A Community of Testimony - some thoughts for membership renewal Sunday
It seems that everywhere I turn in my reading these days, people are quoting the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre. He has written a book called 'After Virtue.' In it, he claims that we are entering a new dark age of civilisation, similar to the period in Western history when the barbarians overtook the debauched Roman empire. He is not the only commentator on historical cycles to make this suggestion. However, the reason people quote him is not so much for the doom he predicts, as his glimpse of what might be the saving grace for humanity in the midst of the coming age.
He notes that a crucial turning point happened when small groups of men and women stopped identifying civilisation and virtue with the Empire. Instead, they formed new, counter-cultural communities - Monastic communities. These communities committed themselves to a rhythm of life, and a sense of hope and calling very different from the values of Rome. It is possibly due to them that not only Christianity, but also ethics and literacy survived the dark ages.
Referring to the times we live in now, MacIntyre writes: 'what matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us...We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict.'
Now, you may or may not agree with MacIntyre's assessment of the age that we're in - and you'd probably have to read his book to establish that, which I still have not done. But what I think is important about what he says is this: the 'good life', however we define it, is more likely come about - or be preserved - through the intentional and faithful actions of small communities, rather than through government or society at large.
This little church is one such community. And today, we have come here for the purpose of naming our commitment to Christ and each other for another year.
I believe that it is our role as a community of faith to seek connection with God not only for ourselves but also for the welfare of the world around us. The task ahead of us is to choose to live intentionally and communally toward an alternative vision of how the world could be. In an age of great disparity of wealth and poverty, in an age of terrorism and fundamentalism and war-mongering, in an age of cynical power-grabs by leaders of nations, in an age of thoughtless consumerism that masks spiritual poverty, in an age of speed and surfaces, in an age that has lost a sense of both transcendence and neighbourliness, as we perch on the brink of major climate change that could destroy the world as we know it, our church is a community that testifies to a different way.
The way we live, as individuals, and in our relationships and our gathering, needs to give flesh to the gospel. This gospel that identifies with the poor and struggling, with servanthood rather than overweening power, with prayer and healing, with hospitality and with seeking God's way rather than the way of empty material gain. This gospel that has at its core a story of redemption, liberation and hope - the possibility of renewed life in Christ, and the ongoing presence of Christ in and with us. This is our alternative vision - the restoration of all of life to its fullness in God.
What do our lives testify to? Do people see this alternative way when they see us? I think yes, sometimes, perhaps even often. In the warmth and honesty of people here, I often have a sense of God's love made real among us. I believe that most of us long to connect more deeply to Christ and each other, and to find ways of expressing that in our engagement with the world around us.
But I think the clarity of our testimony is often weakened because we don't completely realise how enmeshed we are with the 'Empire' which competes with God for our time and our energies. Which means we have to learn how to let God to shape us, rather than allowing the agenda of the culture around us to determine who we are and how we shall live. Of course we are responsive to our culture, and full participants in it. But at our core we need to be motivated by our commitment to Christ before all things.
Today, I want to reflect very briefly on just one thing that I think we might need to 're-claim', if you like, as part of our life and talk as followers of Jesus here at Cityside. And that's personal conversion. By which I don't mean making a decision to follow Christ. I mean the ongoing process where we open our hearts to the intimate and transforming presence of God day by day, and allow our lives to be changed, our motives challenged, our actions renewed.
This is real old-fashioned stuff. It's the kind of thing we might have felt drawn to when we were first Christians. It's the stuff of our 'first zeal', our first flush of enthusiasm for the Christian faith. It's language that many of us have moved away from...the idea that we can be in relationship with God, that God can be for us the 'beloved', that we can genuinely experience God.
But I am coming to think that for us at Cityside, we are being called forward - not back - forward, to a more heart-centred, trusting, experiential faith, where God is not just a reality that we assume, and a set of values we try to uphold, but a reality that we can know and be known by on the deepest level. Many of us have lived for many years in a 'critical' frame of mind - questioning, exploring, reinterpreting, discarding, and in many cases regretting the naive and over zealous actions we performed in the early years of our Christian journey. This has been crucial to the survival of our faith. And we need to continue to be a community that allows people to be in that place, for as long as necessary. And we need to keep hold of what we have learned in the desert, in the questioning place. But we don't have to stay there.
It seems to me, that if we are willing to risk them, there are practices of prayer and spiritual discipline that could make the soil of our hearts fertile again. If we are able to nurture intimate, perhaps even 'mystical' connection with God, perhaps the dreams and visions will not only flutter at the edges of our consciousness, but take root and become real actions expressing God's will for us in this place and time. We don't tend to talk in terms of what we think God might be saying to us. We're pretty good at thinking and talking for ourselves. But what if we were able to hear and trust God's voice again? Maybe there is a way of knowing what choices we can make that will have real significance in our world. If our hearts are softened by an actual experience of God's love in Christ, maybe we can make that love real to the hurting people around us. If we learn to recognise God's timing, to act in the 'kairos moment' according to God's nudging, maybe we will begin to feel as though there is enough time, rather than constantly feeling stretched, and rushed.
Some of us might need to re-discover the 'quiet time' - daily time set aside to connect with God. Some of us might choose to start getting together regularly with others for a deliberate sharing of our spiritual lives, encouraging each other in prayer and faithful living. And (sorry if I'm banging the same drum over and over), for many of us learning and practising a form of contemplative prayer will be a key to this stage of the journey.
Our role as a church is to be a community that lives out a vision of how life 'could be' - a vision not dictated to us by our culture or our times, but by the shaping presence of God. The only way to live this out authentically is for us to be 'converted to Christ' in an ongoing way. We are not a church with many programmes or ministries. We don't do stuff for the sake of it. I believe that we have a unique contribution to make to the welfare of this world we live in. But we don't need to sit down and strategise to figure out what this looks like. I don't think we need goals or plans. I think we need simply to be connected in to the One who 'gifts us with dreams and visions,' and then to be responsive to what emerges. All we need, in the end, is prayer. God will do the rest.