Sun, Jun 05, 2022

Believing, or being church?

Sermon for Church Anniversary (and Pentecost)
Duration:12 mins 53 secs

In the most recent national survey conducted…

about fifty-eight percent of Australians claimed to believe in––

or were open to the idea of––

God or a higher power.

That number may be a cause for some hope––

it’s certainly higher than I thought it would be.

And yet, as we know, far fewer than fifty-eight percent are involved in organised religion.

And the disconnect between any such belief…

and any religious involvement or participation…

means that number is only going to keep declining.

As Professor Linda Woodhead–– 

a sociologist of religion from King’s College London––

points out:

“If your family isn’t religious and you’re raised without any meaningful contact with a religious group, you’re less likely to believe…

The main reason for declining belief is that fewer people are enculturated and socialised into belief. They’re not brought up with the ‘plausibility structures’”––

that is, “the wider sociocultural norms and frameworks of meaning…

that are found in more religious societies”.


It’s a fundamental point… 

but any experience that we have of God…

already presupposes a belief in God;

and, without some belief in an entity that we define as God––

however we might define or understand that entity––

we cannot have a spiritual experience.

But, in the church, we take that quite a bit further.

For many traditions––

and for many people–– 

what defines you as a Christian is what you believe.

You’re only a Christian if you believe certain things.

We see that underlying assumption even in the common description of Christians as “believers”.

And, for most, it’s also what they mean when they talk about “faith”.


at least in so much contemporary-speak––

means cognitive belief in something.

Faith is, first and foremost, intellectual assent.

And, in religious terms…

it’s come to mean believing certain things about God, and Jesus, and the world.


And yet, such an attitude––

such a worldview––

is both mistaken and dangerous.

It’s dangerous because–– 

by so emphasising belief, understood as cognitive assent––

it actually perpetuates a form of anti-intellectualism;

it curtails inquiry and constrains thought.

But it also promotes stereotypic thinking and the whole process of ‘othering’.

And it relegates behaviour––

outside of a narrow range of personal, usually sexual, morality––

to a secondary position.

It can promote a disconnect between belief and action.

But such an attitude is also mistaken…

because it completely misconstrues and misrepresents what the New Testament says about ‘faith’…

and about what it means to be a Christian.

And I think we see that, quite clearly, in the writings of Paul––

not least in those few verses that we heard read this morning from his letter to the Romans. 


In our reading, Paul claims that being a Christian means that one is “led by the Spirit”

And yet, the sense of the Greek is much stronger than “led”.

It’s more like “to be inspired by the Spirit”––

but not in the banal way that we usually use the word “inspire”.

The sense, here, is having the Spirit as one’s motivating force… 

as the central impulse of one’s life and living. 

But it even has the sense of being carried along by the Spirit––

or, being swept up by the Spirit––

as if caught up in a rip tide or a tsunami.

That, for Paul, is what makes us God’s children in the truest sense. 

And the mark of that, Paul suggests, is freedom rather than enslavement.

And, in particular, it’s manifest in freedom from fear

Of course, in the first instance, for Paul––

given his use of the contrasting images of children and slaves––

what he is talking about is freedom from fear of God. That is, we are not like first-century slaves…

who lived in constant fear of displeasing their master;

and, thus, incurring his wrath and his punishment.

Within the Roman household…

the brutal and severe physical punishment of slaves was expected…

even culturally demanded;

while the corporal punishment of children was severely frowned upon.

For Paul, then, we need not fear God––

like slaves––

for we are like God’s adopted children…

those whom God has chosen––




And, as children, we are loved by God––

truly loved.

And, if we know that deep in the core of our beings…

then we can rest secure in that love. 

If we know that God’s love for us is not contingent upon what we believe… 

or how we worship… 

or even how we live…

then it truly is liberating.


And, if the mark of God’s children is freedom from fear…

then, surely, that can’t just stop with fear of God.

It must also involve freedom from all other fears:

the fear of the ‘other’ 

the fear of the different…

the fear of the unknown… 

the fear of that which seemingly challenges our faith or belief.

If we know ourselves truly to be loved by God––

which Paul attributes to the indwelling presence and work of God’s Spirit––

then we find true freedom

and we more fully discover and realise our identity as children of God.

And I think that’s what the theologian, Peter Rollins, means when he criticises this belief-as-faith approach…

and suggests that, to the contrary… 

‘faith’ is “a material enactment of the beauty and depth of life”.

And, in particular, he speaks of that “beauty and depth of life” in terms of love. 

In its essence…

faith is living a life deeply grounded in, and motivated by, love––

knowing ourselves to be loved in such a way that we discover true freedom.


And yet, Paul doesn’t stop there.

This freedom…

this life grounded in love…

he suggests…

is also to be seen in our likeness to Jesus Christ…

with whom we have become––

continuing with the familial metaphor that he’s been using––


In other words, being children of God is to be seen in our resemblance to Jesus Christ.

The life that we are to live––

a life of unconditional love and acceptance––

is to resemble his:

reaching out to ‘the other’;

embracing the excluded and the marginalised;

healing the broken;

setting free the oppressed;

audaciously declaring the freely-offered forgiveness of God;

and inviting people to discover peace and justice.

And yet, Paul suggests, in living that way––

in following the example of Jesus Christ––

we, too, will encounter opposition and suffering.

After all, is that not a mark of true freedom as well?

As Albert Camus once pointed out…

the challenge before us as human beings is to be: 

“So absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”.

To live a life that is truly free and truly loving…


almost by definition––

place us at odds with the rest of our society…

our culture…

our world…

and even large parts of the church––

insofar as they are bent upon enslavement in one form or another.


And yet… 

that is the ground that we are called to occupy.

That is the life to which we are called.

And today––

as we celebrate Pentecost…

and our Church Anniversary––

that is what it means for us to be church.


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