul preaches this gospel even though his whole life has been steeped in a Judaism that is about sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem and following the commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures -- 613 of them according to one count. These commandments detail how one is to eat, dress, and conduct everyday life.

I have always found it easy to side with Paul in this dispute with Peter since I don't find all of the commandments useful. Some of them seem burdensome or even silly to me. Many Jews, however, follow these laws and customs with joy and gratitude. Observing traditional practices reminds them of their connection to God in every moment. Being an observant Jew is like an endless prayer, they say. Religion becomes much more just than worship. It becomes an all-embracing way of life that helps one to act ethically and know with every breath that God is with us.

Those of us who remember the glory days of the United Church 50 or more years ago might be able to relate to this kind of all-embracing religion. Back then, church didn't just involve attending Sunday worship. It might also have meant choir practice on Thursday nights, Bible study, couples' clubs, youth groups, UCW units, CGIT, and community outreach. Each day began and ended with prayer. Grace was said before each meal. Social gatherings were almost always with other church people.

Today, only a minority of us maintain such church traditions and rhythms. And the key supporters of the church are much older than the people who gathered in large numbers in our sanctuaries in days gone by.

I am one of those who continue to love Sunday worship, hymn singing, constant prayer, Bible study, outreach efforts, and living to the rhythm of the church's sacred calendar instead of the secular calendars of school, business or the entertainment industry. At the same time, I try to come to grips with the fact that fewer and fewer Canadians share these passions.

Does the decline of religion mean that the good news of dying and rising with Christ is also being lost? Paul argues that religious traditions, while life-giving to those who practice them, are not the gospel. Paul remained an observant Jew to his last day. But he preached to Gentiles and created churches all around the Mediterranean in which people did not follow Jewish practices or laws. Paul preached a gospel that was beyond the old traditions, just as Jesus led a movement that was outside the religious structures of his time.

I will continue to live within the church for as long as there are people with whom to worship and serve. But can we live into the truth of the gospel and preach the good news if our old church traditions wither away completely?

Paul, I think, would answer "yes." He reminds us that religious traditions and institutions, as important as they are, are not the good news of God in Christ. People who never go near a church can find a trusting faith in life. People who don't consider themselves religious find spiritual food from any number of sources.

The challenge for people like me who worship and serve in the United Church is to find ways to live and preach the gospel even if a congregation dies or if our denomination fails.

In the First Century, Jews were forced to find new ways to worship and serve God after the Romans burned down the Temple. The Temple had been at the centre of their worship life for 1,000 years. Some First Century Jews followed Peter and Paul and found God in Christ. Others found new ways of being faithful to God in a life centred in synagogues.

Today, churches like ours are scaling back. The annual meeting in Estevan last weekend decided to not hold a meeting next year because our conferences are facing a 15% cut in grants from General Council in 2014. And the group at Anne's house on Tuesday agreed that if current trends continue, Borderlands may one day be forced to close.

For now, Borderlands is viable. I have been here for two years, and I feel blessed to serve with you. But during these two years, we have had more funerals than baptisms, which is the case in virtually every congregation in Canada today. Who knows how long it will be before we are forced to make big changes in our life as a pastoral charge within the United Church of Canada?

However, I am sure that regardless of what the Comprehensive Review Group recommends in 2015 and regardless of what happens to Borderlands in the next five years, all of us will continue to know God in Christ. I also trust that all people  -- both those who come to church and those who do not -- will find ways to to die with Christ and rise with him to new life in any moment and at the end of life.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. With joy, we will remember the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But is it also an obligation? Some Christians say that without the sacraments of the church, we cannot be saved.

This idea seems closer to Peter than to Paul, and I disagree with it. While I love communion, I am confident that God's Love would lead us home to God even if we never celebrated it again. Communion reminds us of God's grace. But God's grace does not depend upon our remembrance. God's grace is given to us all freely.

Religious traditions, like worship at the Temple in Jerusalem or sacraments like communion, come and go. But the good news lives on regardless. Churches comes and go, but faith, hope and love abide.
Love is bigger than the tradition or any religion. God is Love, and so with or without church and its traditions, we know that we are saved.

Thanks be to God.


No comments:

Post a Comment