23 April 2017
Second Sunday of Easter
St Paul’s Anglican Church
My usual practice is to preach on the texts of the day, and especially the Gospel passage. However, during the extended Easter season—our ‘week of weeks’ celebrating resurrection—I want to preach a series of sermons with almost no link to the readings of the week.
There is a reason for this aberration.
In late May the clergy of our diocese will gather for a spiritual retreat together. Rather than engage a retreat leader from somewhere else, the Bishop has decided to invite a number of clergy serving in the Diocese to share the teaching component of the retreat.
The theme of the retreat is to reflect together on this text from 2 Timothy 1:7:
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,
but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
I am one of the people involved in this way, and my task is to lead a session on the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities in the twenty-first century.
So I plan to road test my ideas with you in the sermons each week for the next month or so. You can be my study buddies, as we explore these ideas together. That will assist me to form the ideas clearly in my own head, and the whole process may be helpful for us here in the Bay as we reflect on the mission to which God calls us.
As it happens, there is a vague link with the Gospel this week. The well-known story of Thomas refusing to believe the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection until he could see (and indeed touch) Jesus for himself, does at least resonate with themes of spiritual confidence and collective self-doubt.
Neither arrogance nor bigotry
First of all, let’s be very clear that we are not talking about the kind of confidence that comes across as arrogant, cocky, or bigoted. There is too much of that in some expressions of Christianity, and I think it is essential to maintain the core Christian virtue of humility as one dimension of our spiritual confidence.
Being confident that I can trust my religion tradition does not mean for one moment that I need to imagine I have the best religion or the only true religion. Again, our history as Christians has too many examples of such hubris.
Let me illustrate it this way.
I have confidence in my ageing Camry to get me safely up and down the highway. That does not mean that I imagine it is the best car on the highway. It is clearly not. Nor is it the worst car on the road. It better than some, but pretty average over all. But I trust it to get me to my destination. To date my confidence in that car has been validated.
In a similar fashion, I have confidence in my circle of family and friends. They are a mixed bunch of people, not least because I am included in the mix. My friends are not better than your friends, but they are my friends and we have each other’s backs. My family for most part was not even chosen by me, but would I ever consider switching them with someone else’s family? Of course not. A crazy idea,. These are the people who know me best and like me regardless. I trust them. I appreciate them. I depend on them. And they on me.
Challenges to confidence
Spiritual confidence is not about superiority or exclusivity, but it does mean we can stop apologising for who we are, what we believe, and how we act as Anglicans.
There are plenty of factors to shake our confidence:
- loss of influence in society
- shrinking numbers
- ageing congregations
- limited resources
- shameful failures of care for children and vulnerable adults
- seeming success of ‘mega-churches’
In addition to all those factors we are operating in a context that is now more complex than in the past:
- rising levels of affluence
- ‘time poor’ couples working to cover the mortgage and maintain their lifestyle
- accelerating technology-driven change impacting every aspect of life
- religious pluralism
- rising secularism
- advances in the natural and social sciences
- a new concept of what it means to be alive and to be human
Some people find these new insights enriching their faith and even strengthening their spiritual confidence. Others find their faith compromised and challenged, and especially when their own faith formation has encouraged them to live within a pre-modern worldview that is no longer sustainable.
There is no future for Christianity as a religious version of the anti-vaxers or the climate change deniers. Here, in particular, as Anglicans we have a proud history of ‘eyes-wide-open’ engagement with the best of science, and a willingness to embrace evidence-based knowledge into our faithful living.
Grounds of our confidence
It is appropriate that we are having this conversation the Sunday after Easter. Easter, after all, is the ultimate ground of our confidence as Christian people.
We can understand Easter in many different ways, but its essential message is one of hope and flourishing, divine shalom. This is not simply resetting the system and returning to the status quo ante, like a cosmic reboot. Easter is about moving on to God’s new world order, into life beyond death, towards creation as God wishes it to be.
If that is the heart of our Christian faith, then we have the most substantial grounds for deep spiritual confidence.
But the grounds for our confidence are deeper and wider even than that.
Easter is essentially a particular instance of what God is about all the time, in every place and in every life, and always has been. Our confidence is ultimately grounded, as the theologians might say, in the Ground of All Being, in God and God’s mission.
In the end—at the End—we can have total confidence that God will succeed in bringing to perfect fulfilment God’s own dream for all creation. This will be bigger than Anglicanism, or even Christianity. It will express the generosity of the God who calls all into being and draws all things to the perfect goal that God has had in mind since before time began.
To have even a small share in that amazing cosmic project is to have a solid basis for spiritual confidence.
it is not about us. It does not depend on us. But we get to play a part in making God’s dream come true.
We can also draw some confidence from the recognition that the Church represents almost 2000 years of continuous experience of profound spiritual wisdom. Beyond that lies another 1000 plus years of Jewish spiritual wisdom, which has–of course–continued to run in parallel with Christian wisdom for the past two millennia.
In its own wisdom the church recognises that it is always in need of reform. We have done so much badly, and failed spectacularly at times. The church, it seems, is at its best when it has no political power to wield.
That alone may offer us some fresh grounds for hope, as our traditional social power vanishes. Like Pope Francis, we might look forward to a poor church that has lost most of its privileges except the privilege of serving uni rage poor.
But the church is also a treasure house of holiness. There is a legacy of prayer, spirituality, mission, compassion, philosophy, and practical wisdom that we ignore to our own peril.
The church, our ancient church that seems so out of touch with the latest trends, is a mix of resilience and flexibility. That is another source of our spiritual confidence, but not one to be confused with the tribal smugness that Anglicans sometimes exhibit in our relationships with other Protestant faith communities.
In addition to these factors, we also have own own personal experience of the church as a positive spiritual community.
We know that this has not always been everyone’s experience of the church. In recent years we have faced the darkness of those people who betrayed the trust we placed in them and abused others in their care.
But despite the horrors of those cases—statistically rare but still too frequent—we also know that the church can be, and has been, a community of grace and a place where our own lives are nourished.
Jesus is supposed to have said that where two or three are gathered, he will be in their midst. Much of that time this has been our experience. In the gathered community of the church we have experienced the Risen Lord among us.
This week, I encourage you to reflect on those aspects of church that give you hope. What is it about your experience of church that feeds your spiritual confidence?
In the weeks ahead I will try to tease some of them out for you. No doubt the list could be longer than what follows, but this at least is the beginning of a list as we ‘count our blessings, and name them one by one’:
- Prayer Book
- Music and the Arts
- Health Care
- Social Justice
We have no grounds for fantasies of religious superiority, but we do have good reasons to be spiritually confident. However, as always, those reasons must be a mixed with a generous serve of humility.