Verse: St Paul in Acts, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God just as all of you are today.” (22:3).
Why do I believe in God [or not]? How do I express this? You might think such questions are straightforward, but I think not. When it comes to who we are spiritually we tend to assume a lot. We dwell in our personal history and rarely stop to think about where we have come from.
Paul was clear in his identity: He was a Jew in the multi-racial Roman Empire, so he believed in one God not the many of Greek and Roman paganism. He was a Roman citizen which gave him many privileges. It is implied because he was born in a Roman province (If Jesus was a citizen he could not flogged without an appeal to Caesar. He would not have been crucified.) Paul was educated at the feet of Gamaliel a pharisee and leader in the Sanhedrin. Paul as a Roman citizen was free to travel through the empire and as an educated pharisee he could teach and preach in synagogues where-ever he went. We see this in the Book of Acts. Paul knew the OT scriptures and how to interpret them as a pharisee. It was a good start, but he had to re-think it all after becoming a follower of Christ.
- Importance of Spiritual History
There is an amusing story about religious differences. In a small town there were four churches and a synagogue: a Presbyterian church, a Baptist Church, a Uniting Church, a Catholic Church and a Jewish synagogue. They each had a problem with possums. The Presbyterian Church called a meeting to decide what to do about them. After much prayer and consideration, they determined that the possums were predestined to be there and they shouldn’t interfere with God’s divine will. At the Baptist Church the possums had taken an interest in the baptistery. The deacons met and decided to put a waterslide on the baptistery and let them drown themselves. The possums liked the slide and unfortunately knew instinctively how to swim, so twice as many turned up the following week. The Uniting Church decided that they were not the position to harm any of God’s creatures. So, they humanely trapped the possums and set them free near the Baptist Church. Two weeks later they were back when the Baptists took down the waterslide. The Catholic Church came up with a very creative strategy. They baptised all the possums and made them members of their church. Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter. Not much was heard from the Jewish synagogue. They caught one possum and circumcised him. They haven’t seen another possum since.
I would invite you to think about your spiritual history. My background is liberal protestant: Unitarian on my father’s side and Presbyterian on my mother’s. But by the time I came along there was little religious observance in my family. I was baptized Presbyterian and we occasionally attended St Aiden’s in Narrabundah/Red Hill, which became Uniting after union. I went to Sunday school and got a prize for regular attendance. I cannot recall any religious conversations as a child. The big turning point for me was an evangelical conversion at university and joining the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a conservative Baptist-like church. I became an Anglican minister in 1980. But my primary identity is Christian. I have been in and out of the Uniting Church.
What is your religious history? How has it shaped your identity? For example, it will be different if your family were practicing Christians. Some of you had a clergy parent. Or did you make a change-of-life decision at some point?
(5 minute discussion)
What shaped you as a child or young adult? How does your sense of religious identity influence you now? One area rarely thought about is what you consider sacred. For example, my attitude to the Holy Communion is sacramental, influenced by my Anglican experience. I see it as a ritual in which the presence of Christ is intensified, hence I wear special robes and use formal words. Many Christians see it as a remembering Christ and his death-resurrection. That is important to me, but I want to convey a sense that this is special or sacred. How do you think your attitudes were formed to such things as the sacrament of HC, baptism, the place of marriage, and sacred spaces?
What do you hold as sacred? What communicates God to you? Is it nature? Family? Animals? Perhaps the holy space of a church sanctuary. I remember a fete at Holy Covenant church when there was a display of dolls in the sanctuary. There was some reaction to cluttering up that holy space. Some found it offensive. It can be rituals, when I was the minister at St Pauls Millis (near Boston) someone was worried about the order of extinguishing the candles on the altar. I joked that because I was from Down-under or Australia I got it backwards. [it did not matter to me] I have friends who have found a pilgrimage such as going on the Camino to be a profound spiritual experience.
I don’t think that there is any ‘right or wrong’ when it comes to what we consider sacred. There is no ‘silly’ though some beliefs can seem that way to us. It is important to be aware of our sense of the sacred (especially when we react), also why we feel that way and to respect what we find in other Christians or other faiths. I think of Indigenous sacred sites which are more widely respected today.
When the Uniting Church formed in 1977, there were differences between the Methodist. Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. Over the decades these had to be worked through – so there is some history of this in the Uniting Church.
The Bible recorded huge cultural shifts. For example, the culture wars of the Hebrew people who effectively invaded what we now call the ‘Holy Land’. The prophets and their reaction to any compromise with pagan religious practices. And the clash with paganism of the exiles in Babylon. The huge tension in the NT between Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary laws. How Jewish was the early church expected to be? That was a bigger question than we can imagine today.
At GUC we are well represented by people of a diversity of cultures. We incorporate a reading of scripture in a second language to welcome and honour people from different cultural backgrounds. I think it is essential that we respect different religious traditions, but we can only do this when everyone ‘speaks up’ to say what is important to them.
So a few challenges. If you identify as mainstream Australian be aware of your cultural assumptions. We tend to assume that what we do is normal but nothing is universal. How do we react when someone wants to do something different? The best stance is something like “I don’t understand, can you educate me?” If Australian culture is a second culture to you, much of what you experience will seem very odd. You will need to recognise and accept a degree of culture shock and gently inform the ‘Aussies’ of what may be important or sacred to you.
I think we face some challenges as a congregation. While people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds attend church at GUC, not many are in leadership such as being on Church Council. I know Prince is one of our reps to presbytery, but I would encourage others, if you have time and energy, to consider leadership roles such as Boys and Girls Brigade or helping to develop community outreach with Mustard Seed. It is also a good time since we prepare to elect a new Council. All this will help us as we recognize and work through the challenge of different cultures in our midst. We need cultural awareness at the highest levels of our church!
While we are shaped by what our various backgrounds. We can develop our awareness of what influences us. It can become a problem when we assume that we hold dear is right and others are wrong. We are then acting from unconscious assumptions, not from consciously determined values.
I would also want to add that we can make life choices to shape our future. I found this with my decision to follow Christ, a life changing decision that still determines how I invest my life. At the very least it has delayed my retirement. Think carefully about what has shaped you and your values to guide your future actions.
Finally, an opportunity to explore your family history and spiritual influences with two-hour workshop on the Genogram, a tool from family therapy, but very useful for creating a dynamic family tree. We will hold the workshop in two or three weeks – stay tuned.
Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens is the supply minister at GUC this year.
TO DO: Look up Genogram on the internet and do an intergenerational drawing of your family which a special attention to religious history and cultural factors.