Yr B ~ Easter 6 ~ Acts 10:44-48
Let me set the stage for you. A Roman centurion named Cornelius is a spiritual guy who is doing spiritual stuff with his friends. He hears about the People of the Way (which is what Christians were originally called) and sends messengers to get Peter to come and teach him. Meanwhile Peter is having wild visions about letting go of the way they’d always done things and breaking down the barriers that his religious tradition imposed – what to eat, who to associate with, whether or not circumcision mattered. Those were huge things for Jews at that time.
So Peter’s primed to imagine the world in a radically different way and Cornelius’ buddies knock on Peter’s door. Now, Peter represents the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. This is different than the churches Paul planted among the Gentiles. Peter clearly saw Christianity as a reform of Judaism – which meant you first had to be Jewish and then could be Christian. Paul saw it differently.
(Gee, imagine that, a difference of opinion about how churches should work!)
Anyway, Peter and some Jewish Christian leaders go to Cornelius. A huge barrier breaking! And as Peter is sharing the story of Jesus – which he was specifically invited to do – the Holy Spirit is revealed and moves through everyone in the room.
Acts 10:44-45 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (the Jewish Christians, the insiders) who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.
The insiders were astounded that the Spirit had been poured out “even on the outsiders.”
Friends, the church has never had a lock on the Spirit.
Spirit moves where it will. Our job isn’t to try to control it, our job is to try to notice it and go with it!
There is a ton at stake in this passage.
Imagine if you were one of those insiders.
Imagine that you’re standing there and seeing that all the things you thought you had to do in order to gain access to the Spirit were not necessarily so.
It doesn’t say they were wrong, in fact those dietary rules and things like circumcision may very well have been key factors in the Jewish Christian guys’ spirituality. But it wasn’t required.
They were confronted with the mind-bending notion that spirituality can look very different among different people. The big idea in this passage is that it’s Peter and the insiders who have to learn and grow, not really the outsiders.
I think we’ve inherited a church tradition that has told us that you had to follow certain rules – the biggest one being attending church – in order to access God, Christ, and Spirit.
But we know that isn’t true from our life experience and the people we encounter.
And yet churches, generally, still insist on putting up barriers – that you have to do it our way in order to be spiritual.
And the other thing we know from our life experience is that more and more people are saying ‘no thank you’ to that. It’s uncomfortable, but in the scripture passage we’re looking at today WE are Peter and the circumcised, and we have something to learn from Cornelius and his friends.
Last week I introduced you to the fastest growing religious group in North America. Well, actually they’re not a religious group per se, they’re actually a non-religious group. The fastest growing group is “no religion” – or as they are colourfully called, the Nones. A significant portion of the Nones are atheists, but the majority are what we’ve historically called agnostics and nowadays get called the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).
And the claim I made last week – the one that probably poked many of us in the ribs – was that the main reason they’re Spiritual But Not Religious is because they think we’re religious but not spiritual – and too often they’re right.
I’m intrigued by the things that turn SBNRs off about church.
They say they don’t want to be religious. Why?
What’s so bad about being religious?
What does it even mean to be religious?
I asked that question of the gang at the Porch on Monday morning and the first things they said were that being religious meant being intentional about growing spiritually, being committed to a deepening journey, being part of a group of like-minded people, and learning from a rich tradition of followers of Jesus.
But that list would probably be very welcomed by the Spiritual But Not Religious types.
Intentionality, deepening, like-minded people, learning.
Those are all positives. If that’s what religion is why aren’t the Nones flocking to our churches?
Maybe it’s because we’re a pretty healthy expression of religiousness but the Nones are reacting to the unhealthy aspects of religions.
Unhealthy things like strict behavioural rules, no questioning, dogma, frozen and lifeless rituals, uninspiring music, boring sermons (!), surly people who glare at you if you dare sit in their pew, unfriendly folks who don’t welcome newcomers well – I sincerely hope that we are none of those things, but the stereotypes come from somewhere.
Churches have mistakenly thought in recent years that the reason people aren’t coming to church as much was because we weren’t hip enough, or modern enough, or theologically diluted enough.
That is simply wrong.
If it was true then plugging in electric guitars, and adding a video screen, and doing chicken soup for the soul sermons would’ve brought folks in running.
I know places that tried those things. It doesn’t work.
Although the music part is a huge factor in people’s spirituality. Research has shown that some people will definitely be more drawn to music that appeals to their preferred tastes – just like many of you ask me for more of the “old” hymns. You don’t really mean old hymns – like Haydn or Bach or even Wesley would have written. You mean the hymns that roused you in your younger years and were fresh and new in the early to mid-20th century – in other words, the sounds and style you grew up on!
