Identity crisis

Pentecost 11 – 2015

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free 

In the name of God, source of all being, giver of all that is good. Amen.

Our recent trip to Israel was incredibly rewarding, but also very disturbing. Among other things I was disillusioned by the presence of the Christian church, in particular the partisanship and the competition for the tourist dollar. The major denominations in particular the Catholics and Orthodox, having vied for their piece of the Holy Land, hold on to it for all their worth. I could give you several examples of stories that filled me with despair, but I will limit myself to just one. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem has no fewer than six custodians – the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches as well as the Coptic, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox Churches. The church itself is divided between all six denominations with some shared areas. When we were there the Catholic Franciscans were preparing for Evensong, which they observe before the Russian Orthodox so as to be sure of a free run of the church. Had we stayed longer, we would have observed them scuffling with the Greek Orthodox whose procession was competing for the same space. It left me wondering what the church was really about and whether it really mattered who had the largest slice of the cake.

The experience confirmed something that I already thought – that today’s church, (and dare I say it, yesterday’s church) – has an identity crisis. It seems at times that we no longer really know who we are. We are not so sure of our place in the world or even in our communities. We are uncertain of our role and as a result we have no real direction. I wonder whether, like the church in the Holy Land, we too are concerned to protect and to hold on to what we have and whether we are struggling to preserve the institution of the church as much as we are trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

It used to be so much easier. There was a time when we didn’t have to struggle, a time when everyone knew who we were and what we stood for, a time when we were respected, a time when it was clear that we did some good in the world, a time when we didn’t have to explain or defend ourselves. Sadly today, in the eyes of many, the church is a spent force – at best an anachronism, at worst a laughing stock.

There are now at least two generations of Australians who have had little or no relationship with the church. Ask a class of nine year olds what happened at Easter and you are more likely to be told that Jesus was born (or died) than you are that Jesus rose from the dead.

Not only have we lost our place in the world, we seem to have lost our way. For centuries we were able to be complacent. We could take it for granted that most people knew whom we were and what we were about. Our children (even those who did not attend church) learnt the stories of the faith at school and Christianity provided some sort of moral compass for the world at large. During the colonial era there was a flurry of activity on the mission field as we sought to impose our beliefs on others, but at home we relied on the culture of the day to pass on the faith to others. We took for granted that we were part of the establishment and failed to reflect sufficiently on what it takes to share the good news.

So now we have an identity crisis. Others can now offer what we thought that we had to offer. Many of the services that used to be provided exclusively by the church are now equally the province of secular entities. The government can legislate for good behaviour and can provide social welfare, health care and education and non-government agencies can provide overseas aid. It begs the question: who are we, and what is our role? What do we have to offer that is unique and attractive to today’s world.

This morning’s gospel is in part about identity. Jesus’ listeners cannot get past the fact that Jesus is Joseph’s son. They can see and grasp Jesus’ earthly existence after all they know his mother and his father. Their problem is that they cannot begin to get a handle on his heavenly origins. How can the man whom they see before them have come down from heaven? For them, it is much easier to focus on the material and the physical than to grasp what Jesus is saying – that in his very person heaven has broken into the present, that the barriers the material and the spiritual have been destroyed and that the boundaries between the present and the future have been irrevocably broken for those who are able to comprehend who and what Jesus is.

I wonder sometimes if this is at the heart of our problem – if this is the reason why our churches are no longer full and why people no longer come to us for answers. I wonder if we have found it is easier to focus on the physical and the earthly, on things that can be observed and measured than to point to what cannot be seen and to direct others to realities that are beyond this existence. Yet this is the core of our identity – our understanding that faith in Jesus opens the door to a life beyond this, that for those who have faith the present is radically changed by the in-breaking of God into the world and that we no longer driven by hunger and thirst for something more, because we have found in Jesus all that gives life meaning and value. We do not have rely on the achievements of the past or worry about the uncertainty of the future, because we know that the past no longer has a hold on us and that our future is assured.

While we worry about the survival of the church, there are many in the world who hunger and thirst for meaning, who are looking for relationships that are more than superficial and searching for an assurance that their life has value. It is our responsibility to provide that meaning, our task to reveal the spiritual in the midst of the material and our role to demonstrate in our own lives what it means that the future has broken-in and radically changed our view of the present.

Jesus gave his life, that we might have life. In our turn, we are called to give our lives that others might know what it is like to be truly alive.

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