Sunday, October 6, 2013

Soul food for a divided church

Text: John 6 25-35 (the bread of life)

Pope Francis seems like a breath of fresh air to me. When his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI resigned this past February, I assumed that the next pope would be another conservative moralist. But since Francis was elected in March, I have liked much of what he has said and done.

On this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our connection to Christians around the world, I begin by speaking about the Roman Catholic Church. Half of the world's Christians are Catholic, and this fact makes the Pope the most prominent Christian leader in the world.

Pope Francis has decided to ignore many of the imperial trappings of the papacy. He lives in a small apartment instead of a palace. He drives a beat-up old car. He dresses simply and shows great warmth when meeting ordinary people, including non-Catholics and non-believers.

He has led a peace vigil for Syria and called for justice for the poor. He has denounced the Vatican bureaucracy and opened up the books of the corrupt Vatican Bank. He has said that he does not judge gay people just because they are gay. He has urged the church to focus more on fighting poverty and war and less on so-called moral issues like birth control or same sex marriage.

I believe that Francis is a leader who can inspire people both in and out of the Catholic Church to work for peace with justice.

The Christian church is divided by doctrines, political issues, and styles of worship. Since the split between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, endless conflicts have generated negative feelings.

But in the 21st Century, we find ourselves in a new era that is not favourable to the church. My hope is that leaders like Francis will help declining churches find a path on which we can remain faithful disciples of Jesus Christ even in a post-religious era.

Until the 20th Century, the world's great empires relied upon the support of one religion or another. Today, however, nation states rely more on forces like consumerism, nationalism, and the mass media than they do on religion.

This shift has led to a decline in the number of people who are religious, at least in the richest countries. In this wired age of wealth and dynamism, fewer people worship at their local church, mosque, or temple on a regular basis.

Despite the challenge of this decline, I applaud the growing separation of church and state. The life and ministry of Jesus were ones of simplicity and humility. By putting aside the imperial trappings of the papacy, Pope Francis may be signalling that the church can now move closer to the spirit of Jesus.

Francis urges us to focus more on compassion and justice and less on moral questions or beliefs, and I applaud him for this emphasis.

This is not to say that church doctrines and beliefs are not important. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus twice mentions belief. He says, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent;" and "whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Despite this reading, I don't focus on belief as a key marker of our life as Christians. For one, I think today's reading from John is poorly translated into English. Many scholars argue that the original Greek word here translated as "believe" can be better translated as "to make a commitment" or "to give one's heart."

Those of us who are grasped by faith in Jesus orient our hearts to God in Christ and commit ourselves to his way of self-sacrificial love. Jesus urges us to come to God and to commit to God, and not to just believe in God.

When we focus less on the beliefs in our heads and more on our loving actions, members of different churches and religions can find common ground, I think.

Our differences in doctrine will still divide us. I would be thrilled if Francis went beyond a new emphasis on mission to also abandon Catholic moral doctrines on birth control or same sex marriage.

I don't expect this, but I am not that upset about other churches' moral teachings unless they pressure governments to put those teachings into law. As an example, almost all Catholics ignore church prohibitions on birth control. But if a country makes birth control illegal, the situation becomes more serious.

In the past, churches often dictated moral policies to government. Today and in the future, we have less power to do this, which I see as a blessing both for policy and for the health of the church itself.

Despite the decline of religion, there are still religious factions who try to capture state power. In the United States, The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is one example. Its leaders are mostly white evangelical Christians who believe they have a God-given duty to legislate their right-wing agenda.

They are militantly opposed to President Obama's healthcare act. To block this expansion of health insurance, they engineered this week's shutdown of the U.S. government. On October 17, The Tea Party threatens to cause the U.S. Treasury to default on its debt despite the economic catastrophe that might follow.

Tea Party leaders are spirited, but also self-righteous and narrow in their interpretation of church tradition and the Bible, I believe.

Another example of a religious movement that seeks to use the state to further narrow religious beliefs is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which was thrown out of office by the military in August. And while I don't believe that either evangelical Christians or Islamist extremists will succeed in bringing us back to an era of imperial religion, I mourn the damage they cause in their attempts.

To temper doctrinaire religion and its spirited campaigns, I suggest that we turn to more soulful elements in the church such as the sacraments.

Today, we celebrate the sacrament of communion. It is more about feeling and intuition than it is about belief. Communion reminds us in a visceral way of our connection to God and to the love shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. By eating bread and drinking wine, we mark our connection to God in our very flesh and blood.

At the communion table, we also make visible our connection to Christians around the world. All who feast at the Lord's Table become the Body of Christ.

The Body of Christ is made up of people with different beliefs, politics, and lifestyles. But we have all been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. We are all broken sinners who are healed and saved by God's gracious presence.

Our churches get doctrine wrong all the time. Spirited Christians and Muslims get involved in wrong-headed political campaigns all the time. But in simple sacraments of water, wine and wheat, we are reminded that God is with us regardless.

Churches are not united by doctrines, beliefs or politics. We are made one in campaigns of peace and love, and by a ritual of bread and wine.

Thanks be to God.


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