(Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12) , John 1:1-14))
‘I am spiritual, but not religious.’ A phrase that is uttered the world over, as people see aspects of religion and think it is controlling, ritualistic and possibly even brainwashing. You might have seen the meme on the internet that has a goldfish in a goldfish bowl and more water surrounding it. And the intimation is that religion is in the bowl, and one must break free of the bowl to experience true spirituality.
Blame is laid at the barrier holding the goldfish back from experiencing so much more. ‘I am spiritual, but not religious.’ So, what is religion? What is the definition of religion? There has never been a universally acceptable definition of religion. One’s understanding, both personally and institutionally, tends to create bias in attempting to establish such a definition. Marx, and Freud made attempts, but these are noted for their shortcomings as they reflect the views of their creators. If one tries to explain religion from a sociological point of view, then it is either about the functionality of ritual or regarding the belief of something divine. Alister McGrath writes that the term, ‘religion’ is now accepted by many to refer to ‘beliefs and practices with a supernatural aspect.’
So, if we look at what we call institutional religion, people acknowledge a way or rule of life and should experience the spirituality of that tradition. The life of the monks at Pluscarden is possibly what we would think of. However, a Christian believer attends their preferred church to not only express his or her belief but also to be affirmed in what that church believes. The repetitive nature of such a process therefore informs his or her confidence and certainty in the beliefs of the church.
Religion can also be broken down: ‘re’ is used as a prefix to ‘ligion.’ It comes from the Latin: ‘again, back.’ Ligion, comes from the Latin, ‘ligare’ to join, or the classical meaning to link the human and the divine. So, religion, the relinking of the human and the divine. I wonder now, is there a difference between being spiritual and being religious?
Personally, I have walked the path of describing myself as spiritual but not religious and would now describe myself as a sacramental charismystic. Those for whom spirituality is their mainstay, will recognise the mystical aspects of spirituality. Trying to discern God’s voice and waiting in prayer. Those who place an emphasis on the spiritual gifts will understand what it is to be charismatic. But for those, and I include most of the regular congregation of this church, it is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion that draws us to Christ. Christian spirituality is defined by its explicitly Christian content: that of the Trinity, the Church and the sacramental mysteries.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the need for a literal belief in the Bible, or that there is only one way to God because I don’t think either is true. We choose to follow the God of the Hebraic Scriptures, and of Christ and the Holy Spirit. We choose to listen to the words of the Scriptures read out loud and having looked at their meaning in their situational context, we ask ourselves what meaning in those words could be applied to us today.
And so, we look at what has brought us here, today? The feast of the nativity of our Lord. We end our service by going into Christmas Day. But does that have any meaning beyond eating turkey and drinking eggnog? Well of course, I would say it does. But perhaps not directly in the way you think.
Traditionally, Christmas is the time for going out there, on to the streets and proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. It’s about an expansion of the kingdom. But as Calvin Miller states, ‘the problem with making friends with all the world at once is that the world we make friends with tends to teach us their values and philosophies. And the issue is that we, as Christians, tend not to question what we’ve been taught, believing it to be the only way to God. Of course, we would all love everyone to come round to our way of thinking, and therein lies the issue that has led many to say, ‘I am spiritual, but not religious.’ By creating a superiority complex, we turn people away from the Church. We might even start to look inward because we don’t know how to dialog, to find the common ground: of which, there is a great deal amongst the world religions.
For us who attend church regularly, Christmas is all about the Christ. It’s all about several events, both supernatural and natural coming together at one point in history, at a particular location in the Middle East.
God as a baby – what is called the incarnation. The prophet Isaiah brings to our attention the care that God has for his people. One that required a messenger to bring advance notice of that good news. The historical context was that God would redeem Israel from oppression:
“The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.”
Which is where Christians join the ancient Hebrews in a song of hope. Because however historical a text is, it can still exhort and encourage today.
The passage from the letter to the more contemporary Hebrews, reminds us that ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets…’ And of course, that’s what we’re doing here. Reminding ourselves what happened over 2000 years ago. We remember the stories told to us about Mary and Joseph. The shepherds. The wise men. We remember what the angels sang, and so on. But the writer of this letter makes a shift: ‘but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.’ How has God been speaking to us? The danger of Christmas is that we leave it in the past, the ‘long ago.’ We leave it as a nice little story where we were made to dress up like the shepherds or the angels.’ However, I don’t believe that we would still be gathering in churches all over the world to celebrate Christmas if it was just a nice little story. We believe that God, the God of Isaiah and our God still speaks to us today.
John says exactly this. John takes us on a journey of remembering too. He understands that the Word was with God in the beginning, when the wind from God swept over the waters. And then God spoke, and John pinpoints the words that came out of God’s mouth in the beginning as being those of the Word, who we also know as the Christ. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ That is what we are celebrating, here and now. John describes him as the light, because it is life, ‘and the life was the light of all people.’ The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ He’s looking for us, while we look for something to fill what I call the God shaped hole in our hearts.
Wherever we are on that journey, I hope we can understand each other a little better. Understand that spirituality and religion are part of the same realm. Understand that through Holy Communion we engage with God, as well as through our singing, and our readings. Understanding that our lives are our worship to the one who came to Earth to be a part of our lives, as a human. As part of the Eucharist which is the next part of the service, we invite God into our lives. So, I invite you, if you feel that is what you need today, invite Him into your life, so that He may live in you as we do in Him.
Glory to God, source of all being, Eternal word and Holy Spirit, Amen.