3 February 2019
1 Corinthians 11: 23-25
Up until the middle of 2013, when we began to have communion earlier at the 10:30 service so the children and youth and Sunday School teachers could participate, my son Zach had not seen that many communion services. And, after a few months of observing what took place, he said to me one day, with all the tenderness and compassion that an eight-your-old can muster when they must point out something to an oblivious parent that is totally obvious to the rest of the world, “Mum, I don’t know if you’ve realised this, I don’t think you have, but every time you do communion at church, I’m sorry, you are using exactly the same words and doing exactly the same thing.”
But now, almost every time I prepare for communion, that conversation comes back to me, the reminder that, yes, we are , saying the same words and performing the same actions – blessing the elements, breaking the bread, distributing the bread and the cup, eating and drinking together – that that is the point! That we are continuing to receive and to hand on, a New Testament phrase commonly used for the reception and transmission of tradition, just as Paul received and handed on this set of words, this set of actions; this ordinance, as it is called by Baptists, an act of obedience to Christ’s command, or, in other traditions, this sacrament, this sign of God’s grace and presence.
And yet, looking at trends in religious observance here in Australia, and admittedly mostly in other parts of the western world, I sometimes wonder, to what extent there will continue to be communities of faith receiving and handing on this ordinance or sacrament as a sign of their obedience, as an affirmation of God’s presence.
The author and Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, describes a walk she did in North-eastern Turkey in the Kachkar Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas where the kingdom of Georgia flourished during the 11th and 12th centuries…and one afternoon in the middle of nowhere they came across a ruined cathedral with grass growing between the roof tiles and the façade crumbling. Stepping inside they found very little of the roof had survived, but the walls still held plaster frescoes of biblical scenes. There were lambs of God carved on the stone capitals – unless the stones had been removed for other purposes – and medieval saints with their faces chipped away.
And standing in that place that had clearly been magnificent Taylor imagined her own parish in its place, the beautiful wooden rafters rotted out, the ceiling collapsed, shards of stained glass hanging from the windowpanes, the carved alter and pulpit removed, perhaps, to some museum… Can you imagine the same thing here? For what she concluded was, such a thing is not impossible. We have received this message, this model, of love and living, but if we do not keep “attending to God’s presence in our midst and bringing all our best gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum.”
The number of people who identify as Christian, at least on census night, has been gradually declining over the past fifty years in Australia. In 1966 it was 88%. In 1991 74% and in the 2016 census, 52%. And while those identifying as Hindu, Sikh, Moslem and Buddhist have increased, along with immigration from South Asia, during this period, the largest grouping in the census, the one that has increased noticeably, is those who report having ‘no religion’, 19% in 2006 to 30% in 2016.
What are we to make of all of this? It is hard to make firm conclusions. Statisticians warn that those who are too quick to either mourn over or delight in the demise of religious faith may be surprised. Faith and Belief in Australia, a report carried out by McCrindle Research in 2017, added an additional category for ‘spiritual but not religious’ and found that 32% reported no religion, 45% identified as Christian (down from the Census) and a further 14% said they were ‘spiritual but not religious’. However, 2012 US statistics saying that those reporting ‘no religion’ was 20% and growing, found that 37% of those, over a third, still identified as being ‘spiritual’ and 68%, two thirds, as still believing in God. And I am struck that the fastest growing ground religious group in the 2016 census was ‘Other Protestant’, Australians who prefer to just indicate they are Christian.
In Soul Feast Marjorie Thompson suggests that the rise in disaffiliation should not be regarded in an entirely negative light. She quotes Phyllis Tickles’ The Great Emergence which argues that we are currently undergoing one of our every-500-year upheavals in “culture and worldview that will inevitably reshape our faith interpretations and institutions as surely as the great Schism of the eleventh century and the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.” This ‘tsunami of change’, she says, is well underway and we can already discern some of the characteristics of the Christianity that is emerging. “It is profoundly Spirit-centered, seeking discernment through deep listening; it is more concerned with right practice than right belief; it is comfortable with questions and leery of answers; it embraces the truth of paradox over the dualistic absolutes of right and wrong”; and it rejects hierarchical structure, welcoming shared leadership” and…decision making.”
There is much to celebrate and welcome in these emerging trends, and I think we can already start to see ourselves in those words. As we reflect today, too on our first church goal, “Led by the Spirit, we will explore together what it means to follow Jesus today,” there are echoes in that statement of Thompson’s description of emerging Christianity.
But we must acknowledge the difficulties of the time in which we are living; the reality that we are struggling to see what shape these emerging creative energies will take, what structures will replace or evolve from our current institutions, what following Jesus today or tomorrow will look like. And yet, paradoxically, what Soul Feast is saying is that the practices of the past might help us find our way into the future; that the spiritual practices that have fed and nurtured Christian people for centuries may continue to feed and nurture us. But, as Thompson says, “To fruitfully appropriate classic disciplines we need to be willing to engage ‘tradition’ creatively… Each practice needs to be interpreted and test for our time if it is to be recovered as a valuable source of spiritual nurture….[we] make sense out of life by continually threading old and new together.”
Over the next nine weeks we are going to be engaging – and we hope creatively – with traditions that Christians have received and handed on over the centuries; hospitality, worship, fasting, confession, reading the Scriptures, prayer, keeping the Sabbath, and seeking spiritual direction, seeking to find a way to thread the old and new together.
Because just as Paul does in our passage in Corinthians, we are seeking ways to keep Christian memory fresh and alive. To remind each other than it is in our darkest times that, God’s love is present. As 1 Corinthians 11:23 says, “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf…and broke it.” It was on the night of his betrayal, the precursor to his suffering and death, and the act which defines this moment – which defines our God – is bread being broken and shared, love broken and shared. We do not come to the traditions or disciplines of faith seeking self-aggrandisement, but to see more clearly the God who enters the pain of human experience and invites us to give ourselves in love as well.
Secondly, in this meal and these practices we are finding way to acknowledge the presence of God with us. “This bread,” Jesus says, in the communion meal, “is my body… This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Not was, but is. In the celebration of this meal, in every time and place, Christians have continued to find Jesus’ life for them in the present. In the same way, Thompson says, Christian traditions track “a living faith through its history, helping us find markers that let us follow the path today.”
And finally, we continue to eat the bread and drink this cup, we continue to practice our faith because doing so inspires hope. In receiving what others have handed on, in celebrating this meal, we continue to remember Jesus, to remind ourselves of his living presence in our lives today and to proclaim – to tell out, but also to live out – his love with our lives.
In our tidying up last weekend, I came across a letter I wrote to our children when Aron and I were going overseas in 2012, for them to read on the remote chance that something happened and we didn’t come back, and last weekend we read it together. It was a funny mixture of grief counselling and practical advice about school and relationships, but I finished with this: We would both hope that all of you will know God throughout your lives. What you believe about God will probably change but knowing God will give your lives energy and courage and fullness.
And this is my hope for us, too. That even as we make our way through the unknown future of the church, that even as our institutions and conventional religious ideas change, that as we gather at this table, and find spiritual practices that sustain us, that we will continue to remember Jesus, to find him living in our lives and hand on to others what we have received.