So it’s no wonder that some expressions of church worship style appeal to some groups and other styles appeal to others. Here at Faith we only offer one style – liturgical. And that in itself is neither a bad nor a good thing.
Curiously, it isn’t necessarily that we’re a liturgical church rather than looking like a rock concert that creates a barrier.
Because the research also shows that one thing matters even more than worship style. One thing above all will draw someone into a relationship with a church if they’re looking for one.
It’s not friendliness – they can get friendliness other places.
The one thing that matters most to them is deep spiritual authenticity.
If it doesn’t really matter to us then it isn’t going to matter to them.
They want to see that the people in a church are truly and deeply moved and fed, and are whole-heartedly immersed in their spiritual experience and aren’t just going through the motions.
Sadly, far too often going through the motions is what they see.
Are you going through the motions when you come here? I pray with all my heart that isn’t the case!
The so-called younger generations and the Nones who are Spiritual But Not Religious are not anti-liturgy – they’re anti-phoniness – they’re anti-inauthenticity. If you’re just phoning it in they can smell that miles away.
A recent study revealed that young adults are looking for churches that recognize and meet their needs for cultural relevancy and authenticity (“Is this church for real?”), their desire for clarity and growth (“Tell me where I am and what I should do next now that I’m here”), their affinity for modularity and technology (a recognition that Millennials are piecing their lives together based on myriad options and are always plugged in), and their craving for physical spaces that help them connect with God through nature.
In other words, they’re looking for authentic worship, an expectation and path of spiritual deepening, user-friendly options to plug into, and a setting that includes nature.
In other words, they’re looking for Faith United!
Or if we’re not quite there it’s what we’re envisioning with our Faith 2.0 concept.
The bad news is that the Nones and the Spiritual But Not Religious think churches are generally religious but not spiritual, but the good news is that places like this can offer a different story to them.
Today I’d like to introduce you to another term, one that I hope after you hear me talk about it you’ll want to embrace for yourself – because I think this is precisely what makes Faith United such a unique and special place.
You’ve heard of the Nones, and the SBNRs, now meet the ANDS.
You are the ANDs. We are the ANDs. Can you guess?
Spiritual AND Religious.
The word order is critical. It seems like a small thing, but it’s not.
We are not religious AND spiritual, we are spiritual AND religious.
We are not religion infused with spirituality, we are spirituality that takes form and expression within a religious context. And by religious we mean intentional, committed, in community, and in a tradition.
We are not religious people who found a way to save ourselves by adding a couple of doses of spirituality – we are spiritual people who find our spirituality nourished by journeying together in a committed way.
Diana Butler-Bass is the one I learned this term from. Here’s her explanation:
“ANDs (spiritual AND religious) want religion revolutionized by spirituality; they want spirituality grounded upon (but not guarded by) ancient wisdom, theologies, and practices. They demand more authenticity, meaning, justice, and community from religious institutions, not less. In these longings, the “ands” voice an older way of understanding religion, where faith should and must be an experience of God that transforms one’s life for the sake of the world.”
And then she hits us with the big idea:
“If the ‘ands’ are the vanguard of change, then the great religious recession is about to give way to a great spiritual awakening.”
And then she asks, “Is this the end of religion or only the beginning of a new, and better, form of faith?”
I think this is just the beginning. I think we’re on the edge of something wonderful, something we haven’t experienced in any of our lifetimes.
And I think it’s the ANDs, the spiritual AND religious – people like us – who are going to help usher it in.
It’s far more than evangelism, it’s the transformation of the church into Something More than it has been for a long, long, long time.
To get there we need to embrace the spiritual awakening within ourselves and allow it to transform us – just like Peter and his buddies did in Acts 10.
We need to be able to let the Spirit move us into unfamiliar and strange places and trust that we don’t have all the answers. All we have is faith, and openness, and a sense of wonder – and perhaps most importantly a deep awareness that surely God is in every place, and our task is to notice, and help other spiritual people notice.
In the story of Acts 10 this group of outsiders were gathering to be spiritual and they had a profound experience of the Presence of God and wanted directions and explanation from a Jesus-person. So they reached out to one – and he left the safety of his ‘church’ and went and shared the love he knew and the story of Jesus with them. And the Spirit moved!
Cornelius and his friends, the Nones, the Spiritual But Not Religious, they aren’t necessarily looking for a church to join.
They’re looking for spiritual guidance.
Where will they find it?
People today don’t think they’ll find spiritual people in churches, they think we’re just religious.
And we are – in the sense that our religious expression gives us intentionality, commitment, accountability, and support – but before we’re religious we are spiritual. Just like those outsiders, but we’ve taken another step toward nurturing it and growing it deeper.
We are striving to be more than just spiritual – we’re striving to be ANDs if we can – spiritual AND religious.
This is the future of the church, and the future looks wondrous!